T-minus four days to T-day: Prepare now to prevent squabbles with family members
By Danielle Komis Palmer
When Jason Cassimus sits down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, he hopes to be free.
Free from negative comments, that is, from some of his conservative relatives. Now that the Calhoun Community College student’s hair is short, he won’t have to hear about his long ponytail anymore.
“They’d tell me I looked horrible,” he said. “They used to bother me a lot about it.”
Kyle Griffis of Tanner usually escapes comments on his appearance, but sometimes endures heated religious debates at his family’s Thanksgiving gatherings. It’s not something he looks forward to facing.
“People will get into it about that,” he said, shaking his head.
There’s plenty more that extended families will “get into it” about. At this time of year, we often find ourselves defending our job, beliefs or relationships in front of a firing squad of relatives who think differently than we do.
Such is the nature of modern-day families, said Larry Little, counselor and executive director of the Enrichment Center in Decatur.
“It used to be that families were by and large made up of people of the same culture and opinion,” he said. “That is just not the case anymore. Anytime you have diversification, you have a difference of opinion, which leads to conflict.”
So what’s the key to preventing your gathering from turning into a knock-down, drag-out brawl? Prepare yourself with responses to questions you know you’ll be asked. More importantly, remind yourself why you’re there.
“Family gatherings are hard for everybody,” Little said. “There’s no way around it. So go into these gatherings expecting rude comments, but remember that you’re choosing to go because you love your family. You may not always like them.”
Jane Baker, director of the Center for Attachment and Family Development in Decatur, agreed.
“Sometimes we treat family members worse than we would treat people on the street,” she said. “There’s something upside down about that.”
If you want to avoid a testy Thanksgiving dinner, read on for some common inflammatory questions and the ways to respond to keep things positive.
Red flag comment: Are you pregnant?
Shonda Bass of Decatur remembers being asked this at a family gathering. While she had gained weight, she was not carrying a child, she said. Negative comments about what you’re wearing can also be annoying or hurtful, Bass said.
How to deal: If someone makes a hurtful comment on your personal appearance, you have several options for how to deal. The first is ignoring the comment and changing the subject.
“What they’re looking for often is another response from you, but why would you do that?” Little said.
If you’re seething inside, remind yourself of your relationship with the person who said it. Is it someone whose opinion you truly respect, or is it someone you see only once a year who doesn’t really know you?
“Invalidate the comment,” Little suggested. “This person has likely not earned the right to influence this family member.”
Or, if it’s someone you feel comfortable being frank with, you might say: “That really hurt my feelings. I know you didn’t meant that,” Baker said.
Red flag comment: “Are you dating anyone?”
Paige Giles of Decatur has heard this question plenty and dreads it. “If you’re a single woman, you really don’t want to hear it on the holidays,” she said.
Jon Lancaster agreed. “For years I was asked if I had a girlfriend yet,” he said.
This year, he’s off the hook because he recently got engaged. Now, he will simply have to endure the “Have you set a date yet?” question. Which, after the marriage, leads to: “So when are you two going to have a little one?”
How to deal: This one can be handled much like the last, though in this case you have to respond. If you expect this question, prepare a response before you see your family. Something as simple as “Not right now, but I’ll let you know when I am,” is a good way to deflect it, Little said. But specific questions like that should usually be avoided by relatives.
“Family members often assume they can ask them (personal questions) because they’re family,” he said. “But you have to earn the right to bring those topics up and you earn the right by investing in their life.
“The appropriate time to really investigate is when you have time alone with them after the turkey and go for a walk ... That’s sincere. It looks insincere if you ask in a group.”
Red flag comment: “Have you been to church lately?”
If you have a well-meaning, vocal member of your family, this topic could easily come up and quickly offend. Few people share the exact same opinion on religion, so it’s easy to clash.
How to deal: Prepare a reply before the event.
“Say, ‘This is not the place. We are here because we love each other and we’re going to focus on family,’ ” Little suggested. “Those are white elephants that are in the family. Everyone knows those white elephants before the gathering. You need to have a response before you go.”
Red flag comment: “Why isn’t (insert family member) here?”
For Debra England of Moulton, this is a typical topic of contention. Because England’s son lives in Florida, she prioritizes him and his family when they’re in town. When they visit, she is usually forced to miss spending holidays with one side of the family. She worries that they are insulted, but realizes she can’t be in two places at one time.
“When we see each other after that, we just try to avoid the topic,” she said.
How to deal: Avoiding the topic or changing the subject is often the best way to go here. If you or the family member under fire alternates holiday visits fairly between families, calmly point that out and change the subject.
Lighten up conversations
While many topics should be avoided at family gatherings, plenty of good conversation starters exist.
Because Thanksgiving is a good time to express gratitude, focus on that, Baker said.
“I think really working on being thankful and being able to talk about those things,” she said. “We can always talk about what’s hurtful and dark and ugly. We have to put a little effort into the things we are thankful for and be specific about those things.”
Recounting old stories is often good entertainment for the dinner table, Little said.
“Look at the senior members at the table and talk about ‘how it was when,’ ” he said. “We have some great stories in our family that we would totally lose out on without our older members.”
Alternatively, simply talking about what everyone has been up to, recent family vacations, and movies everyone has seen lately are usually risk-free topics.
“Find conversation that is noncontroversial,” Little said. “You want to keep the topic light and it needs to be fun and it needs to be about family.”
Table Talk Landmines
Thanksgiving can mean the ideal family get-together or a day of awkward moments, uncomfortable silences and eruptions of family feuds. Here are Debra Fine’s Top 10 Conversation Landmines (from her book, “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” published by Hyperion):
1. “Are you two ever going to get married?”
2. “No, thanks. I gave up drinking after I saw the toll it took on you.”
3. “When are you two going to make me a grandmother?”
4. “Cool Whip is interesting. Did you ever think of serving the real stuff instead?”
5. “Aren’t you full yet?” or “Why aren’t you eating anything?”
6. “Yes, I know you’re a parent. But haven’t you ever thought about working?”
7. “I see you still can’t be bothered with ironing a blouse.”
8. “How is it that your son looks just like you and your daughter looks like she could be from a different family?”
9. “Did you cook this yourself, or did you just thaw it out?”
10. “Forget this poison nonsense — just spread the legs open and stuff it in, the way that I always do.”
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