Voting and Disclosing: The How-to's of Responding to Political Questions

04/06/2016 12:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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The race to the U.S. Presidency has stirred global conversation and the November 2016 election is still seven months away. While traveling for business and pleasure through Australia in February this year, my husband John and I were asked first, where we were from, and then political questions about our presidential primaries and the personalities involved. With our U.S. primaries making headlines worldwide, political conversations are inevitable. So what's the best way to respond when someone asks you, "Who are you going to vote for?" What do you say when asked, "What's your view about this issue or this proposed legislation?"

Do you freeze up like a deer in the headlights when confronted with political questions? How do you respond graciously, whether you are in a cross-cultural encounter or in a domestic conversation?

Remember that respect is universally understood:
When you are asked a political question in the U.S., or another culture, it is important to show respect for different customs, including what makes each culture unique. Our cultural conditioning has a deep impact, and yet we all understand and recognize respect.

Across the globe, the decorum of asking and answering personal questions can vary greatly. In Russia, questions about salary are standard. Just as in China, questions about your work title and history are common. Be prepared for this question in cultures where open discussion about politics is welcome- for example, Australia.

How to exercise your right to remain silent, keeping your views private:
Keeping your opinion to yourself can be difficult, however privacy is possible. Say something like, "In the midst of such a contentious political season, I feel it's best to keep my opinion to myself. I do appreciate your interest and wish you the best in your political decisions."

By acknowledging and thanking them for their genuine interest, you are able to defer a sticky political conversation, while keeping your views private.

How to respond graciously when faced with a persistent questioner:
If they are persistent and continue asking for your opinion, you can play the undecided card and change the subject. "I'm still evaluating all the candidates or all the issues and haven't made up my mind yet. It will be interesting to see how it plays out."

Then segue to another topic. Inquire about something meaningful, such as: "I hear your daughter was accepted to Ohio State, and your son to the University of Texas. Congratulations!" "Great job on closing that account. How did you do it?" "Tell me about your trip to the mountains a few weeks ago. I hear it is beautiful this time of year."

How to respond and engage in respectful conversation:
Political conversations may be taboo in your workplace, and the conversation starter in your social circles. However, you must know your audience before engaging. When thinking of engaging in these conversations, remember that research has shown increased political conversation (even online) is associated with greater political action. Therefore answering these political questions can actually make you a cheerleader for democracy!

Expressing your beliefs can be done in a way that is not destined for a political brawl. For example, citing research and concrete reasons why your views align a certain way, will encourage more of an intellectual conversation than a possible war of opinions.

Just as you want to express your beliefs, be courteous and let the person you are speaking to express his or her beliefs, even if you disagree.

How to reconcile conflicting beliefs:
It's inevitable that disagreements will arise, but when they do, handle them with grace, dignity and respect. For example: "That's an interesting way to look at it and you bring up some valid points; however, I feel that..." Never raise your voice, show anger, abruptly walk away or make it personal.

How to handle yourself, either way:
Whether you decide to respond or not, be tactful, polite, and remember that educated responses will help you either to cordially engage, or graciously decline whenever these inevitable conversations cross your path. An example would be "I am basing my political decision at this point in time on research results from Huffington Post that shows..."

It's all about finding a balance:
Take time to self-assess your comfort level. Be authentic and make an informed decision about how you wish to respond to political questions. Find a balance that makes you comfortable and stay the course, so you "don't change horses in midstream" as we say in Texas!

Your feedback is welcome. Please share your ideas about how to respond graciously when someone asks you how you plan to vote.

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural consultant, an international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. She is accredited in intercultural management, is a regular on-air contributor and has been quoted by BBC Capital, Investor's Business Daily, Fortune, Inc., The New York Times, The Vancouver Sun, The Bangkok Post and numerous other media. She is the best-selling, international award-winning author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, which was named to the Best Books of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews.