The holidays are a time when families travel hundreds of miles to get together and share their love for each other, exclaim over how the kids have grown and tell everyone over forty that they haven’t aged a day. It is a warm, caring experience for at least 2 out of every 10 families. For the other eight, there will be political shouting matches, failed attempts at religious conversion, crass nosiness, and unsought suggestions on clothes, makeup, hair, weight gain, piercings, and career advancement.To travel the minefield of family secrets, rude relatives and toxic topics of conversation requires tact, kindness, restraint and a good sense of humor. Here are ten suggestions on holiday communication skills that will help to avoid hurt feelings, yelled insults, abrupt departures and an occasional fistfight.
1) If Uncle Jeb makes a political pronouncement that makes you yearn to respond with withering sarcasm, count to ten and think of the kindest thing he has ever done. If you can’t think of anything, be thankful that Christmas comes but once a year, keep your mouth shut and say, “That’s an interesting point, but I want to hear about your trip to Branson, Missouri.”
2) If an unmarried aunt asks when you are going to find a mate, say, “I want to be just like you – an unclaimed treasure.”
3) If someone gives you a present that you loathe, smile and lie truthfully. Say “I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life!” Follow that with a big hug. It’s hard to gnash your teeth while hugging.
4) If you just moved in with your significant other and the family doesn’t know it, choose the time of your co-habitation announcement carefully. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to learn that you bought a king-sized bed for your one room apartment, but not while the kids are opening presents.
5) If you come from a family where major ethnic groups are called by offensive names, a large group is not the place to educate the bigoted – even though a dramatic stand at the dinner table would be gratifying. Remember that you are not on reality TV. A private conversation is the best place to explain your strong personal aversion to racial epithets, sexist language or homophobia. You are trying to educate, not embarrass. This means having no audience, no raised voices and seeking dialogue rather than a rant. You have a good 3.5% chance of changing your relative’s opinion, but go for it.
6) If there is a relative who can’t stand small talk, ask him a question about his favorite subject and then really listen to him and ask occasional follow up questions. He’ll think you are a brilliant conversationalist and may give you a present next year.
7) Never offer unsolicited child-rearing suggestions to siblings, even if precious Little Johnny is a mean-spirited hellion that jumped in your dad’s aquarium.
8) If great-grandad wants to tell the story of how he got a scar on his buttocks in the Korean War, a tale you have memorized over the years, let him tell it and enjoy the telling while you can.
9) Don’t use your mental calculator to total up the value of the gifts you gave compared to the gifts you received. Grandma’s house is not a trading floor on Wall Street. Okay, some of your relatives are cheap and others missed the good taste gene. If your step-mother, who never really appreciated your finer points, gives you a fragrance from the Dollar Store, exclaim, “I love perfume for the proletariat.” Then watch her check the dictionary on her smartphone.
10) Learn a quick retreat to safe topics. God made the weather to give families a conversational haven. And the Deity knew what She was doing. (If you just had a negative reaction to “She” — now is a good time to start practicing tolerance for the holidays.)
Most of us come from good families whose taste and opinions may differ from our own. That is not a reason to argue, judge or dredge up ancient resentments. Instead, dust off well-worn memories, talk about good times, share funny stories, and remember kindnesses given and received. If we refuse to engage in debates, manage to dodge dangerous subjects and focus on the best in each other, Christmas really can be merry.