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.
“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.”
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:
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.”
Ah, the family dynamic at its worst. 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.
Sensitive family topics
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 they open 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,” says Caroline Tiger, author of “How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners.” “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.”
The bad relative
They drink too much, they’re loud and argumentative, and nobody likes them. Almost every family has a designated lout.
If he bothers just you, 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.
“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,” Turner says.
Like politics, it can be another 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. 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 it’s one dinner and not a place to bring up these disagreements.