Suppose you are talking to another person who has very different political viewpoints. Everything seems to be going fine. Then, you say a word or phrase that unintentionally alienates the other person. Suddenly, the conversation feels derailed. What may have been pleasant can quickly become tense.
How can we avoid stepping on verbal landmines? And on the flip side, how can we use words with purpose to better reach out to those with different political views?
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The following table, an excerpt from a longer booklet, builds on the AllSides Red Blue Dictionary. It lists many terms, words and phrases that one should be cautious with around political opposites, as well as words or approaches that could work better.
Glossary of Terms for Conservatives Talking to Liberals
The table below provides substantial guidance for conservatives talking to liberals. It includes an overview of terms that can be problematic and those that are usually acceptable.
How liberals perceive these words and phrases may seem harsh. Yet they are often realistic, and they are not much different in intensity than how conservatives hear liberal words and phrases. Conservatives can often simply change words in order to avoid provoking liberals. Conservatives tend to do better if they avoid citing “facts” that liberals may disagree with.
The table below is long, but actually misses a key element to civil discourse: sharing personal stories about why these topics are important. Personal stories, much more than facts, build comprehension and connection, and the bond can facilitate the desire for collaboration.
Terms that can be substituted are in bold in the last column. (Note: If using a mobile device, please scroll sideways to see all columns.)
In-Depth Glossary of Terms, For Conservatives Talking to Liberals
|When Conservatives Say...||...Liberals Hear:||Other Options for What to Say|
|Bums, class warfare, makers and takers, redistribution of wealth||
Bums: Demeaning term;
Class Warfare: Hypocritical complaint of those who often seem to prefer certain classes over others, or the rich who want to protect their status;
Makers/takers: Overly black-and-white characterizations
|homeless, poor, unemployed, etc.; recognition that policies can have different impacts on different groups of people or those with different incomes; agree to disagree about how much government should assist those who have less|
|Equal rights||Equal rights are already legislated||Try expressing a belief in equal justice under law, equality of opportunity, The Bill of Rights, and the idea that all US citizens deserve the same rights|
|Second Amendment, States’ rights||
Second Amendment: Fidelity to an idea that is killing people, including students;
States’ Rights: Lowering protections and potentially enacting racist policies
In general: Expressing support for the Bill of Rights and many of its aspects;
Second Amendment: Mentioning any Second Amendment restrictions seen as appropriate (e.g., talking about “firearms” just for “law-abiding” or “those without mental illness”);
States’ Rights: Potentially sharing view that decisions should be made at the lowest level of government possible, even if the liberal disagrees
|Culture War, War on Christmas||
Culture War: A blame game that liberals will try to pin on conservatives;
War on Christmas: A ridiculous non-problem
Culture War: Acknowledging current large liberal/conservative differences; shared dislike of Congressional gridlock; shared beliefs in bipartisan or non-partisan solutions; trying to focus on what we share (e.g., a shared love of children, community, and country); if both believe, God and faith;
War on Christmas: Likely keeping it in the context of a personal relationship and asking liberals if they are comfortable with “Merry Christmas"
|Free market, invisible hand of the market, unfettered markets||Blindness to unintended side effects and downsides of market outcomes||If believe, can acknowledge that markets do sometimes have undesirable outcomes; can try to get agreement on markets and capitalism in general, with different levels of government involvement in the process.|
|School choice, vouchers||Varies, but some see these as undermining public schools||Expressing a shared desire for children to receive a good education for our country’s future; love for the children; expressing support for public schools.|
|Climate Hoax||Inappropriate dismissiveness on a topic that affects the future, potentially catastrophically, and you seem to believe conspiracy theories||Talking directly about climate change can be frustrating, but there can be shared beliefs in more general environmental goals, such as the importance of clean air and clean water to protect health|
|All Lives Matter, affirmative action, reverse racism||All Lives Matter: View that ignores problems certain communities face; Affirmative action and reverse racism: Terms suggesting discrimination that barely exists or simply does not exist||All Lives Matter: Focusing on the basic values of caring for shared basic values of caring for children, communities, and country, without use of any slogans; Affirmative action and reverse racism: Agreement that some white and non-white Americans struggle; may be some agreement on certain class- or economics-based preferences, too.|
|Bureaucrats, Deep State, Feds||Bureaucrats, Feds: Relatively harsh and de-personalized way to describe government employees; Deep State: Basically, a conspiracy theory||Simply using terms like civil servants or government employees; There can be common concerns about internet privacy and other technological issues that are not currently extremely partisan, rather than trying to decide what is a conspiracy theory or not.|
|Death panels, ObamaCare, socialized medicine||
Death panels and socialized medicine: Invalid conservative arguments against health reform that are scare tactics;
ObamaCare: Depending on how said, potentially dismissive
Death panels and socialized medicine: Expressing that it is one’s feeling that the federal government does not have the right ability to provide health care for all;
ObamaCare: simply using the technical term Affordable Care Act will often pleasantly surprise liberals.
|Dependency, personal responsibility, self-reliance, welfare dismissiveness||Unrealistic view that everybody has a fair and equal opportunity, ignoring structural and discriminatory reasons for different outcomes||Emphasizing that while individual choices are important, they are not the only important factor; if believe it, saying that while a future of self-sufficiency for all is ideal, there may be some need for assistance, at least when times get tough; sharing beliefs that racism, sexism, etc. are bad and, if believed, that there is a role for government to counteract them so people have a greater chance for economic success.|
|Border wall, Illegals||
Border wall: A ridiculous, hugely expensive, and ineffective policy solution;
Illegals: Discriminatory and potential racist word choice
Border wall: Likely not bringing it up, but many liberals would instead agree with general statements like "our immigration system has problems";
Illegals: Saying "undocumented immigrants" instead.
|Fake news media, liberal media, mainstream (or lamestream) media, media elite||Attacks on generally reputable sources||If not dismissive of them, traditional media outlets, Big 3 TV stations; recalling when Walter Cronkite could hold the country’s attention.|
|Don’t tread on me, big government, nanny state, stifling regulation||Overblown concerns about government intrusion||There can be an agreement to disagree about the correct size of government, if there is no agreement on this topic|
|Law-and-order, Blue Lives Matter, Corporal punishment, solitary confinement||
Law-and-order: Overly harsh approach that can be discriminatory and/or counterproductive;
Blue Lives Matter: Only caring about police and ignoring any questionable police behavior;
Corporal punishment and solitary confinement: Barbaric punishments
Law-and-order: Shared belief in a respectful police force; a society that can have both protests and order;
Blue Lives Matter: Talking about how police are supposed to play an important role in keeping communities safe, and maybe acknowledging that some police behaviors have not been ideal;
Corporal punishment and solitary confinement: In this case, it may be best to agree to disagree with certain types of punishments; there can be a shared belief that some rules are important
|American greatness, Make America Great Again||Over-the-top patriotism that is too similar to President Trump’s messaging and suggests a time when women and minorities were second-class||Simply toning down the sentiments and eliminating the use of the word “great,” and talking about a strong connection to the country and one’s patriotism|
|Biblical, church, evil, faith, Final Judgment, God, Second Coming, sin||Depending on views, can be seen as unnecessary religion, or mostly reasonable at the surface but often used for discriminatory ends||This depends on the views of the liberal: as the religiosity of the liberal increases, more of these words become acceptable. conservatives can use them to explain their worldview, if the liberal wants to learn about it.|
|Religious liberty, traditional values||Veneers for discrimination, especially against LGBT people||While somewhat different topics, there can be shared agreement on the First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion; additionally, it can be possible to discuss values that many religions share and that a liberal would also be comfortable with, such as care for the poor, or the Golden Rule about treating others as one would like to be treated|
|Abortion, pro-life, unborn life||Conservatives telling women what they can and cannot do, often harming women||Focusing on a shared goal of reducing unintended pregnancies|
|Lifestyle choice||Invalid view of human sexuality||Likely skipping this perspective; even if still an opponent of gay marriage, speaking highly of love and family|
|Chastity, family values, sexual purity, virginity||Outdated and often patriarchal ideals||Depending on the views of the conservative and liberal, it can be to express a shared belief that certain romantic acts are best (or only) should be done in the context of a committed and loving relationship|
|Sharia Law||An unfounded fear that it would have impact in the US||Likely not bringing it up, but many liberals would agree with loosely related statements like “terrorism is a problem” or “there are violent extremists around the world”|
|Socialism, World government||
Socialism: Extreme characterizations of (many) liberal viewpoints;
World government: An overblown and unrealistic policy fear.
Socialism: Agree to disagree about how much government should assist those who have less;
World government: Really difficult, but could try to have agreement that an institution such as the UN has had difficulty with its effectiveness at times.
|Creationism, Intelligent Design||An invalid, unscientific biblical argument||Honestly, probably not bringing it up; if one believes in evolution, then expressing that view can be a point of agreement|
James D. Coan is a depolarization strategist and founder of Red Blue Together, which has shared stories of friends and those in close relationships across political divides, and a co-director of the Better Angels Media Initiative. He currently works as a management consultant and energy researcher. Coan previously worked at a think tank, where he often blended psychology and public policy. He began writing this after attending a Better Angels Maryland Alliance meeting. He has a Center bias.