Fieldwork on an island taught me how to navigate family dinners

Doing science far away helped this ecologist talk to those close to home

Published December 31, 2017 11:00PM (EST)

 (Getty/Rawpixel Ltd)
(Getty/Rawpixel Ltd)

This article originally appeared on Massive.

MASSIVE_logoI am headed home to Maine for the holidays, and I am beyond thrilled. I haven’t celebrated Christmas with my family since 2012, due to warm-weather fieldwork commitments on Johnston Atoll and the Galápagos Islands for my PhD research.

Even though I am excited to share in the magic of the snow, lights, and cookies, I am also a little bit nervous: I have different political views from my family, particularly my father, and in the past this has resulted in hurt, anger, and major frustration. I’m nervous that we will stumble upon a topic of conversation that is a trigger for me – if I believe something strongly enough, I take on an attitude akin to a verbal fight to the death. For me, these topics tend to be science-related – especially climate change – and that is a sensitive topic where my Dad and I disagree. It’s a horrible irony to be a scientist broadly studying the effects of climate on seabirds while my dad is a climate skeptic.

For scientists and even general science supporters, the holidays can be a tricky time of year. It is that time when we are thrown head first into engaging with people that don’t have the same opinions or political leanings. I get excited to talk about my research but hesitate more with my opinions where the science and policy intersect. With the current political environment, that could become a heated topic quicker than I could finish my eggnog.

There are sharp divisions between Democrats and Republicans in the US, and that divide continues to widen. It also carries over to climate change, more in focus than ever as we are the only country to reject the Paris Climate Accord. Given the alterations to websites for government agencies, like the EPA, regarding climate change, one can understand how climate change may be a sensitive topic for a Democrat to bring up in a Republican household. I also have prior experience to go on: political discussions that escalated during a Thanksgiving dinner in 2008 were less-than-positive (to say the least) for all present.

My strategy in my conversation with my Dad that year had been to try to win my argument by sharing knowledge. My dad grew up on a farm in rural Maine, attended the University of Maine, and is a very smart man. I returned home for Thanksgiving break, recently liberalized from university, thinking I was a smart woman. I was sure that when I presented him with my facts, he would think differently about climate change and come to realize that we humans have a direct role in it.

“Climate change is happening; studies have shown this,” I told him heatedly, offended he thought otherwise. “CO2 has increased in the atmosphere. They expect the temperature to increase more than two degrees Celsius in the next century.” Needless to say, this strategy wasn’t effective. We fought, soured Thanksgiving for everyone, and politics were banned as a topic of conversation in our house.

This year, I return home equipped with some new skills. Through my experiences living and working with diverse groups of researchers on remote islands, I have learned that reiterating my opinions or knowledge about a subject will not help me win a persuasive argument. You can’t get in an argument in that situation and then leave afterwards. If you fight with someone, you still see them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You hang out in free time and work time. You are each other’s friends, family, and colleagues. Living and working in these unique field environments required a better way to handle minor disagreements. And I would like to credit all the wonderful human beings I worked with on islands for helping show me what worked – or didn’t work – in difficult or sensitive conversations.

Here are some strategies – hard-earned life wisdom – that, when somebody asks a tough question or isn’t on the same page, you can have at the ready:

  • Know – really understand – your target audience. Facts and evidence do not seem to always convince people, so we need to understand our audience to try to reframe science in a new, digestible package. This requires you to be an active listener.
  • Know your own opinions and be confident in them. (Yes, I believe human-caused climate change is happening). But don’t let your own opinions make you deaf to another opinion.
  • When confronted with someone opposing your view, take a deep breath before responding. Don’t start with negating that person’s view point or feeling (even though it may be tempting). Take another deep breath. Or use the opportunity to take a sip of water and nibble a holiday cookie.
  • Try using wording that really shows you want to converse with the individual, not lecture them. Try saying, “That is interesting. Why do you feel that way?” “Have you considered that...?” Or, “I hadn’t heard that information before; where did you learn that?”
  • Do be conscious of your tone and body posture. Using the same wording in two different ways can have completely different outcomes. Keep your tone light, make eye contact, and have a smile to show someone that you are open to conversation and listening. Crossing your arms, I have learned, makes you seem defensive and might inspire the same feelings in that person that you actually, really want to engage in conversation.
  • Be respectful.
  • Be ready to accept “rejection.” I try – and it is a process of trying – to remember to engage the curiosity inside another person. Even if I don’t persuade someone to think differently, maybe I still gave them a new nugget to ponder.

I present these ideas with the hope that it gives us all things to consider, and not as a cure-all for differences in opinions between people. For example, my dad will never be the environmentalist that I think he has the potential to become. It drives me nuts that he doesn’t believe in climate change and recycles only because they have to pay per trash bag. And that he keeps buying small, disposable water bottles – the kind that holds maybe half-a-cup of water. But I think that over time, and with the right attitude, we can both learn something from one another.

By Jenny Howard

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