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.
‚ÄúWhen family comes together it can be a crucible for conflicts and problems,‚ÄĚ says Lynn Turner, author of ‚ÄúPerspectives on Family Communication‚ÄĚ and a professor of communication studies at Marquette University. ‚ÄúProbably one of the biggest reasons is our expectations for a family gathering are always so high, we‚Äôre bound to be disappointed. These Hallmark visions of how these things are supposed to be bump up against the reality of our families.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúEverywhere you look, starting in October, you see perfect families having perfect holidays,‚ÄĚ says Caroline Tiger, author of ‚ÄúHow to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners‚ÄĚ (Quirk). ‚ÄúSo I think there‚Äôs the pressure of that hanging over everyone. And there‚Äôs 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.‚ÄĚ
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 ‚ÄĒ whether it‚Äôs about the election, a loan that has gone unpaid or something more personal (‚ÄúMom always liked you best‚ÄĚ) ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs best to just walk away, Turner says.
‚ÄúI think in some situations, with family members you seldom see, it‚Äôs best to take a deep breath, count to 10, rehearse a phrase ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄėWell, that‚Äôs interesting‚Äô or ‚ÄėEverybody is entitled to an opinion.‚Äô Pre-thinking situations is sometimes helpful.‚ÄĚ
Also, rehearse little things to tell yourself: ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs older, he‚Äôs not going to change his mind‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúeveryone can have an opinion‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúthe election is over.‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúSometimes 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.‚ÄĚ
If you still end up seated where you don‚Äôt want to be, Turner says, try to rise above it and focus on what the point of the gathering is: enjoying the family. ‚ÄúIf everybody keeps that in mind ‚ÄĒ we‚Äôre gathering for enjoyment, or if it‚Äôs a religious family, we‚Äôre here for a religious holiday ‚ÄĒ that can be helpful.‚ÄĚ
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 they open the door to discussion, go ahead. Just be cautious how you talk about it.
‚ÄúI imagine there‚Äôs a lot more to talk to that person about than their state of employment or unemployment,‚ÄĚ Tiger says. ‚ÄúSo I‚Äôd 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‚Äôve seen. Anything you have in common or in pop culture that isn‚Äôt that thorny subject.‚ÄĚ
A family situation: It could be a kid on drugs or an elderly parent‚Äôs health or living situation, the sort of subjects that are unhappy or cause sadness or regret rather than an argument. ‚ÄúThese aren‚Äôt conflicts but could lead to one later if there‚Äôs a disagreement,‚ÄĚ Turner says.
If a problem-solving discussion is in order, it‚Äôd be preferable to delay the confab for another time. But if this holiday gathering is the only time all parties are together, ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs nothing wrong to talk about something that‚Äôs problematic, like an aging relative,‚ÄĚ 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? ‚ÄúIf they have a good way to deal with problematic issues, this is a good time to bring it up.‚ÄĚ 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: They drink too much, they‚Äôre loud and argumentative, and nobody likes them. Almost every family has a designated lout. If they bother just you ‚ÄĒ their table manners offend you, they interrupts you frequently ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôer-do-well is making the day miserable for everyone, not just you, stronger actions may be required.
Opening gifts: When? Before the meal? After? Everybody opens presents all in once or one at a time? There‚Äôs often no way to make everybody happy. The key is making sure everybody thinks they‚Äôve 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. ‚ÄúOr sometimes you can come up with an entirely different way, and that can become the tradition.‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs also important to communicate in advance so people are prepared for the discussion and don‚Äôt have a big blow-up on the scene.
Religion: 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, 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 it‚Äôs one dinner and not a place to bring up these disagreements.
Tiger takes a light approach.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs always some moment in family get-togethers where somebody drops a bomb,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre 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, ‚ÄėSo, who needs another eggnog?‚Äô‚ÄĚ
¬©2012 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by MCT Information Services