Monday, October 25, 2004

Snarling may be the communication of choice this week as political arguments grow shrill only days before the big election.

“What? Debating politics in a family situation, or with close friends? Let’s not go there,” said Cindy Post Senning, great-granddaughter of traditional etiquette maven Emily Post and director of the Vermont-based Emily Post Institute, a research group that tracks and advises polite society in difficult times.

“Chances are, we already know the political leanings of those we know best. We’re not going to change any minds here, so why bother to argue? The best idea is to agree to disagree, and leave it at that,” Mrs. Senning said.

This could prove sound advice, considering two-thirds of Americans say political discussions lead to “attacks and controlling behavior” and consist primarily of “name-calling and exaggeration,” at least according to results of a survey released Friday. The survey was conducted by VitalSmarts, a Utah-based consulting group that specializes in workplace communication.

Half of the 150 respondents said they leave personal political confrontations “dissatisfied,” while more than half said partisan arguments weakened ties between family and friends. But 40 percent said they were “talking politics” more than usual these days.

But stakes are high and the public much engaged in what the press has dubbed “the most important election in recent memory.”

Almost 90 percent of respondents in recent polls from the Associated Press, ABC and CBS News said they were following the presidential campaign closely and planned to vote.

Harmony, however, is not necessarily a factor. With weighty feelings about the Iraq war and disagreements over White House foreign and domestic policies, political beliefs have become sharply defined and polarized — even among intimates.

“My hubby is a rightie. But I’m starting to wear him down,” boasted one woman in an online discussion group for die-hard Democrats who had Republican family or friends.

Some say the ramifications of political disagreements have grown stronger. For instance, a woman said during another online discussion that she lost a friendship because her friend was devoted to President Bush.

“Anyone who disagrees with you isn’t just disagreeing; they’re insulting your core values and threatening your way of life,” Colorado State University political scientist Bill Chaloupka told U.S. News & World Report in a story last week examining the country’s piquant politics.

So what’s a conversationalist to do?

“Well, let’s say you’re drawn into some raging political argument,” Mrs. Senning said. “Refine that talk from the onset. Suggest an alternative topic. Talk about the weather. Always have neutral subjects in mind to draw upon.”

Suggestions for soothing topics — as well as the top 10 “worst conversational blunders” — will be covered in the 17th edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” due in bookstores tomorrow.

“You don’t have to be a pushover. It’s possible to be a 100 percent candid and 100 percent respectful in any discussion, even when disagreeing about your favorite candidate,” said Joseph Grenny, author of the new book “Crucial Confrontations.”

Mr. Grenny advises political combatants to look for areas of agreement, avoid personal attacks, focus on facts, be “tentative not dogmatic” and watch for signs of potential violence.

“While you don’t have to agree with them, you can still acknowledge their view is valid, rather than ‘idiotic’ or ‘evil,’” Mr. Grenny noted.

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