How To Talk About Politics When You’re In Another Country

Maybe the better question is: should you even talk about politics when you’re far away from home?
A man and a woman drinking coffee and learning how to talk about politics

Unless you come from a culture that openly embraces intellectual conflict, you’ve probably internalized the notion that politics doesn’t mix with polite conversation. Many of us aren’t taught how to talk about politics constructively with people in our own country, let alone people who are working with an entirely different history, cultural context and language.

There’s a safe approach, and there are two potentially rewarding approaches.

The safe approach to talking politics is not to talk politics.

The high-risk approach is to be an elephant (or a donkey) in a china shop, brazenly addressing hot-button issues that you may or may not have the language skills to treat with an adequate level of nuance. You’ll keep it raw and real, and you may or may not piss some people off. At the very least, you’ll leave with some interesting stories.

If you prefer to take the middle road, you’ll probably want to do a bit of research on the cultural and political climate of the country you’re visiting (as well as follow a few of these common-sense guidelines).

How To Talk About Politics Anywhere

  • Be mindful of the company you’re in.
    Traveling for work is different than traveling for pleasure, and political discussions may be more or less appropriate depending on how well you know the people you’re talking to. That’s not to say you should never broach politics with total strangers. It’s just to say that you probably shouldn’t broach politics with all of them.
  • Make fewer statements and ask more questions.
    You’re the foreigner in this situation, so even if you’re pretty knowledgeable about another country’s politics, you should start with the assumption that you know less than the locals. Asking people questions is a great conversational approach in general, and you’re less likely to accidentally cross a line or come across as arrogant or rude. It’s also good to keep in mind the terminology you’re using, because a term like “coup” might trigger certain responses.
  • Don’t assume that you’re working with the same universe of facts.
    This certainly goes within the United States as well, but the media in other countries is often quite different (especially in places where there’s government censorship). Be mindful of the fact that huge stories in the U.S. may not have received very much coverage in other places. The reverse certainly holds true as well. In many places, people are very informed when it comes to U.S. politics.
  • Be especially sensitive around religious topics.
    Religion may or may not be a big deal to you personally, but for many people, it’s a way of life.
  • Aim to share your perspective without proselytizing.
    When discussing your own views of the situation back home, try to avoid forcing your own views on someone. Most people can sense an agenda right away, and they’ll be less open to what you have to say when they do.
  • Don’t make it your goal to “be right.”
    Make it your goal to learn something new.
  • Know when to call it quits.
    You should also have an exit strategy in mind in case the conversation starts to feel heated, emotional or confrontational.

How To Talk About Politics In…

The Pew Research Center polled social media users across the globe in 2012 to find out how people in different countries engage with each other online.

While this may not be completely indicative of how people talk to each other in person, it can probably offer a sense of where political banter is more culturally acceptable.

For instance, people in Arab countries are some of the most politically outspoken online. In Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, roughly two-thirds of social media users discuss politics online (anywhere from 60 percent to 68 percent). That’s in comparison to an average of 34 percent across the 20 nations surveyed.

In the United States, that number is 37 percent. Britain, Spain, Italy, Greece, Brazil and China all hover within that range as well.

The countries that are least likely to discuss politics online include France, Poland, Mexico and Japan.

A more recent Pew Research poll in 2019 surveyed people from 11 countries with emerging economies. The results showed that people were generally more comfortable discussing politics in person than on their mobile phones or social media, but some countries were more accustomed to face-to-face political discussions.

The Philippines had the highest percentage of adults who felt comfortable talking politics face-to-face, clocking in at 81 percent. Lebanon, Vietnam, Kenya and South Africa also all had percentages above 70 percent.

India was smack in the middle of this cultural spectrum at 65 percent, whereas Mexico, Jordan, Tunisia and Colombia all hovered below 60. Venezuela (45 percent) was the only country where less than half of adults felt comfortable discussing politics in person.

But first, make sure you know how to introduce yourself.
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