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.”
A family situation. It could be a kid on drugs or an elderly parent's health or living situation, the sort of subjects that are unhappy or cause sadness or regret rather than an argument. “These aren't conflicts but could lead to one later if there's a disagreement,” Turner says.
If a problem-solving discussion is in order, it'd be preferable to delay the confab for another time. But if this holiday gathering is the only time all parties are together, “There's nothing wrong to talk about something that's problematic, like an aging relative,” Turner says.
She also says it depends on how the family has discussed such matters in the past. Is there a way they reach a consensus, or is there one member who tries to dominate? “If they have a good way to deal with problematic issues, this is a good time to bring it up.”
She also suggests making the discussion separate from the family dinner. Eat first, have that family celebration, then adjourn to the living room for the necessary conversation.
The bad relative. These are the ones who drink too much, or are loud and argumentative, and nobody likes them. Almost every family has a designated lout. If he bothers just you — his table manners offend you, he interrupts you frequently — you have two approaches, Turner says. You can build a stronger alliance with family members you do get along with (a de facto support group) or you can take the high road, overlook this person's behavior and remember that you are there to celebrate the holiday and support the family as a whole. On the other hand, if this ne'er-do-well is making the day miserable for everyone, not just you, stronger actions may be required.
“Unfortunately, there are people who are very toxic and whose presence can be harmful, and they just have to be removed,” Turner says. “If someone is a drug addict or alcoholic and is acting out, they have to be removed, and you can try to get them some help. But there's nothing you can do at the scene.
“Use ‘I' messages — ‘I'm concerned about you' — but you have to remove them from the scene. That's an absolute last resort, but it does happen.”
Opening gifts. When? Before the meal? After? Everybody opens presents all at once or one at a time? There's often no way to make everybody happy. The key is making sure everybody thinks they've been heard, and that may be enough to head off problems. Long term, Turner says, maybe do it one way one year, then the other way the next. “Or sometimes you can come up with an entirely different way, and that can become the tradition.”
It's also important to communicate in advance so people are prepared for the discussion and don't have a big blowup on the scene.
Religion. Like politics, religion can be a difficult topic for some families. Maybe one member has converted to another religion and wants to convert everyone else, or one person has deeply held beliefs that others try to question, or somebody marries outside the religion. There are many opportunities for discord. Turner says that, again, the best thing to do is agree to disagree and not use the holiday dinner table as a place to argue over them. Remember that it's one dinner and not a place to bring up these disagreements.
Tiger takes a light approach.
“There's always some moment in family get-togethers where somebody drops a bomb,” she says. “We're all holding our breath, waiting to see how everyone reacts. I think a good way might be to make light of it, make a joke. Bring a breezy, humorous tone to it and shift gears and get to the next subject. I think that is always a good strategy, lightening things up. Or just, ‘So, who needs another eggnog?'”