Thanksgiving dinner can sometimes feel more like an obstacle course than a relaxing family meal. If you have family and friends who tend to ask loaded, probing questions -- or just a big group that's not quite sure how to engage in an inclusive conversation, the feast can seem more stressful than bountiful (though probably not nearly as uncomfortable as Paula Broadwell’s this year).
What if someone starts talking about money, or starts an argument, or brings up the Things We Don't Talk About? What if a paralyzing silence overtakes the table?
To help you bypass or at least prepare for those scenarios, we spoke to three experts: Jane Buckingham, founder of Trendera, Jodi R. R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting and Sue Fox, author of “Etiquette for Dummies.”
Based on their advice, here are 13 tips for a hitch-free Thanksgiving dinner conversation:
1. Be a (wo)man with a plan. Etiquette expert Jodi R. R. Smith suggests practicing “preemptive etiquette.” That means, go into the meal with topics of conversation already prepared. If your aunt just returned from a trip to Greece, ask her about it. Besides travel, other “safe” topics include musical events, bestselling books, food, sports and holiday memories. One expert we spoke to even recommended discussing tattoos -- but we’re not sure about that one, so proceed at your own risk.
2. You don’t want to go there. Unless you have a dinner table full of people with generally uniform opinions, all three experts we spoke to recommended just saying "no" to conversations about politics or religion. Of course, avoiding Obama-Romney talk may be difficult just two weeks after the election, but holding your tongue may be a good idea if you don’t want to inadvertently set off a screaming match when you should be enjoying that perfectly browned turkey. And regarding religion: One of the best things about Thanksgiving is that it’s a secular holiday. “It's the one holiday that all Americans share -- there are no religious differences,” Sam Sifton, author of “Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well” previously told The Huffington Post. So consider leaving your faith at the door.
3. Deflect, deflect, deflect. There are some questions that just aren’t worth answering. “When I’m queen of the world, no one will be able to ask about someone’s weight unless they’re paying their health insurance,” Smith told The Huffington Post. “Unfortunately I am not yet queen of the world ... so people will have to endure.” If your overbearing relative starts asking if you “really need that” when you go for a well-deserved second helping of sweet potatoes or stuffing or turkey, acknowledge the question but don’t engage.
An example: “Uncle Joe, I saw that you were about to make a comment about how I just took a second helping of stuffing. I know that you love me and that’s why you’re worried, but I’m going to ask you to give me the day off.”
4. You aren’t a linebacker. Don’t play defense. It can be tough not to get a little defensive when someone asks prying questions. The two most popular offenders: “Are you seeing anyone yet?” and “When are you going to have kids?” Single, child-free women often have to endure years of probing, judgemental inquiries into their relationship status.
“[In this situation], one of the best things to do is to laugh it off and say, ‘I never talk about anything too personal when eating a great meal because I don’t want to lose my appetite,’” Jane Buckingham told HuffPost. Feel free to create your own riff on this non-defensive retort, but Buckingham says the key is keeping your response light. “The minute you get defensive, they think they’ve struck gold,” she said. And really, who needs to add more fuel to the why-are-you-still-single fire?
5. Read up. This may be common sense, but both Buckingham and Fox pointed out that a great way to make conversation is by referencing current events. So make sure to read your news before dinner -- and not just articles about how awesome the 90s were from BuzzFeed’s highly-addictive Rewind section.
6. Form your alliances early. Your aunt is the “mouth of the South”? You have a super adorable little niece or nephew with a manipulative streak? Now is the time to make them your best Thanksgiving friends. “Not everyone has the talent to engage in good conversation, so if you're shy or think you’ll have a problem, ask a relative you’re close to to help you,” Fox told HuffPost. “Ask them to jump in when those awkward conversations come up.” So next time your family friends asks why on earth you’re still single, your aunt can immediately start discussing the nasty divorce her next-door neighbors are going through.
7. Kill them with kindness. If you don’t know what to say when the conversation heads toward your aunt’s hot flashes or your cousin’s uncomfortable sexual escapades, say something nice. “Compliment the host on the food, the wine or their house,” Fox said. This shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish when you’re sitting down for a sure-to-make-you-unbutton-your-pants meal complete with mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie ... and a little bit of wine to loosen everyone up.
8. You can text later. In the age of iPhones, many people’s first instinct in an uncomfortable situation is to text/email/start a game of Angry Birds. According to Buckingham, this is the ultimate conversation killer. And it's also rude. Buckingham also recommends staying away from too many social media or online references during dinner time. “[Doing this] just makes people pull out their phones, and that’s disengaging,” she said.
9. Not everyone loves the spotlight. While you should try to engage everyone at your table, it’s not always a good idea to push it. “Not everyone is interested in talking,” Fox said. “If you know what [someone who’s shy is] interested in, you can kind of bring him or her out to talk more. But sometimes just let people be.”
10. “There's no place for a beer bong at Thanksgiving.” While a glass of wine -- or three -- can really get people talking, Fox suggested that limiting the drinking could be a positive. That way you get to avoid your uncle’s drunken conspiracy theories and your cousin’s “awesome” a cappella renditions of One Direction’s biggest hits. Of course, you know your family best, so don’t cut off Aunt Ginger on our account, and be sure to check out Sam Sifton’s thoughts on Turkey Day imbibing for an alternate point of view.
11. Get a room -- for conversation. According to Fox, there’s a time and place to ask and answer those more personal, burning questions -- it’s just not at the dinner table. You probably don’t want to discuss the awful OKCupid date you just went on in front of all of your relatives, but sharing the story with your closest family friend might be fun. The same goes for asking your cousin about her experiences with IVF or your mom about a recent health scare.
12. Togetherness is overrated. If you’re going over to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving festivities, make sure you know the schedule of events and plan accordingly. “Sometimes people invite you for noon and they’re not serving dinner until four,” Smith said. “Plan so there isn’t too much together time.” Don’t be rude, but if you know that you’re walking into a difficult situation, it might be best to be acceptably late -- or leave on the early side.
13. Game on. “If you’re traveling, plan an activity ... to get people out of the house and engaged in something,” Smith suggested. Whether it’s a competitive family game of flag football, slightly calmer board game time, or a walk around the neighborhood, sometimes it’s good to have a plan that doesn’t involve asking questions.
When in doubt, just remember this mantra from Sue Fox: “The goal of polite conversation is to make everyone feel comfortable.” And if it all goes horribly wrong, just relax and grab a second piece of pie.
RELATED ON HUFFPOST WOMEN:
"There are a number of things that you can bring that would be welcome. I think that bringing wine makes sense. I think that bringing an after-dinner drink -- bourbon or rye -- makes sense. I think that flowers are terrific, and I think that bringing a pie is often great. One of the hardest things for Thanksgiving hosts to pull off is to nail the entire savory side of the equation and the dessert. It's already a big project, so maybe they get one pie, two pies out -- but if you can bring an additional homemade pie, that's a really lovely thing to do."
"You smile, you say thank you, you give them a drink, you find a way to get another person in at the table and you give thanks for their being there. The thing about Thanksgiving is, it requires radical acceptance of the premise of the day: We are thankful for our friends, we are thankful for everyone there, we are thankful for the meal and all of its complex glory. Someone will always show up with an unannounced plus-one. Someone will always show up with a big tureen of green Jell-O with slivers. Someone will always show up with terrible wine. Someone will always show up with no wine at all. Someone will always show up with bad table manners. And we just have to kind of roll with it a little bit -- more than roll with it, embrace it. It's a time for saying 'Welcome,' and it's a time for making people welcome. And I think that there is just no incentive in becoming aggrieved on Thanksgiving because people are acting in a way that is anathema to the way you want them to act. You're not gonna change anyone's behavior on Thanksgiving. You're not going to make the drunk cousin not be drunk on Thanksgiving. You know him as your drunk cousin 'cause he gets drunk."
"You are in control of your own Thanksgiving, so I’d just seat them as far apart from one another as possible, or invite enough people to kind of dilute the toxicity of their disfavor with one another. Maybe have two tables and a giant ficus plant between the tables and the warring people at two separate ends of the room. I’ve seen Thanksgivings where ex-spouses are both there and they loathe one another, but space between them, the proper application of alcohol, plenty of food and a nice long walk afterward can be great in that situation."
On the subject of hors d'oeuvres at Thanksgiving, Sifton describes himself as an "absolutist": "I did not ... spend all of Thursday cooking turkey, sides and gravy, then set a table appropriate to presidents and kings, so that you could come into my house and eat a pound and a half of nuts and guacamole before sitting down for the Thanksgiving feast," he recently told Dinner: A Love Story's Jenny Rosenstrach. "There is no place for an appetizer course in a proper Thanksgiving meal." However, cocktails before dinner are a different story. "You should have a cocktail, absolutely!" said Sifton. "I mean ... in my family we generally start out with some prosecco and work our way through from there into whites into reds and then we down-shift into bourbon at the end. But I know plenty of people who start their holiday off with a nice stiff cocktail, and I commend that completely. I recommend it! Go for it! I may be anti-appetizer, but cocktails are A-OK by me."
"You certainly don't want people getting so drunk that they're throwing up in your house, and of course there should be designated drivers. I'm in no way encouraging drunk driving. But by the same token, I think that any time questions are raised about how to limit people's drinking, it's a problem. It casts a kind of puritan pall over the whole affair. The point of this holiday is to celebrate bounty, to be immensely generous in your offering of food and wine. I'm not saying that we should be doing shots. There's no place for a beer bong at Thanksgiving. But if somebody wants an extra glass of wine, you should give it to them. If they're drunk, take their keys and put them in a cab or make them sleep it off. But that's probably not going to happen. What we're really talking about is someone has two, three glasses of wine over the course of the eight hours they're in your house. You have to be very careful about saying, 'Now now now, can't have too good a time' -- that's just nuts. Next you'll be limiting people's pie intake, and you can't do that. That said, drink responsibly."
"This is an issue that [arises] between children and parents, between married people and their in-laws, and sometimes between siblings. Those are the three main dynamics of competition when it comes to various dishes. I think it’s important to tread lightly here. If your mother is the one who makes the turkey, she’s probably the one who ought to make the turkey until such time that you are hosting your own Thanksgiving and she is coming into your home, at which point you can roast your own turkey. And she may say something nasty about your turkey, and you just have to smile and thank her for being there and thank her for giving [you] life. You've got to be cool about it. And no poaching! You have to be very careful about how you appropriate someone else’s dish. If your sister is the one who makes the mashed potatoes, and she always makes them badly, you have to go about taking that task away from her very carefully. The mashed potatoes may be excellent, actually, and really your issue is that she’s mean or something that has nothing to do with the food. You get yourself in real trouble just snatching someone’s dish away from them."
"All those side dishes. You could come to my house and have a plate full of side dishes and no turkey, and you'd be great. You have carrots, you have mashed potatoes, you have sweet potatoes. One of the stuffings we make doesn't have sausage in it. If your particular vegetarian eats shellfish, serve oysters at the beginning. I think we generally make a mac 'n cheese too, so that's there, though I find that most vegetarians hate mac 'n cheese. There are more vegetables on my table during the Thanksgiving meal than really at any other time of the year. I don't think vegetarians are lining up to come to Thanksgiving at my house -- I'm a fairly bird-centric, bacon-centric type in my cooking -- but they have certainly eaten well when they've come."
"Yeah. I mean... have a turkey or don't have a turkey. Don't have a tofurky, that's just nuts. There are a million things that you can make wth tofu that taste better than tofu turkey, I can tell you that."
"Turducken is a Southern tradition. It's pretty cool in its way -- a boned-out turkey stuffed with a boned-out duck, which is stuffed with a boned-out chicken, and then the whole thing is sort of squeezed back into a roughly turkey-like shape, roasted, sometimes around a stuffing of some kind, and then sliced vertically into these big slabs that combine dark meat from all three species and then whatever else is in there. It's kind of like a multi-species porchetta, the Italian dish, and it's pretty cool, to tell you the truth. It's not in my family's tradition, but if it is in yours, I think that's great. And it would be kind of a cool project for someone to take on at Thanksgiving."
"I think it's important to say that project-based Thanksgiving meals really should only come after many, many, many years of cooking a traditional bird and just nailing the basics. You gotta know how to swim before you can try and be Greg Louganis."
"It depends how many people you have -- I think sometimes it's cool to have a kids table if there are enough kids to make it worthwhile and there are enough big kids to kind of keep control of the situation -- 10, 11 and up. I've done it both ways. I love having my kids at the table, but now that they're getting a little older -- they're 9 and 11 -- if we have enough cousins over to set up a group for them where they can kind of take care of themselves, I think they have a better time. I don't think kids should be banished to a kids table because they have a role to play at a grown-up one, but if you can create a kids table that's awesome for kids, by all means do it."
"I think the most important thing to get right, to really cook Thanksgiving well as I say in the book, is to concentrate on setting that table, not to discover at the last minute that you don't have any napkins of any sort or that you only have seven forks when you need nine. It doesn't matter if anything matches, it needn't be fancy, but it does matter that you've taken some time to think about what the table's going to look like and what it's going to feel like when you're all sitting around it. [Thanksgiving] should not have the quality of a lunchroom meal or of a picnic. This is a big, serious harvest meal that allows friends and family, who often haven't seen one another in quite some time, to come together and celebrate their friendship, celebrate their love for one another, celebrate their differences, put on hold their feuds, and to do it in the presence of a well-laid table really makes a difference. I've seen it happen. The kids behave a little bit better, adults are a little more civil and act a little more grown-up. You'll see. I remember one Thanksgiving sitting down at the table, and a guy I know, a good friend of mine who never takes his ballcap off, took his ballcap off! You should set your table as if for a sacrament. It really should be this beautiful place that you're going to share the meal. You'll kind of destroy it in the process, and that's the beauty of it, as the gravy stains mount and the candles gutter out and wax gets on the tablecloth."
"I'm not against it. I've done it, and it was pretty affecting, but I think it was about eight people in the one that I remember, and I was thinking, 'If this were 14 people, it'd be a little bit difficult.' Also, it puts a lot of pressure on people, and if you have 20 people there and someone is thankful that Jeter broke his ankle or whatever, it just screws up the whole vibe of the thing. That said, I think it is incredibly important that someone -- maybe the host -- stand up, ring a glass, get everyone's attention and, if not say grace, at least thank everyone or be thankful for the meal and the presence of the meal. Thanksgiving is not just a day off from work where you get to drink all day and fall asleep on the couch watching a movie. It's more than that. It is America's greatest secular holiday. It's the one holiday that all Americans share -- there are no religious differences. Thanksgiving is when America gathers together to celebrate itself, and it does it in a way that's not sort of ra-ra nationalist in the way that the Fourth of July is, but in a way that is family-focused, friend-focused, harvest-focused and food-focused. The turkey and sides trump the hot dogs and apple pie of the Fourth of July every time. Without being too sappy about it, I think it really matters that you -- with some degree of solemnity -- recognize that fact before you start to eat."
Order it here.