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.
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