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How to Handle the Dreaded Political Shop Talk at Work

In a presidential election year, it’s hard to know how to separate the personal and political.

Bloomberg Businessweek

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How do I—or do I—talk about politics at work? I’m dreading the presidential election this year, and the months of debate and contentiousness over the Israel-Hamas war are driving me crazy.

—Linda, 52, Pittsburgh

Do you talk about politics at work? No, you do not. I have a problem keeping my mouth shut and/or my opinions to myself—which may be a good thing, at least with regard to writing an advice column. But when it comes to work environments, and conversations with professional colleagues and peers, I’d advise you to do as I do and engage in more listening than anything else.

My friend Ami has an acronym she’s been using as a sort of guide over the past few months: SLDL. It stands for “Say Less, Do Less.” I have to admit I don’t particularly love the idea of SLDL. For one thing, I think a lot of us, myself included, can take too passive a stance in life in general, and we don’t speak our minds with the regularity and passion that we should. Even so, the underlying idea of SLDL has merit. Namely, that we might learn more about others, ourselves and our motivations if we just stop reacting to societal and social expectations that we ABC (Always Be Communicating … and yes, I made that up). We spend so much time communicating—especially using digital tech—that we don’t necessarily allow ourselves the time for more consideration or thoughtfulness in how we take in information and put it back out into the world. Part of what I hate about social media, for example, is the expectation that everyone has an opinion and shares that opinion. Most opinions are not worth sharing, I think, and that goes for virtue-signaling around politics.

I know it’s easy for me to say that you just shouldn’t talk about politics, especially during an election year where it feels like the very foundations of American democracy are on the chopping block. (Did you see what I just did there?) Also: “Just say no” feels like a cheap way of wriggling out of what is a difficult question, because your query is a lot more complicated than asking me for a simple yes or no, and it demands consideration. For one thing, you’re telling me your expectations for what 2024 may bring are marked by anxiety, or, as you put it, dread. I respect that and can identify with that feeling. You’re also, I suspect, not wanting a “yes” or “no” answer to the issue of talking about politics at work so much as you’re wanting an answer to the first part of your question: the “how” to talk about politics.

Unfortunately, the best I can do (besides telling you to not talk politics at all, which is probably the safest option) is offer some questions to guide your thinking. What counts as talking about politics at work? Commenting on the latest headlines? And what a workplace is for, in your mind? Is it a place to be your authentic self? A place where business happens? A little of both? Is there anything to be gained from having a political discussion at work?

And do you use social media? We live in an age in which the idea of “personal versus professional” is fungible; posting on a personal Instagram account that is public can lead to professional ramifications if your bosses or clients are offended. At this point in the 21st century, what you say is who you are. (And, in some cases, what you read is who you are. I got yelled at by someone on Twitter a few years ago for following the account of another individual who the “someone” felt was transphobic. I had to explain to this someone that not all of my “follows” are necessarily endorsements of those folks’ ideas.)

Of course, whether you can or need to talk about politics at work depends on your workplace: Some workplaces offer employees guidelines on appropriate and inappropriate types of communication. It also depends on whether talking about politics is part of your work. I spoke to my friend Rebecca Traister, a political writer and thinker for New York magazine, about how she’d approach your question. After all, it’s her stated job to talk about politics! She, as always, had a lot of smart things to say.

First, she said it’s not an unfamiliar question for her to encounter. Tons of people, she says, ask her some version of this, though it’s usually anxiety about navigating conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

There’s a bunch of questions and issues you have to consider, she said. “Contextually, which political issue are you talking about?” she asks. “What it means to talk about politics can look a lot of different ways. Also, what is your tolerance for conflict? What is the other person’s tolerance for conflict? Are you going to be upset if somebody disagrees with you? Are you going to be excited? Do you enjoy having fights? Do you hate having fights?”

I told Traister that, considering the way you phrased your question, you probably fall into the “hate having fights” camp. She agrees: “If you’re asking this question, it suggests that you’re feeling like there might be conflict,” but she adds that even differing political points of view can complicate a working relationship in productive ways. “We’re imagining that it could only go bad, but there might be the opportunity for meaningful dialogue,” she says. There’s also the issue of power differentials: Talking to a “lower-ranking” colleague about politics will probably look a lot different than talking to, say, your boss. And then there’s your goal. Do you hope to persuade? Can you be open about where you land on a particular issue?

Don’t get me wrong: Speaking out is important. As Traister told me, it’s what builds coalitions, fuels movements, identifies issues of moral gravity. “There are questions about the future of the planet, about the future of democracy, our institutions, our rights, our freedoms, and I don’t see how you siphon that off in a corner or into a category of things we don’t talk about at work,” she says. “Our lives are interwoven with these issues. That’s not advocacy for you to get in a fight with your co-worker about Israel and Hamas. But I don’t think that we can put it into a box.”

No, we can’t. And to take the conflict in the Middle East as an example, many have felt compelled to broadcast their position publicly. But what I wish I’d seen more of, rather than people engaging in a war of words or interrogating one another’s assertions of facts and opinions, was an expression of feeling. Not to sound too crunchy, but feelings are where even the most polarized among us can come together. Plus, there are real costs to expressing controversial opinions at some workplaces.

Which brings me to this: If you feel absolutely compelled to talk about politics at work (and, unlike Traister, you don’t have to as part of your job), consider adopting an attitude of MFLF, or More Feeling, Less Fighting. People can take issue with your interpretations of facts—or even, as Donald Trump’s presidential administration once demonstrated, the idea/definition of a fact itself—but they can’t really disagree with your feelings. (I’d like to see them try.) Saying things like “I feel devastated by the conflict happening in the Middle East” is an honest, earnest expression of emotion that communicates a human connection to a situation and the people directly involved in it without implying there’s a “good” actor or a “bad” actor, even if, in actuality, you fall squarely on one side or the other. It removes the this-versus-that positioning from the equation and offers something to a peer that is real and true: yourself. And maybe, just maybe, it offers something to you as well, a reminder that, even in the worst of circumstances, with what feel like the worst of people, we all have emotions and feelings worth acknowledging.

And, I mean, you can’t argue with that.

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This post originally appeared on Bloomberg Businessweek and was published January 30, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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