Editor’s note: See our list of terms liberals may want to avoid when talking to conservatives.

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?

The following list, 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 list 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 list 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.

  • When conservatives say Bums, class warfare, makers and takers, redistribution of wealth, liberals hear 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.

Other options for what to say include 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.

  • When conservatives say Equal rights, liberals hear 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.


  • When conservatives say Second Amendment, liberals hear Fidelity to an idea that is killing people, including students.

Try mentioning any Second Amendment restrictions seen as appropriate (e.g., talking about “firearms” just for “law-abiding” or “those without mental illness”); In general: Expressing support for the Bill of Rights and many of its aspects.

  • When conservatives say States’ rights, liberals hear Lowering protections and potentially enacting racist policies.

Try potentially sharing view that decisions should be made at the lowest level of government possible, even if the liberal disagrees. In general: Expressing support for the Bill of Rights and many of its aspects.

  • When conservatives say Culture War, liberals hear A blame game that liberals will try to pin on conservatives.

Try 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.

  • When conservatives say War on Christmas, liberals hear A ridiculous non-problem.

Try likely keeping it in the context of a personal relationship and asking liberals if they are comfortable with “Merry Christmas."

  • When conservatives say Free market, invisible hand of the market, unfettered markets, liberals hear 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.

  • When conservatives say School choice, vouchers, liberals hear Varies, but some see these as undermining public schools.

Try 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.

  • When conservatives Climate Hoax, liberals hear Inappropriate dismissiveness on a topic that affects the future, potentially catastrophically, and you seem to believe conspiracy theories.

Try 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.

  • When conservatives say All Lives Matter, liberals hear View that ignores problems certain communities face.

Try focusing on the basic values of caring for shared basic values of caring for children, communities, and country, without use of any slogans.

  • When conservatives say Affirmative action, reverse racism, liberals hear Terms suggesting discrimination that barely exists or simply does not exist.

Try agreement that some white and non-white Americans struggle; may be some agreement on certain class- or economics-based preferences, too.

  • When conservatives say Bureaucrats, Deep State, Feds, liberals hear Bureaucrats, Feds: Relatively harsh and de-personalized way to describe government employees; Deep State: Basically, a conspiracy theory.

Try 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.

  • When conservatives say Death panels and socialized medicine, liberals hear Invalid conservative arguments against health reform that are scare tactics.

Try expressing that it is one’s feeling that the federal government does not have the right ability to provide health care for all.

  • When conservatives say Obamacare, liberals hear Depending on how said, potentially dismissive.

Try simply using the technical term Affordable Care Act will often pleasantly surprise liberals.

  • When conservatives say Dependency, personal responsibility, self-reliance, welfare dismissiveness, liberals Unrealistic view that everybody has a fair and equal opportunity, ignoring structural and discriminatory reasons for different outcomes

Try 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.

  • When conservatives say Border wall, liberals hear A ridiculous, hugely expensive, and ineffective policy solution.

Try likely not bringing it up, but many liberals would instead agree with general statements like "our immigration system has problems."

  • When conservatives say Illegals, liberals hear Discriminatory and potential racist word choice.

Try saying "undocumented immigrants" instead.

  • When conservatives say Fake news media, liberal media, mainstream (or lamestream) media, media elite, liberals hear 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.

  • When conservatives say Don’t tread on me, big government, nanny state, stifling regulation, liberals hear 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.

  • When conservatives say Law-and-order, liberals hear Overly harsh approach that can be discriminatory and/or counterproductive.

Try a shared belief in a respectful police force; a society that can have both protests and order.

  • When conservatives say Blue Lives Matter, liberals hear Only caring about police and ignoring any questionable police behavior.

Try 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.

  • When conservatives say Corporal punishment and solitary confinement, liberals hear Barbaric punishments.

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.

  • When conservatives say American greatness, Make America Great Again, liberals hear Over-the-top patriotism that is too similar to President Trump’s messaging and suggests a time when women and minorities were second-class.

Try 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.

  • When conservatives say Biblical, church, evil, faith, Final Judgment, God, Second Coming, sin, liberals hear 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.

  • When conservatives say Religious liberty, traditional values, liberals hear 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.

  • When conservatives say Abortion, pro-life, unborn life, liberals hear Conservatives telling women what they can and cannot do, often harming women.

Try focusing on a shared goal of reducing unintended pregnancies.

  • When conservatives say Lifestyle choice, liberals hear Invalid view of human sexuality.

Try likely skipping this perspective; even if still an opponent of gay marriage, speaking highly of love and family.

  • When conservatives say Chastity, family values, sexual purity, virginity, liberals hear 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.

  • When conservatives say Sharia Law, liberals hear An unfounded fear that it would have impact in the US.

Try 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."

  • When conservatives say Socialism, liberals hear Extreme characterizations of (many) liberal viewpoints.

Agree to disagree about how much government should assist those who have less.

  • When conservatives say World government, liberals hear An overblown and unrealistic policy fear.

Really difficult, but could try to have agreement that an institution such as the UN has had difficulty with its effectiveness at times.

  • When conservatives say Creationism, Intelligent Design, liberals hear An invalid, unscientific biblical argument.

Honestly, probably try 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.