Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Since the 2016 presidential election, my inbox at Ask a Manager has been full of letters from people asking how they can get their colleagues to stop pushing political talk on them.
Some of us are simply exhausted by politics at this point and don’t want to have to encounter it at work, too. Others want to preserve decent relationships with their colleagues and don’t want to lose respect for them if talking politics reveals viewpoints they find odious, uninformed, or offensive.
Here’s a letter that’s pretty typical of the complaints I receive:
My managers and coworkers have taken to discussing politics while we are in meetings, usually towards the end or while we’re waiting for other parties to enter a conference call. Some of them are huge fans of a certain politician who I find repellent. [It] makes me uncomfortable to hear them praise this person, but I’m not able to walk out of a meeting to avoid it. How can I address this without seeming adversarial? I can’t grimace and bear it until the next election.
While changing the subject can sometimes move the conversation onto more palatable ground, some people seem to think there’s virtue in insisting on political talk at work, to the dismay of their captive colleagues:
My colleague, “Lisa,” and I are the sole employees in a small designer showroom. … The problem is that Lisa is extremely vocal about her political views, and it’s a subject that comes up often. I don’t always agree with what she says, but she’s very passionate and gets herself worked up when she talks about it. She even talks a bit louder when on her soapbox. I don’t want a conflict, nor do I want to talk about my own political beliefs too much. … I’ve tried to tell her several times that I don’t want to discuss politics at work, but the answer is always fairly defensive and something like “Well, you need to be informed. You can’t just put your head in the sand! These people are ruining our country!”
If you’re wondering about the motivations of people who force political talk on nonconsenting colleagues, here’s how one politics-pusher explains his thought process:
I’m very focused on current events, including the recent whistleblower complaint and communications memorandum made public involving Trump and the Ukraine. To me, this is one of the most significant events currently happening in the U.S. at the moment. … I am feeling an impulse to share links to these documents at work, via email or maybe our group chat. I would emphasize that people can draw whatever conclusions they want from them and are entitled to their own views and opinions, but the fact is we’re watching history unfolding in real time, regardless of the eventual outcome! I’m bothered at the idea of my coworkers not being up to speed on this, or getting all their news about it filtered through pundits when the actual source documents are short, digestible, and publicly available.
But co-workers who don’t talk politics at work aren’t necessarily revealing that they’re uninformed or apathetic. They might be highly informed and politically active, but are (wisely) choosing to keep that out of their workplace:
I’m pretty sure many people in my office think of my (and others’, presumably) silence about these topics as a lack of action. It is not. I am actively not talking about these subjects in the workplace because I don’t want to learn anything that will affect my relationship with people I have to work with. (Still haunted by the time I went on Facebook right after the 2012 election; I was looking for a friend’s address, and instead I found out a couple of my coworkers are kinda awful.)
The bad news is that political talk at work is likely to increase as the presidential election nears. So here’s a call to respect that not everyone wants to discuss politics at work! And since not everyone will come out and say that, it’s important to pay attention to people’s cues: If someone isn’t actively returning your conversational volley or seems to be changing the subject, heed those signals and move on. (Remember, too, that politics can be incredibly personal. Something that seems only theoretical to you can have real-life ramifications for your colleague’s or their loved ones’ ability to get health care, stay married, or stay in the country.) Plus, even if you’re talking politics with an enthusiastically consenting colleague, realize that people who are trapped near you may feel they’re in hell, so be thoughtful about captive bystanders and take it somewhere more private.
It’s also good for your work relationships to avoid assuming the person you’re talking to shares your beliefs. Even in fairly homogeneous offices, there’s often more diversity of political beliefs than people realize. Assuming you know a co-worker’s political stances can end up alienating them. What’s worse, you may never find out, because your co-worker might choose not to speak up in order to preserve your work relationship—something that’s especially likely if there’s a power dynamic in play.
And if you’re one of the many people who wish work could be a politics-free zone, know that it’s OK to shut down unsolicited political talk. You can say, “I prefer not to discuss politics at work” or “We feel differently, and I’d rather keep politics out of our work relationship.”
Or you can cite political fatigue itself: “Honestly, I’m so burned out on politics. It’s exhausting!” Most people will understand that, and a lot will identify with it. In fact, that’s exactly the strategy eventually employed by the person above whose excessively vocal co-worker was insisting she “needed to be informed”—and it worked. In an update, she wrote to me:
Finally, I said, “You know, Lisa … I really admire your passion and conviction. I agree with you on a lot of these issues. I have to be honest though … With everything on the news and on Facebook right now, I’m politically fatigued. It’s really hard for me to take much more in. I’m absolutely drained. Would you mind if we talked about something else?” She actually apologized and said that she’s definitely very passionate, but she gets herself worked up easily. She didn’t realize that it was affecting me.