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How to Navigate the Awkward Family Gathering Without Losing Your Turkey Giblets

By Dr. Jen Sincore Gallagher

Happy Holiday Season! It is the time of turkey, pumpkin spice, and the emotional dance of simultaneously welcoming and dreading family gatherings.

Families are complicated. Family gatherings amidst the pressures of a hellacious 2020 and anticipatory anxieties of sociopolitical unknowns — likely super complicated.

In the absence of a magic wand guaranteeing that everyone feels particularly thankful for each other’s input — here are some strategies that may help this season to feel more tolerable:

Proactive partnership

Identify a family member or friend who will be in attendance that you can proactively form a supportive alliance with. Tag team with each other as physical and emotional buffers. Sit next to each other at the table, come up with subtle nonverbal cues to assist each other if stuck in an unpleasant conversation, and give each other mini pep talks as needed.

Create some structure

You know how throwing a bunch of toddlers into a room with no direction in entertaining themselves is a likely recipe for chaos? As adults, we can function basically as glorified toddlers — with too little structure, things can get messy pretty quickly.

If you are hosting an event, consider setting some ground rules and making them known by both displaying them as part of your décor and verbally (albeit lightheartedly) drawing attention to the rules either before or as people arrive. 

For example, “check your coat and your politics at the door.” 

Otherwise, a structure that both promotes cohesion and emphasizes connectivity (as a means to prevent those dreaded “NO YOU ARE WRONG” standoffs) can be created via shared experiences or shared goals. 

Shared experiences can be novel:

  • New food items
  • New board games

Or the old reliables:

  • Nostalgic holiday movies 

Shared goals can be:

  • Team-based video games
  • Board games
  • Crafts
  • Or even food prep

Swerve the subject

Ok, so you did your best to lay out ground rules and set up structure — and now people are getting heated about “fake news.” Think of a few topics ahead of time that can be used to shift the conversation away from less comfortable subjects. Try to keep these topics/questions open-ended! 

Expand upon “how is work” by asking “tell me more about your most recent project.” Have a few back-pocket questions ready prior to arrival — the prep work can be well worth it. 

If you don’t love being the center of attention you could redirect the focus by asking, “How about you? Tell me more about (insert personalized topic — e.g., recent job change, move, promotion, puppy).”

Take a time out

Need a break? That’s totally fine! There are subtle, strategic ways to do so. 

  • Offer to help prep food or tables
  • Clear plates
  • Refill drinks

It gets you out of the conversation with the ancillary benefit of appearing prosocial. 

Want to take a full break from the house? The family dog can be your best friend for this — offer to take the pup for a walk and attribute the length of time spent outside to ensuring that Fido had adequate time to relieve himself. 

If all else fails — there is always the extended pee break (even if you do not actually have to pee).

Want a fun game to keep you distracted and entertained throughout your awkward family gathering?

Dr. Jen created a fun BINGO game just for you. With squares like, “someone gets offended,” or someone says “mask or no mask,” you’ll enjoy the awkward gathering much more with the Awkward Family Gathering BINGO game.

Clarify your objective

There is no single approach that universally meets the needs of every situation. Often, we find ourselves knee-jerk reacting to an immediate situation and then finding that our response felt good at the time but was ultimately incongruent with the overall objective.

For example, you might have a family member whose commentary on social justice issues you find to be particularly insufferable — and you might have a strong zinger as a response when feeling quite annoyed. You launch it and it succeeds in shutting them down — but now your favorite aunt who is hosting the gathering is upset due to the tension in the room. 

It can be helpful to identify your objective ahead of the gathering, as it provides a lens through which you view your interactions and responses. 

Here are some example objectives:

  • Focus your energy on the pleasant parts of the gathering and leave the rest
  • Help your uncle or a close friend/relative host the gathering because you know that throwing a good party means the world to them

If your objective is to decrease the frequency and intensity of distress related to uncomfortable topics, a strong zinger is always an available option. Still, there are some additional options that might serve a similar purpose of discontinuing a conversation while also keeping tensions relatively neutral.

Strategic cluelessness

Imagine that someone at the table cracks a joke that is well-intended but ultimately offensive. There may be a (totally understandable) strong urge to launch the turkey leg in your hand at the offending party.  Still, ask yourself, was my objective today to throw a coveted piece of barnyard fowl? Might I both lose one of the best parts of the bird AND end up with people being more upset about the repurposed poultry than the offending comment itself? 

A potential alternative could be to say, “I know you’re joking but stuff like that is genuinely hurtful.” And, one of my favorite alternatives is what I like to call strategic cluelessness. With a full tone of sincerity — not a single drop of sarcasm or disdain — state that you do not understand the joke and you need it explained to you. 

Nothing kills a joke like emotional neutrality and nothing calls explicit attention to the implicitly racist/sexist/homophobic/prejudicial nature of a joke like having to explain it step by step.

The “should” trap

When someone makes a statement that is hurtful, the resulting sadness is painful. When someone says or does something that crosses our emotional or moral boundaries, the emerging anger and frustration stings. The psychological pain is legitimate. 

Often, what is already painful becomes exacerbated by notions of should/should not. 

“They should know better.” 

“They should not say/do that.” 

“They should be more informed.” 

While the emotions that come with the territory are valid and real, the shoulds are a trap that keeps us stuck. 

This isn’t a call for “it is what it is.” While popular and catchy, this statement can backfire in rendering us feeling powerless. 

True, there are certain parts of our reality that we do not prefer. Nevertheless, we can move past stuckness through the application of some Radical Acceptance

“I do not agree with or like this reality (i.e., unpleasant family interactions) and would not have chosen it — and this is my reality. So, now what?” 

Your responses are within your power. 

Is your objective to not get sucked into a fruitless debate? You have the power to disengage. 

Is it your objective to be the change that you want to see in the world? Model it.

Speaking of change

The world is confusing and sometimes it is hard to keep up. We do the best we can with what we have, and we are all working with a different combination of factors (personal history, cultural factors, access to information) to comprise our views. 

Something that I noticed trending over the past year is the statement of “you need to educate yourself.” The intention behind it can be great — like, “Hey there is this information available that you may not have had a chance to see yet and I want to share it with you.” 

Yet, what seems to have started out with constructive intent seemed to morph into a veiled insult of “I think you’re stupid.” 

If we revisit and refine our objective within a disagreement — what exactly is it that we are trying to do in the long run? If we are trying to create space for new information and the change that we want to see, this is not going to be accomplished with statements that put the recipient on the offensive. 

Can you remember a time when you tried to answer a question in class and were met with a response from the teacher that felt punishing? I would imagine that the pain of that experience overshadowed the information that they otherwise were attempting to impart. 

So, if our objective is to refrain from repeating the mistakes in that teacher’s delivery while also trying to increase the likelihood that the information we want to communicate is received without distraction or dismissal, we have to consider another approach. 

Consider the following:
Identify one thing — even the tiniest thing — in the other person’s statements that can be agreed upon. Build a connection based on that. Present your information as something that sparked an interest for you that they might find interesting as well. Highlight some specifics of why you found it to be impactful. Present your piece as something that you are excited to share rather than something that the other should do. 

“Yes, I totally agree that X, and I think it is also important to consider Y.”

Don’t forget about self-care
Our ability to tolerate discomfort is influenced in part by having something to look forward to thereafter. Proactively schedule some downtime after the family event. Whether that’s spending time with more positive peers, spending some time alone reading a book, or spending time outdoors –whatever fills your tank.

Ultimately

The most effective method of navigating family holiday events is up to you and what is most congruent with your personal long term objectives. 

If you decide that your objective is to attend (and the tryptophan isn’t relieving as much tension as hoped) you can consider a private game of family holiday BINGO. You can use this one or create your own that is personalized to your family interactions. More than just a way to pass the time, making our sources of anticipatory anxiety into a game can shift a moment of pure distress to one injected with some comic relief. 

Margo and Todd get into a predictable argument? Check! 

Cousin Eddie unwittingly commits a crime? Check! 

Clark gets overambitious and injures himself? BINGO! 

If you decide that what is most congruent with your long term objectives is skipping the traditional family turkey day, that is okay! 2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year, but it does come with a time-limited gift: there may never be an excuse more legit than an active pandemic to sit this one out!


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