Dialogue Across Difference hosts event to help with Thanksgiving table tension

By Rego Jaquish and Colin Rice
Contributing Writers

We all have that family member we disagree with. Whether they are an uncle, grandmother, cousin, or even just a close family friend, we often struggle to find a way to have a civil conversation with them without arguing. The topic may be religion, politics, or even family history, and these disagreements can make Thanksgiving dinner awkward for everyone at the table. How can we avoid these disagreements and stay true to our opinions without any conflict? 

On Thursday, 14 November, students, faculty, and Sewanee community members gathered at the Mary Sue Cushman Room for “Hot Topics at the Thanksgiving Table: How to Talk About What You’re Not Supposed to Talk About.” Attendees were treated to a feast of traditional Thanksgiving fare provided by Chef Caroline Thompson. The meal was followed by a workshop on conflict resolution with family, friends, and others one cares about. 

The event was sponsored by Dialogue Across Difference director Cassie Meyer, along with the University Wellness Center and the Sewanee Food Literacy project.

Meyer, who works for the Office of Civic Engagement, worked with Julian Wright of the Wellness Center to create the event. 

“I started [my job] right before Thanksgiving last year,” Meyer said, “and [a former Sewanee employee] was talking about how she was dreading Thanksgiving conversations with her in-laws.” 

“Within the Wellness center, we have a lot of students who are coming to us and saying ‘I’m really dreading going home for the holidays.’ It just felt like an important conversation to have,” said Wright. 

Part of the workshop included facing a fiery relative in the form of artificial intelligence. Created by the New York Times last Thanksgiving, “Angry Uncle Bot” helps teach how to properly handle a tense discussion with one’s relatives. The article accompanying the simulator, “How to Have a Conversation With Your Angry Uncle Over the Holidays,” was written by Karin Tamerius, a former psychologist who established the organization Smart Politics. 

“Smart Politics was an organization that I was reading a lot about, because I was really interested in this tension between wanting to express your own views and not have that breakdown a relationship,” Meyer said. “I think that is something that a lot of students [may] struggle with as they are forming their views and identities in college in a more articulate way [while] their parents have different views.”  

“The insights from [the simulator] are very concrete,” Meyer added. “It’s a playful way to get at something hard.” 

After using the Angry Uncle Bot simulator, attendees were assigned to roleplay scenarios with each other. In these scenarios, one participant would be the angry uncle, one would be the student, and the third would be the neutral observer. The goal was for attendees to use the concepts discussed throughout the evening to have a constructive dialogue with said “angry uncle.”

These concepts included relating to the uncle on a personal level, not challenging their beliefs, and avoiding the use of facts and studies in favor of providing personal anecdotes to explain why the student believes what they believe.

Morgan Jennings (C’20) said, “I enjoyed the role-playing segment of the dialogue training part of the evening. I felt like it was a really fun and productive way to practice having difficult conversations, even if the subject was as silly as differing opinions on dessert or a TV show all the way to more divisive conversations that can be politically-charged, for example.”       

“I thought it was very cool. I came to learn, and I definitely learned a lot,” Joseph Brown (C’23), said. “I think it is going to be helpful to take these [lessons] back for [not only] Thanksgiving, but also every time that I will be having to deal with difficult conversations.” 

As for the food, Brown said: “The cuisine was phenomenal.” With boxes for leftovers provided at the end of the event, he was “still eating it long past the serving time.”