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Q. Dear Pat:
I work with people whom I consider to be good friends. However, several of them are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from me. They know where I stand on the issues, but at lunch and on breaks, they invariably start talking politics and say things that insult and offend me. I don’t like conflict and I don’t want to get into a big debate, so I just smile and try to change the subject as quickly as possible. But it really bothers me that they could be so insensitive to my feelings. On top of that, they’re ruining my breaks by making them so stressful. It’s a free country and we all have the right to our opinions, but how can I get them to stop bringing up controversial issues at work?
A There’s a reason for the old maxim about not discussing politics (or religion) in public. Those issues go to the heart of our personal values, which most of us hold very dear. So unless everyone in the group shares the same beliefs – or enjoys spirited debate – there’s a good chance someone will be offended. It sounds like either your friends don’t know they’re offending you, or they don’t care. I suggest you find out which. Tell them that you enjoy spending time with them, but that the political discussions are unpleasant for you, and ask them to discuss those issues when you’re not around. They’ll either agree, or blow you off. If they blow you off (i.e., discount your feelings and preferences), I say, “Good riddance.” If they agree, you may still have to “enforce” that agreement with gentle reminders when the conversation slips into the political arena (as it inevitably will, given the current state of our world), or you can politely and/or with humor excuse yourself until they get the idea that you’re serious.
One of the women in our department is always trying to get everyone else involved with her squabbles. Whenever I see her in the break room, she starts telling me about how someone else has insulted her or been mean to her. She keeps talking about it until I agree with her just to get her to stop. And it’s not just me. Recently a mutual co-worker did some work on her car. She wasn’t happy with the result or what he charged her, so she sent him a nasty email and copied the whole department! None of us wants to get involved, but we’re afraid if we don’t say something, it will look like we’re taking her side. What should we do?