The general rule for small talk is you can’t talk about politics. However, COVID-19 and the 2020 election have flipped this upside down.

Small talk often begins by talking about the shared environment—commenting on the weather, discussing upcoming holidays, etc. When we are talking through masks or over Zoom and experiencing an election of historic proportions, it’s a little hard to avoid the elephant in the room. 

Viral small talk

The pandemic isn’t inherently political. However, it can easily lead to a conversation rabbit hole in which you are discussing political opinions and public policy. Take the following statements, for instance:

“What are your Thanksgiving plans? I’m getting together with my extended family.”

“I get annoyed when people aren’t wearing masks when I ride my bike.”

“I hear Illinois might go under another lockdown.”

These statements might easily follow from common small talk topics: holiday plans, hobbies, and current events. However, it’s difficult to answer these questions without alluding to your views on traveling during the pandemic, masks, and lockdowns. 

Election chatter

The election, on the other hand, is political. The week of the election night(s), I had multiple clients approach me and ask, “How do I talk about the election with someone if I’m not sure what their political views are?” Like the topic of the pandemic, it’s a little difficult to avoid the election in your conversations with others.

“There are a lot of celebrations happening in the city today.”

“How was your weekend?” “It was good, happy that the election is over.”

“Did you watch Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s speech?”

Whether you’re talking to the barista in a coffee shop, chatting with your Uber driver, or simply having a meeting with a coworker, once the election comes up, it can feel like you’re walking on eggshells. 

Navigating the uncomfortable 

When is it okay to state your opinion, and when might it be the best idea to hold your tongue?

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s all about context. It’s important to take into account where you are, what you know about the person you’re talking to, and how they are acting. You may know the person’s political opinion, you might be pretty sure you know the person’s political opinion, or you may have no idea what the person’s political opinion is. 

Option 1: Stay neutral

We can all agree that 2020 is a s**tshow. It’s okay to talk about your general anxieties and the changes you’ve personally encountered because of the pandemic. Working from home, Zoom fatigue, toilet paper shortages, and pandemic weight gain are all safe subjects. No matter which candidate you support, you can talk neutrally about the election by discussing the endless coverage on TV and the changes that 2020 brought to the voting process. 

Option 2: Subtly hint at your opinion

Share your thoughts on current events in a subtle way and see how the person responds. This can be a question, a story, or a comment about the situation. 

What do you think of the stores being boarded up?

I love that we’re going to have a woman as our Vice President. 

I can’t believe how long it’s taking to count all the votes.

When your conversational partner is responding, pay attention to the words they use, the tone their voice carries, and their body language. This can help determine if this is a subject they are comfortable talking about. You can have different political beliefs and still be able to maintain friendly small talk. (IMO, this is what’s missing in the tension of 2020, but that’s a blog post for another day). If things start to go haywire, you can repair by reverting to a neutral topic (see above) or changing the topic. 

Option 3: Change the topic

Maybe you’re sick of talking about the pandemic and the election, or maybe you’re getting the vibe that this person might have a different opinion. Small talk topics change often and they change quickly. It’s okay to bring up a totally new topic, whether it’s related or not. Simply wait for a pause and jump in with a question or comment. 

Related topics:

Did you see that there’s going to be a rescue dog in the White House for the first time? 

I’ve been ordering delivery so much during the pandemic.

Unrelated topics:

Anything! Yes, it’s okay to bring up a completely new topic if you’re sick of talking about the current one. Usually these start with a question or a comment about a common small talk topic such as:

So, how has business been? (If you are at a coffee shop, hair salon, etc.)

It’s nice outside today.

Have you watched any good TV shows recently?

Contrary to popular opinion, you do not have to avoid talking about politics in small talk conversations. Sharing your opinion with others is often a bridge to connection and relationships. Engaging in small talk about politics is a delicate dance, intricately weaving through current events and common interests, but one worthy of practice. 

 Looking for a safe environment to try out some of these techniques? Join us for online conversation practice!