Awkward: An acquaintance starts a political conversation that doesn’t align with your beliefs, how do you respond?

By Summer Hoagland-Abernathy, Copy Chief

Sedona Steffens

You have just sat down at your regular hairdresser’s chair and shown them a picture of what kind of mullet you want. You two are getting pretty comfortable after a few sessions together, so the conversation is free-flowing and you feel like you can talk about nearly anything.

But an issue has come up: Your hairdresser feels the same way. As they whip their shears around your head, they start talking about their thoughts on the COVID-19 vaccine—and not in a way that makes you feel great about being there with them.

So what now? What is the smoothest path to take to get out of this conversation and into your new mullet? The Chronicle reached out to experts to figure out how to turn a conversation with your hair stylist—or any other acquaintance—from hostile to apolitical.

Thanks, but no thanks:

Bonnie Tsai, founder and director of Beyond Etiquette, a social and business etiquette consulting agency, recommended a polite out.

“Let them know you really appreciate their point of view, and you may not entirely see eye-to-eye with them, but you appreciate hearing a different perspective from your own,” she said.

Tsai said to remember they “have a valid point of view that is of their reality,” so to keep the peace, do not dismiss their reality.

Still, your feelings matter as well, so offer a change of subject. Instead of arguing about the coronavirus vaccine, you could tell them about a fun movie you saw recently or the great ramen you made the other night.

Advice for the aggressor:

Psychologist and friendship expert Irene S. Levine advised against talking about politics or other sensitive subjects to customers in a Jan. 17 email to the Chronicle. When you do this, you risk alienating them and their beliefs.

“If I were in a dentist or hair stylist’s chair, I wouldn’t want to take the risk of having a polarized political discussion,” she said. “I would feel too vulnerable and the cost might be too great.”

Swapping out politics for a cute story about your dog is a wonderful alternative.

If they do not let up:

If you have already tried to change the subject, and the aggressor continues, Levine recommended a direct approach: Tell them you are taking a respite from talking about politics or whatever this sensitive conversation entails.

If they are still not getting the hint, see what you can do to help yourself avoid the conversation.

Tsai said if you are in a situation like an appointment with a mechanic, instead of a hair stylist, you may be able to physically remove yourself from the conversation by waiting in the lobby.

“But if you can’t, and they still won’t let up even after you asked nicely that you would prefer not to talk about it, … then just stop talking,” Tsai said. “Don’t give them something to respond to or feed off of, because if you debate back or argue back or say anything they can feed off of, then it will only escalate the situation.”

Let them talk it out, Tsai said, and work on not feeling triggered by their words.

“We can only control what we do and how we react and respond to situations,” Tsai said. “There’s no way we can control how other people are, … [so] even though we may not agree with them, what we can do is control our own actions.”