How to,  Thriving

Handling Political Conversations While Living Abroad

Dear Ben,


If you are like us, you will probably find that as soon as people figure out where you are from, they will want to ask you about American politics (and, more recently, especially in Europe, only want to hear your opinion after making a joke about Trump or telling you how horrible he is). While we can get frustrated with the political system in the States, what we don’t realize is how much other countries truly despise things about our system. We would even say that most Europeans we have met don’t really understand the American electoral system and, still, they want to share their opinions about the U.S. For us, this can be difficult, especially now, during election times, because their comments are quite negative.

Handling Political ConversationsTo face these negative comments, you will first have to explain the whole political system, which is nothing like what most European countries, including Spain, are used to. This knowledge gap between what people know and what they think they know about our system is a big reason why, as a general rule, we do try to avoid talking about politics. Of course, it is possible that you come across someone who knows something about the U.S. political system and can have an interesting conversation but, we have found, that these people are few and far between.

Another reason we avoid having political conversations is that you might have to do it in another language. Now, we consider ourselves to be fluent in Spanish; however, you have to remember here that you will be describing a political system that was previously unknown to most of the population. Therefore, it is not just a question of being able to discuss different topics, it requires the ability to correctly convey ideas that most people haven’t really had to think about before.

Note: While we are mostly talking about the difficulty of discussing U.S. politics with people here, keep in mind that most political systems can present similar issues. We often expect systems to mimic our own, but this is not always the case, causing confusion.

Whether we vote or not, most of the time we don’t want to talk about it!Finally, neither of us is very politically inclined, which means we are not very passionate about the subject, however, we do care very much about the country we grew up in and the people who are still living there. Therefore, when people bring up political conversations—and, again, this is something that is surprisingly frequent, especially during election times—we find ourselves in an uncomfortable position. We often have the choice between diving into a full-on political conversation (which we would probably prefer to avoid) or shrug off what the other person says. Most of the time, it depends who is asking/making the comments and how much energy we have.

If you find you are in a similar boat but still want to talk about politics with the people you meet, this is what we think you should know:

1. People learn about foreign politics in different ways

Like we mentioned above, people who haven’t studied the U.S. electoral system don’t really know how it works. It is ironic because, at the same time, they probably think they know more about the system than other foreign political systems because they see it represented on TV shows, in movies, or follow along a news channel on social media. That means that most of the knowledge people have of how our system works is dependent on the type of media they consume. In addition, if they are not looking for the nuances in how the systems work, they probably don’t even recognize how one system is different to another.

For example, in the 2016 presidential elections it was really hard to describe to people that President Trump didn’t win the popular vote but the electoral vote (and seems to have campaigned specifically for that win). When we tried to explain this difference to people, many of them still failed to comprehend what had happened and why it happened. This is just one of the small things that is really hard for people to grasp if they haven’t grown up with the system and, if you are not specifically looking for it, probably wouldn’t even notice the difference on the news.

Of course, we completely recognize that we all (ourselves included) learn about worldwide situations in the same way and there is not much we can do about that unless we all want to become experts on everything. What we want to convey with this point is that you should be aware that different people are coming from different places when they are talking to you about politics. In order to ensure an intelligent conversation, make sure you understand what they know about the political system and try to fill in any gaps about how the system works before getting into ideological debates.


2. The political spectrum varies around the world

Handling Political Conversations AbroadIf we are focusing on Spain and broaden the view a little bit more to the rest of Europe, you will find that people have much more “leftist/socialist/“democratic” views than in the U.S. This means that even when you are comparing the “right-wing” and “left-wing” parties, you will find that there are discrepancies in what you see between what these different extremes mean. For example, in the U.S., universal healthcare is something that is seen as very liberal, almost an extreme for many people belonging to the Republican Party. However, there are few countries in Europe where even the most right-wing party would not support healthcare for all. In Spain, it would be almost impossible (if not impossible) for the government in power to remove this right—yes, right—that Spanish people feel they have.

Therefore, our second piece of advice, before embarking on a political conversation, is to understand where the differences on the political spectrum are. Once again, you will probably have to point out to whomever you are talking with that their experience of reality is not the same as what people live in the U.S. Taking the above example of healthcare, in the U.S. many people support privatized healthcare, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. For a Spaniard, while private healthcare does exist, the idea that everyone would have to have it is much less popular. These ideological differences can make it difficult to have a discussion around the topic because it is often hard for Spaniards to comprehend something that is quite normal in the U.S. and vice-versa.

Note: In Spain, and you can read more about their political system here, please be aware that “Republicans” are the left-wing party. This has to do with the desire for the Republican independence from the king.


3. Politics Influences and is influenced by culture

Our final point that we would like you to think about is how our political system is both defined by and a defining factor of culture. In turn, the political system we grow up in shapes, to some extent, how we see the world. This can cause confusion when you go abroad because you may, unintentionally, try to line up what you see in a new country with what you are familiar with back home. However, we should be aware that most political systems are different and if you don’t truly understand a foreign political system, you will probably be erroneously interpreting how it works.

Handling Political Conversations AbroadTherefore, just like you will make an effort to get to know the local culture in a place, we highly recommend understanding the basics of the political system. Here in Spain, the political system is very different from what we are used to in the U.S. If we want to have political conversations with people (or, better said, they want to have them with us), we often have to establish what we are actually talking about before we can move forward in the discussion. By sharing and comparing the different systems we have found that it is easier to discuss politics in a reasonable way.


What have been your experiences discussing politics from your home country with people from other countries?


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