Dear Dr. Jay,
Given the political climate, it seems people at work or even friends are touchier these days. Why can't folks relax, it's just politics!
Dear Mr. or Ms. Serene,
Psychologically speaking, politics are one of the most fascinating of subjects. I am not certain how it happened, or when, but there are a couple of things that have taken place that answer your question. First of all, as you mentioned, it is an election year, so everything is front and center politically these days. Secondly, somehow everything became political. Everything.
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Think about it: education, health, jobs, the economy, eating meat, painting, smoking, heck even the weather is political. The right and the left have a position on each and every one and they are happy to share it with you.
People are touchy because they either have a position they cannot defend, or they do not have a position and do not want to hear yours. Now, when I say people cannot defend their position, it does not mean that they do not still believe it. There are professor types that still believe in Marxism; people's positions do not even need to make sense. A fascinating psych study was done where people were told that brushing one's teeth is bad for them. When asked to respond many people, even though they not only believed but knew this to be untrue, could not form a counter-argument.
The secret to talking politics is just that: Take advantage of the fact that nothing can be proven or disproved. I will share with you some of my favorite examples, and feel free to use them at work or wherever you desire. These are most effective when used around the politically charged or sensitive.
Global Warming: State that you believe that the Earth is actually cooling, and it is because the Western and Chinese calendar are out of sync. If they disagree then tell them they are probably the year of the pig and you had bacon this morning. Then walk away.
War on Terror: Tell them that you are a spy in the war on terror but you can let them know little else. Take an insert from a toilet paper or paper towel roll and stare at them through it from your desk. Whenever they notice you put it down quickly and walk away.
These are just a few positions and ideas that I have found to be effective. Remember, people will only hold a view until you make it painful.