Beyond Small Talk

How to Talk to Someone Whose Opinions You Can’t Stand

It’s a family gathering, not a debate you need to win

Saul Austerlitz
Published in
4 min readNov 21, 2019
Illustration: Dan Woodger

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

EEveryone knows one: the person who loves to rehash recent elections when all you want is the gravy boat passed to you; who offers their “expert” opinion (gleaned from a single, stupid source) on the subject in which you earned your PhD; who refers to the candidate you just spent six months canvassing for by the most offensive nickname the pundits have summoned. And somehow, they’re always the loudest one in the room. We ache to lash out at them, to shout about the latest abuses, or to predict vindication at the polls. But we know that the only possible result is our own renewed agitation. The political landscape is ugly and likely getting worse; our personal lives don’t need to match.

Now look, I’m a pop culture historian, an author, and a professor, and I’m very active in local politics. I am the last person to suggest we avoid hard conversations. But I’ve learned over the past 41 years or so that there’s a time and place for a serious debate — and it’s not at a social setting with children and red wine present.

Even when we find ourselves face to face with someone whose opinions we cannot stand, we have to figure out how to talk. It’s okay if we talk about the weather. About the new Instant Pot. About whether anyone really likes red delicious apples. There is a stigma to the surface level, but the surface gives us a place to start.

Now, let’s get real. What happens when everyone’s best intentions break down, and talk of a TV show or the weather or our children or sports gives way to talk of impeachment? How do we handle ourselves in a fashion that doesn’t leave us feeling soiled?

Lead with values

Julie Fisher-Rowe is the director of training and engagement for the Opportunity Agenda, which seeks to use the power of narratives to achieve social and policy change. She suggests leading with values. What that means is reorienting the conversation so that instead of arguing, say, about the treatment of children at the border…



Saul Austerlitz
Writer for

Author of Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era +4 more. Work published in the NY Times and many others. Teacher at NYU.