bizarre dinner party

This weekend, we were lucky to attend a dinner party with some friends. We were having a great time, until that point half way through the dinner when the conversation unravelled to reveal irreconcilable differences among the guests. This, of course, is common in dinner parties, and we (we ladies, especially) learn early on to patch up the conversation with some quick dismissals of differences and deft changes of topic.

However, I think we sociologists sometimes find ourselves in a particular conversational pinch, as I did this weekend, when the dispute lands squarely in our area of expertise.

I remember a day in grad school, playing softball with my adviser, whose expertise is in welfare policy. Some bonehead made some comments about welfare cheats and how crazy it is that we should waste our tax money on poor people because it just makes them lazy. The guy clearly did not expect to get into an argument, but unfortunately for him, Edwin has a razor-sharp wit in addition to abundant information on the topic, and the conversation ended with the other guy mumbling to himself and walking away.

A dinner table is no softball field, though, so when the guest in question made an obnoxious, homophobic remark and the two-thirds of the table that knows I study lesbian and gay activism turned to me to see what I’d say, I wasn’t really looking forward to cutting her down, Amenta-style. So, I disagreed with her statement dismissively and tried to change the topic, but it was not meant to be. She wanted a fight, and so did my friends.

If I had it to do over again, I would have turned it into a lecture. We could have started with the mental health of lesbians, which she had questioned, learning a bit about the history of psychology’s treatment of lesbians and gay men, the studies about the equivalency of mental health in gay and straight populations, and the decision to remove the diagnosis of homosexuality from the diagnostic manual. We could have then discussed why exactly women’s sports as an institution has been a gathering place for lesbians for decades, and why they may have needed–and continue to need–safe havens. I could have even provided a thoughtful discussion of why I, as a straight woman, would possibly be interested in studying gay activism (funny, no one ever questions why I study right-wing activism).

Unfortunately, the dinner table is not a classroom, and when she saw she wasn’t going to get anywhere on the anti-lesbian front, the conversation devolved into a myriad of tirades against things as seemingly benign as yoga, sandals, and baseball. Unfortunately, my years of training–in sociology and in general etiquette–did not prepare me to participate in this conversation, let alone make any good come out of it. I’ll be glad to get back to my intro class, where hopefully I am a bit more useful.

11 Comments

  1. laurabethnielsen
    Posted January 12, 2009 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    UGH. I hate these moments. I try to remember they are teachable but it is so uncomfortable. I had one not long ago about a program that the superb principal of the grammar school implemented. It was based on a comprehensive review of the empirical literature in education, sociology, and psychology and lots of parents thought another policy would work better. You could not convince them. So, I just siad that there is good research to support the new program and walk away thinkinig I am lucky to have a kid in a school where the principal knows enough to look to the research, pick the proven policy, and defend it in the face of skeptics. Sounds like you handled it well.

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  2. yyyikes
    Posted January 12, 2009 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    The other thing to get your head around in these moments is that it is probably no more important to change this person’s mind than anyone else’s. So since you’re implicitly willing to let individuals run around society with these views every day, you can let this one slide and just devote a few more minutes to your efforts at social change more systematically. Exceptions?: sometimes you need to weed (prune?) your social space in order to make it habitable for yourself and your friends; sometimes you need to discipline family members you’re stuck with.

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  3. Posted January 12, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    There are lots of people (of all political persuasions, actually) whose most comfortable conversational mode is making snide and hostile remarks about other people or categories of people. It offends me more when I disagree with the content, but I’ve seen it done by people whose politics I actually agree with. Provoking an argument and escalating hostilities is the point of this style. The only thing that (sometimes) works to counter it is a whole different style, an assertive refusal to take the bait while asserting disagreement. I remember at one dinner party I drove a guy (a friend, actually, but he liked to be argumentative) crazy by repeatedly saying, “You know I don’t agree with you but I don’t feel like having an argument on your terms. I’m not going to do it.” But it sounds like your friends wanted to watch the fight.

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  4. Posted January 12, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I used to like to argue, but I’ve mostly given it up and take the tactic that OW suggested. That said, I never cease to be amazed, in situations like the one Tina described, how often people don’t believe the research I cite.

    I got into it with my mother-in-law a couple of years ago when her response to every major research finding about urban poverty I mentioned was, “Oh David, that can’t be true.” I asked her why it was that she never challenges her novelist daughter about writing,
    her engineer son-in-law about jet engines, or her designer daughter about visual design, yet somehow I have no freaking idea what I’m talking about. That shut her up.

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  5. Posted January 12, 2009 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I hate these moments and usually will not engage. There is a major exception to this. There are times that I feel I need to engage, not to correct them or change their mind, but because they end up belittling me. That I am a fool, or an idiot, or that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I feel at these times, I need to engage to make it clear that they cannot talk to me like that or disrespect me (especially when it takes place in my own home). Though, I do admit, I need to learn how to handle these situations better. But, perhaps they will decrease with more initials after my name and higher numbers for an age.

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  6. Posted January 12, 2009 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    The initial comment was so over the top that she clearly was the sort that OW describes. My friends were so tickled by the idea of my response that one of them pulled my book off of their shelf to pass around. Wasn’t that awesome? So, it wasn’t nearly as dreadful as it sounded…no one was taking her side and when she hit a dead end, she just picked a new group to mock (and I am serious that those who do yoga and wear sandals were among those derided). Bizarre.

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  7. yyyikes
    Posted January 12, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    pitse1eh, when you’re older and have more degrees they’ll just say, “Oh, yeah, listen to ‘The Professor’ [air quotes],” and roll their eyes…

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  8. perchesk
    Posted January 13, 2009 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    I am selfishly comforted to hear that other people have these experiences too. About six weeks ago, at a birthday dinner friends organized for me, a conversation came up that devolved into an argument. Two of my friends seem to think that American sexual norms have changed because of particular tv shows, namely Sex and the City. I tried to politely disagree and make the points that these things have been changing for a long time, that we haven’t seen any new trends in sexual behavior emerge with the introduction of that particular tv show, and that there is little evidence that exposure to a particular tv show changes adults’ behaviors. My friends continued to argue. I hate arguing so I tried to change the topic, but my friends wanted me to concede that my point of view was as valid as theirs. I consider myself a family demographer so it felt like a betrayal of my professional training to concede that their anecdotal evidence is as good as the scholarly evidence on the topic. The conversation finally ended, but somewhat painfully. I’m interested to read about others’ experiences because I’m still not sure how I should have handled the situation.

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  9. shrinkingisaac
    Posted January 13, 2009 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    tina, given the list of topics you list, it sounds like you were having dinner with someone i’ve had a similar run-in with. i don’t think it actually is the same person, but it’s funny that those are the ones you list.

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  10. Jenn Lena
    Posted January 13, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Have any of you had a conversation like this with a sociologist? I have, and it blew my mind.

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  11. Posted January 13, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    On the broader topic of evidence and research and whether you can get other people to distinguish between personal opinion and actual data, that is hard and I’ve found no guaranteed way to do that. Being old and having degrees does not help. Either the other people interested in facts and research and is open to the possibility that their ideas are wrong, or they aren’t. This is different from style: I’ve seen very polite people be just as closed-minded as aggressive hostile people. And, for that matter, loud hostile people turn out to be interested in new information.

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