Etiquette of Political Conversation in PDF

July 21, 2004


Judging by recent campaign advertisements in the U.S. attacking candidates from various parties and in national, state and local races, all signs point to a long and nasty stretch between now and the November elections. Next week's Democratic National Convention in Boston will no doubt further raise the temperature of discussions and debates, especially in the already spite-filled showdown between Pres. George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry and their respective supporters.

Johns Hopkins University professor P. M. Forni seems to be one of few speaking with a calm voice. And he's urging others to adopt a more civil tone, as expressed in a freely available treatise titled The Etiquette of Political Conversation [PDF: 14kb]. Forni's expertise, in fact, is civility, which includes several books and articles on related topics, and giving lectures and workshops on the connections among civility, ethics and quality of life.

Forni notes that:

"Partisan hostility is heating up the conversations of neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members. How are you going to be affected by this? What are the civil rules of engagement in everyday exchanges of political ideas? How can you avoid angry confrontations? How do we voice our opinions in a way that is at the same time forceful and respectful?"

Forni, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, offers the following PDF-based tips on his Web site:

  1. Decide whether you want to get involved. Is this the time and place to engage in a discussion that may become heated? Consider the consequences your argument may have. Is it worth your while to engage in it? Is someone baiting you? Do you have trouble remaining calm and collected in this kind of situation? You can always change the subject, excuse yourself, or even state that you just prefer not to talk politics right now.
  2. Be fair and respectful. If you do choose to discuss politics, give others the opportunity and the time to state their opinions. Do not interrupt and do not ignore. Do listen to what the other person has to say. Allow the possibility that there may be something good in his or her ideas. Acknowledge the points on which you agree. Do not use demeaning or abusive language.
  3. Be thoughtful. Taking for granted that the political preferences of your co-workers and acquaintances will coincide with yours is not a good idea. Even friends whose steady voting record you know may on occasion vote for the "other guy". Do not say to your boss: "So, sir, how are we going to make sure that X is not re-elected?" Maybe your boss wants X re-elected. You have the right to express your opinion, but presuming to know the minds of others is rarely endearing.
  4. Be discreet. Saying out of the blue: "So, for whom are you voting, Joan?" you may be perceived as too bluntly inquisitive or outright intrusive. Avoid exposing someone's political affiliation. In mixed company do not say: "So, Jim, I bet you will vote Democrat once again, you old liberal dog you."
  5. Keep your poise. By expressing yourself with determination and poise you will convey the strength of your convictions. If someone is bullying you, respond politely but firmly. You may say "This is my opinion and I have given it a lot of thought," "I would appreciate it if you did not raise your voice," or "Well, let's just accept that we have different opinions about this and move on."
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