How many of you have been advised to avoid the conversation topics of religion and politics?

Whether it’s a family or work event, the conventional wisdom tends to be the same: Avoid it at all costs. Despite the proliferation of more social media chatter on these topics, Google’s first hit only reaffirms the same thing.

While I understand that these are certainly touchy topics and there are certain moments when it would be wholly inappropriate to bring somebody’s politic beliefs into debate (for instance, when discussing product features at work), I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the problem.

At a family dinner last night, we did manage to eek the conversation in this direction, and at some point, one of our friends remarked, “And that’s why my mom told me to never talk about religion or politics.”

We laughed. But for the first time, that idea really bugged me.

“If we are told to never talk about religion and politics,” I asked, “Then how are we ever expected to come up with different beliefs, see new perspectives, and empathize with people unlike ourselves?”

If we have been training the past generation to explicitly avoid these topics of conversation, then is it any surprise that we have lost the adept skills to respectfully debate these issues?

A debate on social media or Twitter is not the same as a debate in real life. Online, everybody can hide behind their masks and their computer screens and whatever pseudonym you want. You miss the all-too-important opportunity of seeing body language, of respecting people in the room, and of noticing when you may have pushed the conversation too far.

If we move all of these conversations online, then is it any wonder why we don’t know how to have thoughtful approaches to bridging these topics in the real world? If we encourage you not to talk about religion and politics with “mixed company” then isn’t this just furthering the silos and confirmation bias that we already have? And if we fail to interact with others in a way that is open-minded, are we permanently closing ourselves from the opportunity to change our minds?

I don’t know where this advice came from — surely from a family or work affair gone awry — but I do think that it’s important to push ourselves more toward topics that make us uncomfortable. This is the only way we can learn how to emphasize and hear other viewpoints.

And who knows, you may even find yourself agreeing with one of them.

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