Last week, I was catching up by phone with my mother, and our conversation headed to the upcoming holiday.
"So what is your family doing?" my mother inquired.
"Not too much," I answered. "We're a small group this year so we'll just have dinner. No big deal."
"That sounds nice, " my mother continued. "So, what is everyone making?"
"Oh, I don't even know," I answered in what I thought was an anodyne manner. But then, in one fell sentence, I managed to undo a perfectly pleasant conversation: "I even thought that we could just skip the whole thing this year."
That comment landed like a fruitcake on a doorstep.
"'Skip the whole thing?' What?" my mother pressed, now apoplectic.
And then, the kicker:
"Where did I go wrong?"
To my mother's credit, she asked that last question rhetorically, and with a healthy degree of humor. But even as I suggested that we move on to more benign conversation topics like politics or religion, I was acutely aware that her question "Where did I go wrong" wasn't really the core question. The question that so often comes up for us as our families gather together for the holidays, or as managers, teams or departments come together to achieve business goals, really is: "How can we be so different?"
Differences in how we acknowledge special occasions aren't just for families to wrestle over during the holidays. It shows up at work, too. How many times have you waited for your boss to make a big fuss over your big win... and you sat there in radio silence, seething with resentment? Or maybe you're frustrated with the millennial you manage who seems to want a cookie for showing up on time three days in a row, while you bite your tongue.
Either way, what we regard as "special" and how we celebrate it (or don't) are stylistic differences that aren't right or wrong (even though they really, really feel that way). And either way, these differences can lead to deep, painful wounds that become infected when we don't deal with them.
Here are six other differences that are likely to show up in your workplace relationships, as well as over your holiday turkey, latkes or pumpkin pie:
At work: You like your feedback direct, but your boss' approach is to couch constructive feedback in compliments to soften the blow.
At the holidays: Your Uncle Tom loves to tell stories from his time fighting overseas ("so there he was, his arm hanging by a thread...), but you would rather your children not have to hear such violent stories.
At work: You like your direct report to check in with you at each milestone, while she would prefer for you to "delegate and disappear".
At the holidays: Your Aunt Laurie offers every year to bring a new and different kind of turkey (Deep fried? Smoked? Turducken?) while you know that there's only one real way to make a holiday turkey: sage-roasted, like Martha Stewart tells you to.
At work: A 9 a.m. workday start time means anywhere from 8:45 to 9:15 in your mind, while it means 9:00:00 a.m. for your boss.
At the holidays: "Dinner at 5" to Grandma Joan means you're having snacks and watching the game until dinner is actually served at 7, which does not work for cousin Sarah and her kids' bath-- and bedtime schedule.
4. Handling Uncertainty
At work: You want your boss to commit to a weekly supervision meeting while she prefers to "play it by ear" week to week, meaning you're never quite sure when you'll get her time and attention.
At the holidays: "Can we let you know that morning whether we can make it or not for dessert?" seems like a reasonable request from your perspective, but for your friend Leslie, she needs to know how many to set the table for, how many people to buy dessert for, and how many more people she can invite -- with at least a week's notice.
At work: Your CFO values accuracy and attention to detail ("get it right!") while your manager values speed and closure ("get it done!")
At the holidays: Grandpa Archie values curiosity and intimacy ("How much will you be able to put away into your IRA this year?"), while Uncle Michael values privacy and personal boundaries ("Not sure yet. So how about those Giants?")
At work: In order for you to meet your boss' expectations about next spring's fundraising gala, you feel strongly that you need two more staff people working on it, and another $5000 to bring in high-caliber catering and entertainment. Your boss, however, wants to get creative with stretching the resources that you currently have available to you.
At the holidays: You can't wait to surprise your niece and nephews with the new X-Box they've been begging for, while their parents think that a $20 per person gift limit levels the playing field for everyone.
Is it any wonder that for many of us, the holidays fail to feel like a welcome relief from work? So what do we do? As John F. Kennedy once said, "If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity." Here are three ways to approach the "diversity" that threatens to stress you out this holiday season:
1) Recognize that we're each doing it the way that seems "right" for us, and that most of us will have a hard time convincing someone just as committed to their "right way" that another way (read: our way) is better. Repeat this to yourself as needed.
2) Name your style or approach as neutrally as possible, and then name your family member's style or approach without judgment or emotion. So if your style is "on time, all the time", think about naming your cousin's style as "a flexible approach to time" rather than "thoughtlessly late, always and forever."
3) Get clear about what you would prefer as opposed to what you really need in order for the holidays to feel meaningful for you, and make clear, direct and kind requests only about those things that feel like "must haves" rather than "nice to haves". So you might have to give up your wish that everyone arrive on time, but you can make it clear that dinner will start at 6:30 p.m. with whoever is there.
And Mom, I promise we're having a lovely holiday dinner this year -- maybe a little more understated than yours, but special, warm and delicious nonetheless. You'll see: you didn't go wrong. We each just went...differently.