You Can’t Say That at Dinner!

In the 7th grade, my mom made me attend an etiquette dinner. The dinner was for professional students at Saint Louis University where Mom taught, but she took the opportunity to stick me in an ill-fitting sport coat and teach me some manners. (Depending on who you ask, it nominally paid off.) One of the biggest features of the dinner? Learning acceptable dinner conversation. “Never talk about religion and politics” was the principle maxim, though Mom also would get a bit annoyed when my sister and I made fart jokes.

So what can one talk about at dinner? What topics should feature and which should we steer away from? With Thanksgiving a few days away, these decisions are important. After all, we all know the way Uncle Mike reacts when we bring up [insert topic here].

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In the United States, we have a mainstream political paradigm that decides what is acceptable table conversation. They are those words and phrases that can be widely used without creating conflict or facing repercussions. These small-talk conversations happen at all kinds of public events, like at Jesuit gatherings – we talk about weather rather than racism, about which of our home cities is more athletically gifted rather than gentrification.

In the United States, our shared acceptable vocabulary is built on words and phrases like middle class, unity, freedom, hearing both sides, and our way of life. I especially include the American Dream, support our troops, and patriotism.1

As a whole, this is the vocabulary that forms the conversations which are comfortable and do not push boundaries. They present the values that we are expected to uphold. Even in Eminem’s anti-Trump freestyle, he still managed to say he supports the troops. These words and phrases frame what one may discuss and support, especially in polite company.

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But what about the Gospel? What if the Gospel message falls outside the limited framework of socially acceptable dinner conversation? What if the Gospel pushes the boundaries of comfort? In my mind, faith demands two things: rejecting conversation expectations that limits faith and being willing to enter dialogue.

Christ regularly dined and spent time with those well outside the socially acceptable crowd. In my mind, Christ is the awkward dinner guest who brings up healthcare disparities between women of color and white men; or in his own time, allowed an unclean woman to approach him while a wealthy citizen looked on. It is the duty of faith to reject restrictions on dialogue and engagement with the world.

This rejection of “acceptable” conversation can be incredibly difficult come Thanksgiving. I have friends – social workers, academics researching health care disparities by race, teachers in low-income schools, and nurses in high-violence neighborhoods – who every holiday feel like they have to hide their true lives and vocations because they do not make for comfortable dinner conversations.

When people do ask, these friends have to describe why they live committed to the poor, why they love the people they do. They have to explain why they’re attentive to systematic economic injustice or structural racism. Yet the “polite” conversation often doesn’t allow them to use their own vocabulary or experience. They have to stay within a mainstream paradigm. They are restrained or limited in what they can say.

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Perhaps the more difficult side of this coin is creating dialogue. Let’s recall that Jesus took time to discuss with the wealthy man why he showed such great love to the unclean woman. I would find great exhilaration in mounting my soapbox and proclaiming why I reject these limits on hot-button topics and why I am righteous in my point of view. Yet this attitude will by no means change hearts, including my own. Doing so will simply solidify others and myself in hardness of heart.

Dialogue cannot happen with a hardened heart. Even more than speaking, dialogue requires listening. As a privileged white male, I must be wary of speaking on behalf of those who face oppression. It must rather start with listening: to those who have shared their stories of racism, of accompanying students who face incredible odds, and supporting friends facing harassment. When I speak, it is best to speak of my own experiences of love, grace, and mercy.

One of my former Jesuit superiors emphasized the importance of “I”-language. This meant using phrases like “I think…”, “I feel…”, “I sense…”, “I hear…”, etc. instead of over-generalizing (“it was wrong of you…”) or asserting my interpretation on someone else’s words (“you said…”). It takes great practice, but has paid dividends in my life. Doing so has pushed me more fully into the conversation, as well as made space for others to join in. It has made me a more intentional speaker; more importantly, it has made me a better listener.

Predetermined conversations limit us to standardized experiences and vocabulary. “I”-language allows others to speak outside that standardized experience. Along with active listening, it is vital to dialogue and breaking down otherwise forbidden conversation walls.

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This Thanksgiving, there will be wonderful meals and excellent conversations. Some of these conversations might push the limits of what is socially acceptable. The predetermined subjects of football and weather will only take us so far. Moreover, these conversations can easily exclude the Gospel or prevent the opportunity to reflect critically on the realities we encounter in our life and work. To truly be a people of faith, we must be willing to enter into those uncomfortable and socially-unacceptable conversations, and what better time than Thanksgiving. We must be willing to dialogue, that is: to listen to others and approach them with an open and loving heart.

May your Thanksgiving be full of politely political dialogue that breaches your comfort zone, yet welcomes all to the banquet.

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Image courtesy FlickrCC user Tim Sackton.

  1. We could have a whole other conversation about what language is acceptable in the Church! I’ll limit it to general US for now.

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