Pass the Potato Salad, but Hold the Opinions

This weekend people will gather, in state-approved group numbers, to celebrate our nation’s Independence.  Some community events may still happen as usual while others may be cancelled this year.  But one celebration likely to happen regardless is the Fourth of July backyard cookout.  You know the one where family and friends come with bowls of potato salad, baked beans and slices of watermelon.  Someone stands over the grill flipping burgers and dogs while people catch up with one another and pretend like the heat is bearable.  Pitchers of lemonade stand by waiting to cool and refresh the hot and thirsty clan.

In a normal year, people may talk about their children, house projects, work issues, upcoming vacations or the Little League standings.  However, this is 2020 and we all know that it hasn’t been a normal year.  Conversations this year might turn toward any number of divisive issues:  election year politics, racial riots, coronavirus restrictions, virtual schooling, or money matters.  These all have the potential to produce fireworks!  (And I don’t mean the pretty kind we watch from lawn chairs at the baseball field.)  So what is a person to do?

Recent research shows that U.S. Army soldiers deployed in a combat scenario in Afghanistan in 2012 were most likely to be protected from depression, suicidal thoughts and PTSD when they perceived a tight-knit horizontal peer-oriented cohesion.  The protective factor of the cohesion seems to extend into the post-deployment stage as well for the soldiers in the study.  In other words, when the soldiers banded together for a common cause the result was better mental health for all involved even for months and years down the road.  Furthermore, soldiers who perceived support from their superiors and commanding officers were also more likely to be protected from stressors leading to depression and suicidal thoughts both while in combat and post-deployment.  (Campbell-Sills, et. al. 2020).

So this is good news for those soldiers who had unified combat units!  But what does it have to do with the backyard cookout on the Fourth of July?  With 2020’s headlines, the potential for interpersonal combat is lurking near the surface of so many interactions and conversations.  Many families have people with strong opinions leaning one way or the other.  (This may be an understatement for some families!)  In a normal year, some friendly debate and banter might be fun and even build family cohesion while you hash out opinions over baseball teams or light political talk.  However this year, the potential for explosion feels higher than normal.  Public tension is high.  Media is feeding the frenzy on all sides.  A wrong word or untimely opinion might set the fireworks in motion!

So what lesson can be learned from the study on the soldiers?  Respect the situation and focus on building unity and support. 

People have willingly and likely eagerly come out of hibernation to join the family cookout.  It is a wonderful thing to remember the freedoms we do enjoy in our nation, especially after a season of quarantine and restrictions.  Let that be enough.  There will be time later for debate and banter.  The tension isn’t likely to recede for months.  On this one unique American holiday let the gathering itself be sufficient.  Focus on supporting and building unity in your little family huddle.  Speak words that will encourage and exhort.  Play baseball in the front yard.  Compliment Aunt Mary on her apple pie.  Wave some sparklers with the kids.  But whatever you do, remember the reason you showed up in the first place.  To be with your people.

The benefits of coming together for a common cause will far outweigh getting to speak your mind.  Of course you have the right to your opinion and thoughts.  But of all the personal freedoms we do have perhaps the greatest of all is the freedom to discern when to speak.  You don’t have to say everything that comes into your mind.  Additionally, as the soldier study shows, the benefits of building unity won’t last through the afternoon and into the evening, but likely for weeks and months down the road.  Let the Fourth of July be a time we can build solid memories with those we love.  So while you are building the perfect burger, remember you are also building more than that—unit cohesion.

Pass the potato salad, but hold the opinions please.



Campbell-Sills L, Flynn PJ, Choi KW, et al. Unit cohesion during deployment and post-deployment mental health: is cohesion an individual- or unit-level buffer for combat-exposed soldiers? [published online ahead of print, 2020 Jun 10]. Psychol Med. 2020;1-11. doi:10.1017/S0033291720001786