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Dear Social Grace,
For the past few months, I have been working in a small office in San Francisco. The nature of our business is very "artistic," and so, not surprisingly, seeing as how we are in San Francisco, everyone in the office is very politically liberal. I am a "conservative," but I honestly have a "to each his own" outlook on life. My problem stems from the fact that no one I work with is aware of my views. They just assume that anyone who does what I do for a living is a "liberal." They say incredibly nasty things about political figures I admire, they call people who share my point of view horrible names, and basically there's no way to share my point of view in what has become a very hostile work environment for me. How would you suggest I go about making my office somewhere I can work without fear of possibly even being fired for my point of view?
The Lonely Republican
Dear Lonely Madam or Sir,
You describe a couple of social errors that people at all points on the political spectrum are guilty of.
First, a minor error: In a group in which everyone agrees on a topic, a lengthy discussion of that topic can be sort of irrelevant -- and, often, rather boring. If you and all your friends think Sen. So-and-So is a scurrilous scoundrel, kvetching about his misdeeds can be fun, sure. But a lengthy grumblefest (one that imparts no new information) doesn't really help anyone involved. It can only leave people feeling worse, in fact.
Then there's the all-too-common error of turning a political disagreement into a personal attack. Again, this kind of conversation can be enjoyable when you're sure that you're among like minds -- but it's important to remember that others' political opinions are (usually) only different, rather than wrong (or inhuman, or criminal). If you can't accept that people with different viewpoints are to be treated with respect, then you have crossed the line between opinionated and fanatical.
I probably haven't told you anything you don't know, but perhaps the preceding election-year public service announcement will help someone you work with. Now, as always with this sort of workplace problem, I suggest speaking to a manager or personnel representative and asking him to remind folks what kind of language is acceptable in the office. But you can also cool the overheated tone of any political discourse. The first step is to forgive any previous blunders as you point them out. The second is to invite others to participate in a real discussion. (Who knows? Someone might actually learn something new.) The third is to ask and encourage questions. Like so:
1) "I know you're just joking, but your statement that 'All Republicans should be taken out and shot' could be misconstrued by someone who didn't know how highly you value freedom of expression."
2) "But I am interested in hearing what, specifically, you disagree with on the Republican platform, and why. I enjoy a lively debate."
3) "That's very interesting. How did you learn about that? Would you like to hear what I know about this topic?"
The fact remains, though, that in many cases you'll just have to agree to disagree with people when it comes to politics. (If the conversation gets ugly, you can initiate such an agreement.) It's a good thing there are so many other, more enjoyable topics out there for you to turn to.
Dear Social Grace,
My boyfriend of many years just found out that his mother has cancer. I spoke with her on the phone to give my condolences, and she mentioned that she was losing her hair and was shopping for scarves. When my boyfriend went to visit her recently, I sent with him a beautiful silk scarf that I hoped his mother would love. Upon his return from visiting her, he told me she was giving the scarf back. She didn't like the sheerness of the fabric and thought the colors were "more me than her." Had this been the only incident, I wouldn't be so offended. However, over the past six years his mother has treated me rudely. Should I confront her about returning the scarf to me? Do you think she is trying to say more than just "I don't like your gift"? Please help; my boyfriend and I plan to be married one day, and I can't imagine what having her as a mother-in-law would be like.
Via the Internet
As much as we want to refrain from speaking ill of the ill, and as much as we need to be sympathetic and forbearing (she is going through a very difficult time), this woman wasn't as gracious as she could've been. And there's a fair chance that she was trying to say something more unpleasant than "I don't like the scarf." But I can't see how confronting her would do any good.
I almost always advocate "turning the other cheek" in situations like this -- it's a course of action that will only work to your benefit. It lets you be the better, kinder person (for all to see). And if you continue being sweetly solicitous in your interactions with this woman, you may just win her over. She's going to be part of your family, so you have to make the effort. Besides, if you confront her now, she might just think of you, forevermore, as that beastly woman who gave her grief about a stupid scarf while she was undergoing chemotherapy. Finally, if she is determined to be nasty to you, she would probably like nothing better than to involve you in out-and-out war. Your uncomprehending cheeriness in the face of mistreatment will annoy her to no end.