The thing you should never talk about at work (and the effect it has on people)

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Everyone loves disgorging that old maxim that says politically fraught times gives license to the most compelling poetry. I think interesting voices will persist irrespective of the state of things, not to imply that the outlay is even fair, to begin with. I love Vonnegut as much as the next guy, but I’d gladly trade Cat’s Cradle for World War II never happening.

Jason Chatfield is an Australia-born, New York-based stand-up comedian and cartoonist for the New Yorker. In his native country, it was de rigueur for performers to privilege the entertainment value of a piece far and above any intended message. On paper, western-etiquette purports just the opposite, though anecdotal evidence makes me skeptical.

“Now, it seems like everybody who gets on stage needs to have some opinion or angle on the politics of the day, whether directly or indirectly, and I’ve definitely felt that pressure to oblige,” Chatfield told Ladders. “The opening lines of my act are, ‘I’ve wanted to live in America my whole life … I feel like I’ve caught you guys at a weird time.’ That’s about as political as I get, but still, it doesn’t go as well in South Carolina as it does in Brooklyn.”

Friends, relatives, sanity, and health: The costs of politics

A certain societal tension might accompany the penultimate year of any President’s term. The stale Thanksgiving dinner litmus test is certainly most valid at the end of one and beginning of another election season. Even still, most would agree with Chatfield about dialectic being uniquely ill-humored lately. Politics, by definition, is meant to divide, but the stakes seem higher than ever. The advent of social media and a succession of national tragedies have laced small talk with a swarm of conversational land mines.

According to one political scientist, if you say the wrong thing about the right subject at dinner, you’ll likely lose a friend before you’ve grabbed the check.

“Americans are suffering some pretty negative consequences because of their attention to and engagement in politics,” Kevin Smith told NPR. “I think most people have heard of, or experienced, or at least read a news story about losing a girlfriend or boyfriend or arguments over the Thanksgiving table.”

Smith’s finds, which were published in the journal Plos One, extend the evidence that confirms political involvement to carry narrow economic drawbacks. His own experiences in the last few years, however, compelled him to explore the emotional ramifications. An exhaustive nationally representative survey penned by Smith and colleagues validates the physical, social, and emotional costs of political engagement endured by many U.S adults.

Smith explains, “That such costs exist is not in question. Damaged friendships, ruined family reunions, and disrupted workplaces, not to mention feelings of guilt, regret, frustration, anguish, and remorse, have all been attributed to political differences. These sorts of psychological stressors are suspected to underlie a range of health problems believed to accompany divisive electoral campaigns, especially when vulnerable populations perceive themselves as targeted.”

Forty percent of respondents said that politics was a consistent source of stress in their lives. One in five participants said that it caused them to lose sleep, feel depressed, or fatigued. An additional 20% said that they had lost friends over charged discussions gone awry.  Between 10% and 30% suffered from a feeling of guilt for being too willing to discuss political matters with coworkers that they knew to be of a different persuasion.

“I felt was kind of eye-popping was simply the sheer numbers of people saying that they experienced this,” Smith added. “Sixteen percent say that politics has made my home life less pleasant.”

Do people even want to hear about politics in their day-to-day life?

It’s hard to gauge how much people actually want to discuss any of this stuff. On the one hand, we’re inundated with hot-takes in every discipline. Every person with bandwidth and a microphone has a podcast or a punk-band or a killer five premised by the downfall of western civilization.  But on the other hand, in three years, the term “hot-take” has become shorthand for “tune me out please, I am getting ready to babel humourlessly.”  Of course, Chatfield’s stand-up career is a departure from his work as a cartoonist; a vocation that survives on his ability to morph political frustrations into ‘provocative commentary.’

“With cartooning, I started as an editorial cartoonist when I was a teenager. I worked at a newspaper, pulling 20 hour-shifts in the newsroom and was obsessed with the minutia of politics. I ended up doing regular spots on national TV on Sunday mornings for years,” Chatfield continued. “This is easily the tensest presidency I’ve performed under and watching comics do political stuff out there is like watching someone dance on a tightrope.

“The conversations have changed; the alleged hyperbolizing of that concept has been over-reported. It is a real thing, and it is affecting comedians. It’s a new reality we just have to deal with.”

The antipathy comes from an acute awareness of freedom of expression. Living in a country where we have the right to say whatever we want, without the threat of tyranny concurrently, condemns us to be subjected to every jingoistic outcry of people. Chatfield has an advantaged insight into the constitutional Catch 22, adding: “It’s nice to still have the privilege.”

“I just got back from four days in Columbus, Ohio with every editorial cartoonist in America. All of whom are terrified at the pattern of censorship and dismissal of their First Amendment rights,” Chatfield said. “They’re being silenced by the owners of their newspapers for criticizing the powerful, and it’s happening at a fast clip.”

We all appreciate the right to free speech; some of us just wish we were subjected to a little less of it.