Various media have reported how much Brexit has emotionally affected people and divided the nation and families. Is there anything that each of us can do to help bridge the gap? This article aims to suggest some pointers in that direction. (If you are closer to the Leave camp, you might want to start reading from the picture of the chocolate cake below).
Let’s imagine your name is David and you voted Remain. Although you would not admit it, when you learned the results on that Friday morning 24th of June 2016, you actually cried. This is not the Britain you know! Your first thought is “how can people be so stupid”? You swear and laugh at Nigel Farage appearing on TV to distance himself from the promise of 350 million GBP contribution being spent on the NHS. You are sad and upset, you call few friends, email few others and check Facebook. Every one of your friends agree: “they have taken our country from us”, “I’m ashamed to be English” and “who are these short-sighted idiots?” You spend your day googling the news and signing the petition to repeat the referendum. You continue these discussions over a drink (or two) on Friday night.
On Saturday, you wake up with a physiological and mental hangover. “So this is Brexit. And what have you done” sings John Lennon on the radio or that is what you distinctly hear. You reach for your phone to call your friends … and then you realize - you promised to have lunch with your grandmother. You know she has voted Leave. What do you do?
Option 1 - You do not go, because you just cannot face her. Avoiding is not a bad strategy, right? Well, that might be a good solution for your mental health, but not great for family relationships. And it just sounds like being a coward. And a bad loser on top of that. And you actually really like your grandmother, not to mention her chicken Kiev, which she always prepares specially for you.
Option 2 - You go and explain to her why she is wrong and why you are right. You prove to her that Nigel Farage manipulated her and blatantly lied. That Turkey is not going to be part of the EU tomorrow, as Daily Mail tried to convince her. That her holiday trip to Italy will be more expensive now, and rightly so - it is all her fault. That her other grandson Simon might not be able to go to an Erasmus program as you did. That her repair jobs might become much more expensive now that she complicated she life of Grzegorz, her favorite Polish builder? That the only people laughing now are Nigel Farage and Vladimir Putin. What was she thinking? How can she have been so gullible? Before dessert, she will agree with you, admit that she was wrong, apologize, repent and give you a extra portion of chocolate cake to take home.
From your point of view, you see Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage as scammers preying on your elderly granny and selling her some useless insurance contract. You will just uncover the scam et voila! Unfortunately, as Anthony Pratkanis has shown in studies of scammers preying on their elderly targets, “a lecture just makes the victim feel more defensive and pushes him or her further into the clutches of the fraud criminal” (1) This is linked to the theory of cognitive dissonance, in which we strive for internal consistency - the “already embarassed victim will withdraw further into themselves and clam up, refusing to tell anyone what they are doing”. So you will have inadvertently reinforced your grandmother’s views and made her even more likely to vote Leave in the repeated referendum (which you are still hoping for).
Option 3 - So what can you do? Instead of trying to convince your grandma, you could actually ask her questions. And not questions like “How could you possibly have believed that creep?" but rather: “Tell me what appealed to you about Leave?”. The whole “trick” is that rather than making her feel stupid and gullible, you want to make her feel respected and supported.
Why is listening to your grandmother and genuinely trying to understand her point of view so difficult for most of us? Let’s admit it, we are better at talking then at listening. Empathy is hard work. Most of us also really enjoy being right and to point out other people’s errors.
Why would you bother to listen to your grandma? Because she is your grandmother and cooks well. Also because you might be the person who will finally hear out her frustration with life, the queue at the NHS, the noisy Romanian neighbor, her unruly dog and the Archers (which have changed so much recently). Which in turn might make it just tiny bit less probable that she would vote for Nigel Farage next time or maybe not. But at least you have not made things worse. And maybe the British society could be a tiny bit less divided after such a discussion. And you might still get your double portion of chocolate cake to take home.
Let’s imagine your name is Sheila and you voted Leave. You wake up on a Friday morning to walk the dog and are surprised to hear the news on the radio - Britain is leaving the EU. You did not really expect this to happen, but now that it has, well done, Britain. You will have your country and control back. You are slightly taken aback by Nigel Farage on the news saying that the 350 million promised to NHS will not go to NHS and by David Cameron resigning.
Your friends are coming over for tea this afternoon, and while this is not exactly a celebration, the mood is pretty good. You share your worries about the cost of your holiday in Italy, now that the pound is down, but your friends reassure you that it will go up again. You laugh at the money really rich people will lose over this - billions probably. Your friend Susan is angry at the plotters who want overrrule the referendum - the people signing the petition, Nicola Sturgeon and the EU bureaucrats. Such bad losers! If it were the other way round, they would be celebrating and gloating …
When everybody leaves, you realize your favorite grandson David is coming over for lunch tomorrow. Not only you have to prepare Chicken Kiev and make a chocolate cake, but what will you say to him?
Option 1 - you can cancel lunch and pretend that your leg is in pain. But you really like David, he does not come to see you that often and it sounds cowardly.
Option 2 - you will explain to him why you are right and he is, or rather was, wrong on Brexit. As your now late husband used to say, you can be pretty convincing when things matter to you. Anyway, you still cannot understand how David, such a logical boy, can not see why Britain would be better of on its own. Surely, all the predictions of terrible things that will happen in Britain after Brexit were said just to scare people. David will understand your arguments, wish he had voted Leave too and give you a compliment on your food.
Unfortunately, as Anthony Pratkanis has shown in studies on scammers preying on their elderly targets (which in your book David Cameron or all these experts are very similar to, and David is not elderly, but young people can be very gullible too) “a lecture just makes the victim feel more defensive and pushes him or her further into the clutches of the fraud criminal” ) Etc. Etc. See above.
Option 3 - Yes, listen, listen, listen. Empathize. Seek not to judge, but to understand his young, unexperienced mind. Ask him: “What appeals to you about Remain?” and genuinely listen what he has to say. Why? Because he is your grandson. And it might be slightly less probable next time that he would be manipulated by those experts. Or maybe not, but at least you have not made things worse. And maybe the British society could be a tiny bit less divided after such a discussion. And you might still be able to cook him Chicken Kiev next year or the year after.
You start cooking and you put on your favorite record, although it is only June …
So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young
Eva Blechová, July 3rd, 2016
(1) As quoted in Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me. Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts, Pinter and Martin, 2013 (more about this book here)