GROWING UP IN CALIFORNIA, I felt an immense pride in my parents’ immigration story. My family left India because of caste discrimination, an archaic system of societal division where your last name determines the height of your particular glass ceiling. They resettled in the United States, where my father started a successful business. I myself was encouraged by my parents and teachers to dream big, and make my own goals and markers of success. My background—being a brown, female, religious minority—never seemed to hold me back, even in the super-white, Republican stronghold of Orange County. All that mattered was my hard work and character.
Decades later, I watched in horror as Donald Trump spewed his xenophobic rhetoric on the national stage, betraying the very American ideals that enabled my life and achievements in this country. I told my manager at the tech company where I work that if Trump became the Republican nominee, I would take three months off to volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, spending a stint in North Carolina—a crucial swing state, and the first place I’d called home in America. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t try to stop the ascendance of a demagogue.
Fast forward to the end of October. I’d spent weeks in Durham, North Carolina, canvassing door to door and making phone calls to fellow Democrats. They largely shared my revulsion at Trump, and most promised to vote for Clinton. My goal on the trail was to get out the Democratic vote, rather than engage in lengthy—and likely unsuccessful—one-on-one debates with Trump supporters. But this type of confrontation was sometimes unavoidable, and I’d find myself choosing between trying to change their minds or simply engaging in conversation without the ambition of conversion.
One day, another volunteer asked me to speak to her daughter. “She’s 15. Can you talk to her, and tell her why you support Hillary?” The girl eyed me warily. It was obvious this wasn’t the first time she had been thrust into this situation, so I asked, “Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking?” She paused. “Well, everyone at my school is for Trump. And I don’t believe in abortion, I think it’s wrong. But with the gay thing, I guess they can do what they want.” The argumentative side of my brain immediately begged to spar in intellectual debate, but the rational side told me: You’re not going to win this. She isn’t even sure what she believes. This wasn’t the battle I wanted to pick.
Instead, I told her how I became involved in politics in high school, right after President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq. My friends and I pinned handmade “Don’t Attack Iraq” patches on our backpacks, engaged the Young Republicans club in a campus debate, stuck anti-war bumper stickers on our cars, and publicly stood up for what we believed in. “Don’t just listen to your friends,” I advised. “Do your own research. Decide what matters to you, and stay involved.” The girl smiled at me, and turned back to her mother.
Our new political reality has exposed a deep divide, and subsequently, the need to learn how to talk to one another as human beings—for the sake of a lifetime of more bearable dinners with in-laws; for being true to yourself at work without damaging career prospects; for less awkward uberPools when you’re trapped alongside someone with whom you vehemently disagree. Or for the sake of not alienating a teenager from engaging in politics in the future.
This election may have brought out the worst in many of us, but it’s possible to engage in polarized conversations without killing your integrity. Start here:
TELL YOUR STORY
What we value and believe are the products of our life experiences. If you disagree with your parents, try talking about how your life after high school has shaped or changed your worldview. Did college open your eyes to non-binary gender identities? Did you work at a job where many of your coworkers were immigrants? Did you move to a part of the country where people grew up differently than you did? Share the stories that make you who you are. They can’t disagree with your experience.
ATTACK POLICIES, NOT PEOPLE
There’s no faster way to kill a conversation than by calling someone a racist (or a sexist, or a homophobe). People respond negatively to being labeled as an individual and, honestly, you never know what’s truly running through someone’s mind. It’s more productive to label a specific policy or belief as racist instead. Sometimes it will sound like you’re splitting hairs, but keep at it: “I’m not saying you’re racist. What I’m saying is that a national identification system for Muslims unfairly assumes that they’re all terrorists, and defies the American value of freedom from a tyrannical government … ”
ASK OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS
For a truly meaningful exchange, you should be ready to listen. A good place to start is asking them what they envision as success. “What’s your vision for immigration in America?” or “In your ideal world, how should the government help your family?” These types of inquiries are better for keeping conversation going, rather than asking technical questions that can make people feel dumb or as if they’re failing a test. Not everyone knows the specifics of the Affordable Care Act, but most people could tell you they don’t want to pay more for health care while someone else gets a “free ride”—plus, you’re more likely to learn something about them and their values in the process.
DO IT FACE TO FACE
A great communication tip I received at work was: “If you’re feeling emotional about it, don’t write it down. Talk it out in person.” If you’re wondering whether you should add an emoji to the end of a message to soften its blow, then you probably should converse off-screen. Facial expressions and body language are important for building intimacy and conveying the nuance of your words.