Political Talk: Impolite or Imperative

Kai Hagen

October 18, 2002

Someone once said that you should not discuss politics in polite company or at social functions. Nobody knows who said it first, but everyone has heard it in one form or another.

It's common knowledge.

And, it seems, it's also common practice.

Old rules of social etiquette say we should not talk about politics at the dinner table, for example. So, it is not surprising that many consider it bad manners in good company, not unlike speaking with your mouth full or using your sleeve as a napkin.

No less an authority on the subject than Miss Manners tells us that "religion, politics, and sex are generally taboo at the dinner table. Unwelcome attempts to introduce these topics should be met with silence, so the matter drops."

Emily Post was saying much the same thing eighty years ago.

In one column, Miss Manners provided her "gentle readers" a selection of remarks meant to draw someone's attention off politics. Her suggestions included:

"Are you finding the pothole situation any better?"

"Traffic is getting just like New York around here."

So, it isn't bad manners to talk about having to sit in traffic. There's nothing impolite about complaining that your child has thirty classmates or attends classes in portables, or that you can't water your lawn or garden, or that there aren't enough soccer fields for all the kids in town, or that you are paying higher taxes.

It's okay to talk about problems, so long as we don't talk about the political process or the people we elect to address these problems on our behalf.

Perhaps it is time to rewrite some of the rules about polite conversation.

Perhaps being silent about politics in polite company has only served to make politics less polite, less thoughtful and less civil.

Perhaps not talking about politics is connected to not participating in politics.

And perhaps that is not working so well for us.

For one reason or another, more than 76 percent of registered voters in Frederick County decided not to vote in the recent primary election. If past elections are a guide, at least half of us won't be motivated enough to vote in November.

It may be that some of our neighbors just don't care. But that is certainly not true of most of us. If people didn't care about traffic and crowded schools and water restrictions and taxes and a long list of other things, they wouldn't complain about them.

In just a few weeks, some of us are going to be selecting the people who will represent all of us in Winchester Hall and in Annapolis.

It is certain we aren't going to agree with each other about many things, including which candidates are best for the job. But we are a community, and we are in this together. We might consider exchanging views on these subjects to be a worthwhile way to spend an evening or two.

After all, so far nobody has been able to put enough information on a yard sign to help anyone make an informed choice.

We need to talk about it.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at