In any group setting, there’s a significant chance that something awkward will happen. Most social or business occasions bring people together based on shared interests. When it’s family, well, we’re together more or less due to random chance. It’s a coincidence. Expectations and manners will be totally different than what would work in the outside world. A lot can be done in advance to mitigate some of these weird rules, preparing ourselves emotionally and mentally as we enter the magical world of family gatherings.
Surprisingly, something that seems to help in family gatherings is to look at them through the lens of a professional setting. How would I react if this were happening in a client meeting? Many of us have a blandly cheerful mask that we wear for customer service, a poker face we’re able to put on even when some total jerk is throwing a tantrum over something completely trivial. For instance, I was at a Starbucks once when a woman started screaming at not just her barista, but all four people behind the counter, and then dragged her little son up with her twice more to do it again. Imagine this happening at a family party... (perhaps not much of an imaginative leap)... The Starbucks crew handled this absurd scene with great tact and aplomb. As a mere customer, I wanted to jump up and say, “LADY! They’re already remaking your drink! Get over it!” Or perhaps offer to pay her $10 to leave, or $20 to never come back. There were 20 people in the room who did not deserve to listen to her having a fit.
Spend enough time out in public in any major city, and the routine behavior you’ll see will usually make your family’s foibles seem tame in comparison.
I’ve worked in a drug rehab, in a parole and probation office, in a homeless shelter, and in a couple of other social services offices. I’ve been shouted at by a methamphetamine addict twice my size who was late for anger management therapy. I’ve also worked in a convenience store, an entirely different order of weird. I probably haven’t heard or seen everything, not quite yet, but I think I’m getting close.
None of that prepared me for the time my ex-sister-in-law’s dog jumped on the table and started eating the turkey off the platter.
The ways that family, extended family, pets, and neighbors will cause social awkwardness are pretty predictable. Just like crime! There are only so many things that people will do or say. We can practice ahead of time and get into that special Jedi mindset, that exalted place where what could have been painful or humiliating can instead be experienced as interesting or funny.
Question One: Will this make a good story later?
First, consider who will be at the event, who might show up, and who definitely won’t be there. You can usually anticipate the sort of topics or rote insults that will come up, because people tend to have patterns that they live out, year after year.
It’s the “Aunt Mabel” show! Looking at a frustrating person as a type of character actor, performing in a comedy set piece, can often help. Their predictability can be part of their charm. Villains are usually the most interesting.
Second, don’t work yourself into a lather over conversations that haven’t yet actually happened. All you really have to do is memorize a couple of snappy come-backs or practice some conversation pivots, and then go back to your regularly scheduled programming.
What sort of stuff is going to push your buttons? What has reliably upset you? People who provoke you in the same ways over and over again are really doing you a favor. They’re giving you a safe place to practice not giving a flying fudge. If they keep saying the same things year after year, you can keep testing out new responses and seeing how they work out. You can also tune this person out, just like you would a Furby, or my parrot the year she learned to imitate the neighbor’s shrieking two-year-old daughter.
Politics! Nobody is entitled to my opinion. I refuse to be drawn out on political topics. My regular dinner guests used to start doing the “DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! WHOOP WHOOP! WARNING” alarm if someone tried to start up a political “debate.” My formal policy is that I only discuss pre-Industrial politics. We can do the Roman Empire, we can do Dark Ages, we can do the Viking Age, but as we start to approach the Elizabethan Era I start redirecting and steering away.
Whether I will have children! Oddly enough, this still comes up occasionally, even though I’m 42 now. My answer has changed over the years, but lately I just say that my stepdaughter is in college and any new babies in my life will be grandchildren.
General criticism! Just smile. As a practitioner of radical honesty, I say, “Thank you for telling me.” Other effective responses are, “You’re right,” and “I agree,” and, “Anything you want to add?” Also feel free to respond with a love bomb, like a hug, or stroking someone’s cheek. If this person sincerely seems out to be nasty and trying to attack people with contempt, just ask, “Oh, are we doing critique now? Would you like to receive yours next or do you want to go last?” Sometimes I just say, “That’s mean!”
Physical appearance! Anyone who is crass enough to make “teasing” comments or jokes about someone else’s appearance is fair game as a known Rude Person. I will come down with great vengeance on anyone who bullies someone else in my presence, and if they come after me, well, they have only themselves to blame.
I have pretty much no filter, and my sense of humor is extremely broad and coarse. That being said, however, I like to make jokes that people can still laugh about months later. The best kind of joke is one that makes the target smile, something that makes him or her look and feel good. For instance, I once met a guy who introduced himself as Lev, and I said, “All you need is Lev!” He blinked, mentally translating, and replied, “Yes! All you need is Lev!” I could imagine him going on to introduce himself that way. If you have to make a joke at someone’s expense, let it be your own.
Traditionally, it was the role of the hostess to direct and redirect conversation. Genteel people were trained to smooth over awkwardness, give others the benefit of the doubt, and steer conversations toward general interest. I think a lot of the friction we have today comes from a lack of conversational leadership. Anyone can step in to fill that role, and it can even be done so subtly that nobody realizes what just happened. We can do this by memorizing some conversational topics and using them to change the subject, or maybe even start a conversation that never has a chance to turn toward the awkward.
One year, I literally brought to a gathering a couple of packets of “Table Topics” cards with neutral topics and questions for a general audience. It wound up being a long, memorable conversation that everyone was reluctant to end. Something about the structure and the questions brought out the nostalgia, the wishes and dreams, the funny anecdotes, the bright moments we don’t always guess are hidden inside our nearest and dearest.
Or our furthest and worst-est.
Stories are what we’re after. Even the most obnoxious, belligerent, incorrigible person still has a story to tell. Often those horrible attitudes come from a deep desire for respect and admiration. People can start to feel irrelevant as they age, or invisible when they’re not yet considered real adults. With skill and affection, we can draw people out, distracting them from the rants and the unpleasantness by asking them to share more about their life. How are things with you? What is a memory you can share? How can we get through the next two hours and emerge expanded, practicing love and forgiveness and elevating one another in some way? What would love say?
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.