Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is scheduled to be inaugurated on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic. In light of the events of last week, this event will occur with unprecedented levels of security with the world observing our democracy. Once again our readers are asking us for advice about how to successfully navigate highly-charged political conversations during this turbulent time. 

Depending on your cultural conditioning, your comfort level with direct, or even confrontational, questions may be different from your neighbor’s or co-workers. So what’s the best way to respond if someone pointedly asks you, “Who did you vote for?” “What do you think of the impeachment proceedings”? Then there are alternative approaches, “Are you watching the impeachment proceedings?”  “Will you watch the inauguration?” “How do you think his first 100 days will go?”

Depending on your preference for direct or indirect questions, and privacy, you may freeze up like a deer in the headlights. How do you respond graciously? Whether it is a global team meeting, private-Zoom-chat, or a one-on-one convo, are you prepared?

Respect is universally understood:

When you are asked a political question in the U.S., or another culture, it is important to show respect for different customs, including what makes each culture unique. Our personal cultural conditioning has a deep impact, and yet we all understand and recognize respect.

Globally, the decorum of asking and answering personal questions can vary greatly. In Russia, questions about salary are common and in China, questions about work titles and history are standard – the responses help determine where you fit in the hierarchy. 

Different cultures have different expectations and queries. For example, be prepared for open discussion about politics with teammates or colleagues from Australia.

Exercise your right to remain silent, keeping your views private:

Keeping your opinion to yourself can be awkward or difficult in some situations if your boss or supervising partner asks you directly; however, privacy is possible. If you don’t wish to share your views or are responding to your manager, consider something like, “In the aftermath of such a contentious week and electoral vote count, I’m keeping my opinion to myself. I do appreciate your interest.”

By acknowledging and thanking them for their genuine interest, you deflect a potentially unpleasant political conversation, and keep your views private. Be true to yourself.

Respond graciously when faced with a persistent questioner:

If they are persistent and continue asking for your opinion, you can play the undecided card and change the subject. “I’m still deciding how I think things are going; I’m observing the proceedings and plan to watch the ceremony closely. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

Then segue to another topic. Inquire about something meaningful, such as: “I hear your daughter was accepted to MIT, and your son to Stanford. Congratulations!”  “The clients sent great feedback about the draft annual report – we are 99% finalized. How did you do it?”  “Do you have Spring Break plans?!”

Engage in respectful conversation:

Political conversations may be taboo among your colleagues, and the conversation starter in your social circles. So know your audience before engaging and remember that research has shown increased political conversation (even online) is associated with greater political action. Answering political questions may make you a cheerleader for democracy!

Express your beliefs in a way that avoids a political brawl – by citing research and concrete reasons why your views align a certain way. Encourage an intellectual conversation not a war of opinions.

Just as you want to express your beliefs, be courteous and let the person you are speaking to express his or her beliefs, even if you disagree.

Reconcile conflicting beliefs:

It’s inevitable that disagreements will arise, but when they do, handle them with grace, dignity and respect. For example: “That’s an interesting way to look at it and you bring up some valid points; however, I feel that…” If possible, avoid raising your voice, showing anger, abruptly walking away or making it personal. Some unhappy and unfulfilled folks will attempt to bait you, and it can be difficult to recognize that in the heat-of-the-moment. Do your best to stay centered and grounded, even if you need a walk outside to clear your head.   

Handle yourself, either way:

Whether you decide to respond or not, be tactful, polite, and remember that educated responses will help you either to cordially engage, or graciously decline these conversations. An example would be “I am basing my political opinion at this point in time on research results from and then cite a resource that this person respects – not one that will antagonize them. This requires you to be familiar with various resources and points of view. If the person you are conversing with turns ugly, close the conversation with “That’s an interesting observation. Have a good afternoon.” or “That’s one way of looking at the situation. Goodbye.” 

Find a balance:

Take time to self-assess your comfort level. Be authentic and make an informed decision. Find a balance that makes you comfortable and stay the course so you “don’t change horses in midstream” as we say in Texas.

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a diversity and inclusion consultant, cross-cultural trainer, modern manners and etiquette expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE Centre and the Intercultural Communication Institute, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, and Fortune. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, won a coveted Kirkus Star, and was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the Greater Austin Business Awards.

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