How to survive awkward family conversations over the holidays
Many of us dread all the annoying questions or awkward scenarios when our families get together during the holidays.
But being direct and firm can help people overcome some of these situations, said Jamie Gruman, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph. He also warned that people can develop “social allergies” to family during the holidays.
“Annoying little habits that your friends and relatives engage in that drive you crazy” cause these social allergies to flare up, he told CTV Kitchener.
Examples can include your dad wiping his mouth with his sleeve or an aunt who drones on and on.
But being direct but polite will help to get your point across, Gruman said. He reminds people that older relatives sometimes just need to feel validated or appreciated, and a little effort goes a long way. But if this fails, he suggests to “arrive late and leave early” to minimize exposure to these behaviours.
But when you're the one hosting a party, author and etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau told CTV’s Your Morning there are several ways to avoid guests who could overstay their welcome.
She suggests you do this in steps and think of it as a gradual process to let them take the hint.
“You take them from the dining room, to the living room. The lights go up. The music goes down,” she said. Blais Comeau suggested asking your guests things like: “Would anybody like coffee? Is it time for maybe to call for Uber or taxi?”
To avoid going through a whole song and dance, Blais Comeau suggests even putting an end date on the invitations. And as a guest, she said to be mindful as to how long you’ve been there after dinner has ended.
Aimee Hartstein, a psychologist and licenced clinical social worker in New York told CTVNews.ca people can survive the holidays if they stop expecting them to go as smoothly as they look on Instagram or Facebook.
“No one’s holidays are perfect - there are family spats, disappointments, burnt food - if you don’t go in with expectations of perfections, then you’re more likely to be satisfied,” she said in a phone interview.
She stressed that “holidays are about connecting and spending time with friends and family” and “if you prioritize that then you really can’t go wrong.”
She’s counselled patients with anxiety, parenting and relationship issues and answered some of people’s burning questions.
The following interview has been edited down for clarity.
1) Should you bring up politics? What if relatives bring it up?
Unfortunately it feels like the time of civil, political discourse has passed … while I’m generally a big believer in open discourse, I am now suggesting that families with a big political divide avoid politics. If your uncle brings up how great the border wall is going to be when it’s built and you think it’s a racist travesty, I advise you to smoothly and seamlessly change the subject!
There are still many conversational topics left that people can agree on, so during the holidays, it’s a great idea to focus on them. Conservative and liberal family members may disagree violently about politics, but agree on other subjects such as food, family, and shared history. Do your best to steer the conversation away from inflammatory subjects towards subjects where you all have common ground.
2) How can you deal with a relative judging your lifestyle?
Be firm and direct. It’s not necessary to fib and make it seem like you are living a different life than you actually are, but it’s also not worth it to throw anything in their face either. If an older, more conservative relative tells you that you should be making different life choices, firmly and gently tell them that you are happy with the choices that you are living with.
The world has changed, and people have many more options nowadays and are more free to make choices and decisions that are true to who they are. You can also point out that while your lifestyle might seem unorthodox to them, your values aren’t necessarily so different. Everyone is still looking for love and connection - it just might look different from how it looked in their day.
3) How can you deal with immature younger siblings?
Don’t get sucked in! No one can annoy us quite like our siblings. You may be correct that they are acting inappropriately but chances are they aren’t bothering anyone else as much as they are bothering you.
4) How can you avoid awkwardness if you're bringing home a new boyfriend or girlfriend?
I think that the same rules apply for any sort of good first impression that you hope to make. Be polite, look people in the eye, and try not to be provocative. If everyone is trying to have a nice event, there shouldn’t be too much awkwardness. However, if the worst happens and a touchy subject gets inflamed, it’s always worth it to go back afterwards and try to smooth it over. If you and your partner are serious, it helps to have parents on your side.
5) None of the main dishes are vegetarian or vegan, how can you avoid this?
Stick to your guns and be polite. If you are vegan or have any sort of dietary requirements, let the host know ahead of time and offer to bring something that you know you can eat.
Comeau agreed saying that the reverse is also true when you’re the one hosting something make sure to ask guests, “is there anything that we should be aware of to make you comfortable while you’re with us?”
6) What if you don’t believe in the same religious traditions as your family and they invite you to church, synagogue or a mosque?
Don’t feel like you have to go along with a religious ceremony that you don’t believe in. Offer to stay home and help with the food or watch children who aren’t going. Or just let everyone know that you’ll be napping, taking a walk, working - as long as you are polite and stand your ground, you should feel free to make your own choices.
7) Funds are tight, how can you say you might not be able to get everyone a gift?
One nice way to handle this is to get a small token and write a nice note. There are many inexpensive teas or chocolates that make a nice gift. If even something small is out of your price range, then just send the nice note. I’m not sure that funds even need to be mentioned directly.