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12/21/2018 14:05 EST | Updated 12/21/2018 14:06 EST

How To Keep Holiday Conversations Jolly When Touchy Topics Arise

Festivities tend to go awry when issues get too personal, too pouty or too dogmatic.

With the news cycle being the live wire it is, heated discussions of politics can easily surface at your next holiday dinner or mixer. Or maybe a family member corners you into rehashing an old issue. Or perhaps the organizer is in a tizzy and has detonated — on you. Whatever the case, the days of "polite company" seem to be over, even in Canada, a nation clichéd for being too polite.

I say good riddance, especially in terms of talking about news and politics. Because though "polite company's" truest flaw was elitism, referring to polite society, the notion echoed as sexist. It conjured up the idea of shrinking violets recoiling from male-dominated conversations.

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Horrifying, this actually used to happen. According to the late Christopher Hitchens (my co- thesis advisor for my MA) In an etiquette essay on wine-pouring, in the 1970s, ladies in diplomatic circles in Washington and in Georgetown used to withdraw after a dinner party, "leaving men to port and cigars and high matters of state." That is, until Katharine Graham refused to get up, inspiring the whole foolish ritual to dissipate.

Now, decades later, everyone is game for livelier conversation.

If one wishes to credit Trump with anything, it's that he's ripped our collective muzzles off. Engaging in bubbly banter at gatherings now seems practically innocent compared to his Twitter storms. But like alcohol, it's nevertheless wise to keep spirited chatter within moderation at a party — and to go easy on the shots. Festivities tend to go awry when issues get too personal, too pouty or too dogmatic. And we are all in need of a good time as much as we are in need of riveting conversation.

Discussing politics or the latest news story is permissible, if not totally unavoidable.

Along these lines, I have five steps to help you be a great guest while navigating touchy topics should (and when) they arise during the holidays. I've spoken about these tips on the radio recently, and am glad to keep spreading the word. Because with the proper attitude and comportment everyone can unwind instead of unravel at their holiday mixers.

1. Remember to have fun

The golden rule for party-going is to have a positive attitude going in, so set your intention to make the best of the event before you arrive. While it may seem like an evil ruse on behalf of your host to bring together old friends, warring family members, disgruntled co-workers and ex-lovers under one roof, no host actually invites a group of guests over with the goal of brewing conflict. Rather, they've gone to great lengths for you to have a good time, chasing down RSVPs and craftily ensuring the turkey stays moist.

If a negative thought or unfortunate person makes your wheels spin wildly, take a breather. Then try to get back to that place where you're determined to enjoy for a few hours.

2. Conversation dos

Discussing politics or the latest news story is permissible, if not totally unavoidable. It's how to conduct these conversations at gatherings that tends to fluster people. For starters, if a controversial topic comes up and you're not one for debating, or not in the mood to do so, decline the discussion and walk away, especially when faced with a sly-eyed jackal doing shots of tequila. If you are up for a spirited vent, keep the banter short, about two minutes or so, or however long you can maintain an upbeat tone.

3. Conversation don'ts

Don't derail by trying to convince anyone of your perspective, and don't allow someone try to convince you of his or her opinion. If the matter devolves into a battle of sermons, try the line "let's agree to disagree" and go hit the cheese platter. The point is to heed to the golden rule No. 1 and to have a good time and enjoy, not to rage on a soapbox.

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4. Some serious conversation don'ts

These are off-limit topics when at a party, as they can easily ruin someone's night, if not yours, and eclipse the tone of an entire event: They include rehashing family politics at the family gathering; kvetching about office politics at the work party; and gossiping about someone who is in attendance.

I'm just going to underline those so the boundaries are clear. Save these talks for a private setting, a bar, or an angry email. Also, if your host has an uncouth meltdown, do not take it personally. They have probably taken on too much.

5. Express gratitude

Lastly, in terms of discussions to be had, always remember to thank your host. Because if you've drunk too much and rattled off, a proper thank you does wonders to forgive petty sins. That said, no one forgets a night-wrecker who hurls buffoonish assaults against their friends and family — or an entire race, for that matter.

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Wishing you a spirited 2019. May your heart, mind and mouth be aligned in the year ahead. The world needs to hear more perspectives from smart and well-intentioned people to help spin us in a more positive direction. Help get the flow moving.

Suzanne Wexler is a lifestyle expert and culture writer in Montreal. Her upcoming memoir called How To Swing Like A Southern Belle – Even If You're Frozen In The North. Visit www.suzannewexler.com for more info.

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