Nicola Prentis is an award-winning educational materials author and freelance writer based in Spain, for as long as Brexit allows. The views expressed are her own.
Rachel* normally looks forward to going home for Thanksgiving.
But this year, the 32-year-old marketing consultant from New York feels conflicted. The reason? Her mom and family all voted for Donald Trump. She didn't.
“My family tends to be the polite sort, and politics hardly ever come up,” she said. “They know that I'm a liberal; I know that they're all conservative, and we co-exist. But this time seems different. It's personal.”
Although I'm British, I can sympathize. I woke up on June 24 to the unexpected result that Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Polls showed a huge divide between generations, with 73% of voters under 24 and 62% of those between 25 and 34 voting to remain in the E.U. while, on average, 55% of those over 44 voted for Brexit. Age might have been less of a deciding factor in the U.S. presidential election, but no matter what the factors, this election has left many feeling like the United States is deeply divided. And plenty of Americans are about to share a Thanksgiving meal — and table — with parents, grandparents, siblings, or other relatives with different views, and are just waiting for that snarky remark that throws off the whole peaceful family vibe.
Like other "remain" supporters, I've gone through shock, grief, and fury, some of it aimed at friends and family who voted the other way. Our referendum result, and the issues of race and immigration it has stirred up, has divided generations, friends, and families. When I started interviewing people for this article, it was sad to hear stories from home of people who have stopped speaking to some of their relatives. In some cases, the ax has even fallen on sibling relationships. But Brexit survivors show there are ways to get through family events like Thanksgiving — and while it might be hard to feel wholly thankful, it is at least possible to share a meal with loved ones.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Brits chose to avoid the topic altogether by implicitly choosing not to speak about it.
Hayley, a 33-year-old writer, found herself "very angry" with her aunt for voting "leave."
"I live in Europe, but when I last visited the U.K., I didn't want it to damage our relationship for the long term," Hayley said. "I think she felt the same because we didn't talk about it, not once. Sometimes things are better left unsaid, if only for the sake of one occasion."
Others had to openly agree to drop the matter.
"We had family members who admitted they didn't think their vote would count so had voted out and were embarrassed by the result, and others that were proud of their 'leave' vote," Hannah, 22, a receptionist, told me. "Our side of the family had voted to remain, and the bickering was so bad, we were disinvited from their houses. We all had to agree to ban the topic until things had settled down."
Not bringing it up at all might avoid conflict, but it's also a lost opportunity to understand. Jenny, a 22-year-old student, didn't voice her feelings when she visited her dad and grandparents only a few days after the referendum result.
"It was still raw, and I was really angry with them so I was very passive about it. I still think that was the right thing to do because arguing wasn't going to change the result," she said. "But, on the other hand, if I'd been calmer, I could have brought it up neutrally just to see what their justifications were and to try to understand it from the other side rather than assuming it was down to bigotry and being misled by the media."
Others who opted to air the subject, found a way to reach a common agreement despite their differing politics. "I voted 'remain' and so did one of my younger brothers," Susie, 28, a teacher, explained. "But both my parents voted to leave. We had many heated debates over the dinner table, and the biggest issue my family 'leavers' had was the assumption on social media that everyone who voted 'leave' was an uneducated racist. That actually helped us all agree on something. We all knew my parents aren't uneducated racists and we were all able to try and understand why the other voted the way they did."
It's unearthing the prejudice of relatives that can cause the biggest rifts, not necessarily the election results themselves. "My girlfriend's mum voted 'leave,'" Susie added. "But then she also made a sweeping statement about Muslims, and that caused an argument. My girlfriend ended up walking out. Her mum [immigrated] to the U.K. herself so a lot of her arguments didn't make sense."
Those on the "winning" side can help smooth things over.
"We talked about it at a dinner with my mum and dad when I was back in England. My dad never actually said, 'I voted out,' but I know he did," Emma, a 30-year-old editor who lives in Spain, said. "It was a bit awkward because I live in Spain and, clearly, leaving the E.U. could affect my life in a way it may not affect his. But he let me talk because I was upset about the result. He's not always that good at listening to opposite views, so the fact he was fairly quiet and restrained about it was unusual and it helped defuse the uncomfortable atmosphere."
For me, not mentioning the referendum wasn't an option. It was too important to pretend it hadn’t happened, partly because I live in the E.U. and my future is looking very uncertain. But mainly because I felt like the country I was from had died. I knew, as soon as the result came out, that there would be an upswing in racist, xenophobic attacks, and there has been. I barely recognize England now. Any conversation about the referendum, or the aftermath, makes me furious. But I've managed to let go of the anger I had toward the relatives that voted out of Europe by reminding myself that their votes alone didn't tip the balance.
I'm still angry, but I know exactly who to direct it at: the politicians who lied and spread hate to further their own careers. Fortunately, I don't have to sit down and eat with any of them.
*Subjects' last names have been withheld to protect their anonymity.