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Peace on Earth — and maybe even at the family holiday table

Family get-togethers this time of year can be warm and enriching, or they can be tense and stomach-churning. They are the perfect setting for internecine warfare.
By William Hageman Modified: December 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm •  Published: December 20, 2012

Nothing says the holidays like Uncle Lou sitting in a corner, grousing about the economy or his cable bill or the lack of gravy at his end of the table during dinner.

Family get-togethers this time of year can be warm and enriching, or they can be tense and stomach-churning. They are the perfect setting for internecine warfare.

“When family comes together it can be a crucible for conflicts and problems,” says Lynn Turner, author of “Perspectives on Family Communication” and a professor of communication studies at Marquette University. “Probably one of the biggest reasons is our expectations for a family gathering are always so high, we're bound to be disappointed. These Hallmark visions of how these things are supposed to be bump up against the reality of our families.”

“Everywhere you look, starting in October, you see perfect families having perfect holidays,” says Caroline Tiger, author of “How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners” (Quirk). “So I think there's the pressure of that hanging over everyone. And there's the baggage of all the holidays in the past: memories of a family member saying something rude, or another family member insulting the boyfriend you brought.”

Family means interdependence, and whenever you have that closeness, conditions are ripe for conflict or, conversely, for positive interaction.

Turner says that personal conflicts between two or more members of the family — whether it's about the election, a loan that has gone unpaid or something more personal (“Mom always liked you best”) — are best removed from the dinner setting and left to be discussed at a later time.

But conflicts will always arise. Here are several all-too-familiar scenarios.

Politics. The election is over, but the venom still flows. Americans are taught to get everything out in the open, but that is not a recipe for holiday cheer. Sometimes it's best to just walk away, Turner says.

“I think in some situations, with family members you seldom see, it's best to take a deep breath, count to 10, rehearse a phrase: ‘Well, that's interesting' or ‘Everybody is entitled to an opinion.' Pre-thinking situations is sometimes helpful.”

Also, rehearse little things to tell yourself: “He's older, he's not going to change his mind” or “Everyone can have an opinion” or “the election is over.” Whatever it takes to defuse your inner turmoil.

Seating arrangements. Ah, the family dynamic at its worst. Do I get what I want? Who can tell me what to do and where to sit? Why am I at the kids table? Turner suggests discussing who sits by whom with other members of the family, and not have one person in charge. “Sometimes families will shift, have dessert in a different (seating) configuration, later. Maybe the younger people make the place cards and set up the arrangements; that can help.”

If you still end up seated where you don't want to be, Turner says, try to rise above it and focus on what the point of the gathering is: enjoying the family. “If everybody keeps that in mind — we're gathering for enjoyment, or if it's a religious family, we're here for a religious holiday — that can be helpful.”

The unemployed relative (or any sensitive topic). The best way to deal with these areas is to take your lead from the affected person. If the person wants to talk and brings it up, if he or she opens the door to discussion, go ahead. Just be cautious how you talk about it. If a person does not mention his or her eating disorder, leave it alone.

“I imagine there's a lot more to talk to that person about than their state of employment or unemployment,” Tiger says. “So I'd make conversation about anything else, whatever they want to talk about. The football game on TV, your kids, their kids, a funny TV show you've seen. Anything you have in common or in pop culture that isn't that thorny subject.”

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