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6 Awkward Holiday Conversations You're Dreading, And How To Deal With Them

"So, how about that Trump fella?"

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This time of year, many of us will make a pilgrimage to see our families. Halls will be decked, candles will be lit, and ancient stories will be told. Hopefully everything for you will be hugs, warmth, light, and reconnection with the people you love. But if you are dreading dealing with that one jerk relative or bracing yourself for an onslaught of intrusive questions and and awkward topics, here's a guide to keeping your cool and choosing your battles when everyone around you is making it weird.

1. "What are you doing for the holidays?"

If this is a happy and important time of year for you, this question is routine pleasant small talk. For people with dysfunctional families or people going through hard times — not to mention the giant swath of the world's population that celebrates their major holidays at other times of year — this question registers somewhere between "total non sequitur" and "Welp, thanks for the reminder." We who celebrate should celebrate, but we also need to make room in our celebrations for other people's realities, even if that means making room for grief or pain.

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If this time of year is hard for you or unimportant to you, here are completely acceptable things to say:

"I don't really celebrate, but tell me what you like to do."

"That's a painful subject just now, thanks for understanding. But tell me more about your celebration!"

• If someone badgers you for details, they are the ones who are out of line. Just repeat yourself. "You had no way of knowing, but I really don't like to talk about it. Let's change the subject."

Try to remember that most people are just making small talk and they probably don't want to upset you. Also remember that you don't owe anyone an uncomplicated life or a performance of happiness. If someone finds your holiday spirit inadequate, they are the ones making it awkward.

And if you ask somebody about their plans and they don't seem excited to talk about it, take a cue from them and don't try to sell them on the season. Wish people well and let their feelings be what they are.

2. "Let's talk about the 2016 election!"

Maybe some families can have constructive and respectful conversations about politics where eyes are opened and views are changed. If your family is like that, please a) ignore the following advice completely, and b) tell me all about it! I've always imagined what that might be like!

If your family is not like that, and if, like me, you have EXACTLY ZERO CHILL in discussing world events right now, I want you all to raise your glass to my beloved departed Grandma Louise as you say this with me: "We have a secret ballot in this country for a reason, and we can all keep our secrets for one more [INSERT HOLIDAY] dinner."

Grandpa Oscar was a walking Letter-To-The-Editor and was also one of the O.G.'s of the Cranky Old Man Internet where misinformation and 1991 church bulletin layouts live on forever, immune to all fact-checking and advances in typography. Faithfully loving that dude for 60 years meant that Grandma developed some iron-clad boundaries about how much "being talked at" she was willing to put up with.

If you are not in possession of a badass matriarch like Grandma Louise, and you have a relative who just will not STFU about politics, try these redirects:

"I'm pretty sure we disagree on a lot of things, and I don't think this is the day that either of us changes our minds. But I'm so glad to get to see you, and I really want to hear all about [MASSIVE SUBJECT CHANGE]! How's that dissertation going?"

"Hrmmmmm. I really disagree/I'm not sure that's the case/That seems like a topic for another day. Hey, I'm gonna get another drink/visit the restroom/watch the little kids open presents."

• Shamelessly deflect: "You know I can talk about this stuff forever, but I promised Mom I would keep it cool today. Why don't you send me some of those articles you were mentioning and I'll send you some as well*."

• Or use others as conversational shield: "Oh look, [COOL RELATIVE WHO IS NOT BADGERING EVERYBODY] is here, I haven't had a chance to say hello. Can I get you anything while I'm up?" Then get up and physically move to where Cool Relative is.

*You do not have to read these articles and you can "forget" to send them articles as well.

If you're dreading a day with Uncle "Gun Rights Are The ONLY Rights," sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to make a list of all the people at the gathering that you DO want to see, make it a point to sit next to them, and find the other people in the room who roll their eyes at Señor Talks-A-Lot. A problem shared is a problem halved, as the proverb says. A jackass ignored is a jackass... neutralized? Avoided?

A jackass ignored makes your holiday better.

3. "You look like a captive audience for my bigoted views!"

Sometimes it's best to change the subject, de-escalate, or otherwise "gracefully" extract yourself from conversations. But there will be occasions when you feel a responsibility to do better than "let's just agree to disagree!"

It's one thing to avoid or try to redirect people who annoy and bully you, and another thing to pretend to agree with toxic people for the sake of "keeping the peace." Whose peace are you keeping? And at what cost? In certain instances, it's important to say an unambiguous "I disagree" — not because you'll necessarily change anyone's mind, but to remind yourself what's real and true, to help you find the other people in the room who also disagree, and also because some opinions and views are poisonous and unacceptable and should not be washed away with "Hrmmm, interesting idea, also these mashed potatoes are great."

In situations where I am a guest, I have a personal policy, developed through some trial and error, of giving people two attempts at a polite subject change or redirect:

Them: "[Offensive thing]"

Me: "Wow, I really disagree. But let's talk about this Subject Change!"

Them: "No, I want to keep talking about Offensive Thing. Have you heard about Completely Fact-Free Event Made Of Lies?"

Me: "I have not heard about that, no. I still really disagree with your position, but I'm happy to talk about Neutral Topic," or "I have not heard about that, no. Please excuse me."

If the person will not take the conversational lifeline I am sending them, or if they follow me out of the conversation to keep badgering me, my mandate to remain polite officially ends, and a different Captain Awkward comes out. Green. Strangely muscular. With shredded purple pants where my clothes used to be.

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In that case, here are some good responses:

"Let me stop you right there. We are done talking."

"NOPE!"

"I hope you're not saying [offensive or inaccurate thing about a particular group of people] because you think I agree with you, because I do not. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

"I am leaving now, do not follow me."

"Here are 101 facts that prove you are wrong recited from memory with full scholarly citations. Shall I continue?"

If I am the host of an event or am teaching, and I'm therefore responsible not just for myself but for guests or students, I make ONE good faith attempt at "That's not true" or "Wow, how offensive" before I say, "That's completely unacceptable. Change topics, be quiet, or leave."

I do not use a quiet tone of voice, I do not make my body or posture small, and, if it gets to that point, I do not give a crap who overhears me or who thinks I am "making a scene." Speaking up for yourself and the things you believe in the face of someone talking over you isn't ever going to be comfortable. But there's something to be said for exiting a conversation un-gracefully.

4. "Should you really be eating that?"

American culture is super weird about eating and bodies on a normal day. During the holidays, a traditional time of feasting and togetherness, this weirdness can grow to epic, painful levels. I am personally on a mission to build a world where all bodies are good bodies and the chief properties of food are "nourishing" and "tasty AF." But we currently don't live in that world.

If the food police descend upon you, one way to handle it is to say something that indicates that you heard them but that doesn't really engage with their point:

"Hrmm, interesting."

"You don't say."

Then throw out a subject change. For example:

Aunt Food Police: "Should you be eating that? It has ONE BILLION CALORIES!!!"

You: "Mmmm, is that so. Hey, how is your project to scan and organize the family photos going, Auntie?"

Sometimes, especially with people you rarely see, victory doesn't necessarily lie in convincing the person that they're wrong, but in conveying "There is no way in heck I am talking to you about this" and then letting their faux pas hang there.

If they won't accept your gift of the face-saving subject change? Try:

"It's really weird that you are monitoring my food."

"Policing my food is really uncomfortable/inappropriate/rude."

"How about I worry about what's on my plate and you worry about yours."

"I save discussions about that for my doctor, not my relatives on holidays."

The moment will be awkward, because commenting on your food choices is an awkward thing to do. Do your best to return the awkwardness to sender and find a much cooler person in the room to sit by.

5. "Is that what you're wearing?"

After a grueling and expensive journey where your fellow airline passengers definitely probably created entire new strains of the flu as they coughed directly into your open mouth, you arrive at your ancestral home. Before you can even finish hugging everyone and pour a glass of eggnog, your ancestors descend to dissect your appearance and life choices: "I liked your old glasses better," or "That coat looks like you slept in it," or the always delightful "Would it kill you to shave/put some lipstick on/put on a hat/take off your hat?"

Comments like this used to take me straight back to feeling (and acting) like a surly teenager. Once I realized that it was a ritual, like a pack of wolves welcoming a pack member back with butt-sniffing and a wrestling match, it got easier. It's never a fun ritual, but the comments didn't mean "you suck" so much as "you belong to us but you don't quite match what I remember" in the language of repressed New England people who are terrible at feelings.

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The quickest and easiest way through a random and unsolicited critique is to respond briefly and as neutrally as you can:

"Huh."

"Nice to see you, too."

"Thanks for your opinion, I'll think about it." (It's true, I did think about their opinion for a few seconds before continuing not to care.)

"I did sleep in this coat; airport floors are cold."

If someone really is crossing a line and hurting your feelings, or won't stop saying mean stuff, try this:

"Wow." Use a strong, pointed tone and follow it with a really long, awkward pause.

"Really?"

"I'm confused. What is it that you want me to feel or do when you say something like that?"

If the conversation devolves from there into how sensitive you are and how you can't take a "joke," strongly consider going back to the airport and taking the next flight out. Somewhere warm, somewhere people aren't jerks to you.

6. "Sooooooo, when are you going to unlock that next level in Adulting?"

We tell people that they should ask questions in order to show interest in others, and overall, that's a good strategy, but there is a certain kind of "catching up with family holiday chit-chat" line of questioning that feels guaranteed to steer the conversation directly into the your most sensitive spots.

If this happens to you, and you feel a pit of shame and anxiety start to open up under you, try to remember that most of the time your relatives just genuinely want to know what's new in your life. Even if the questions are coming with some crappy and judgmental subtext, you'll feel better if you don't cry in front of bullies, and you'll keep your poise better if you treat these questions like they are nice questions from nice people and leave the mean subtext unacknowledged.

Here's how that looks:

Curious and Kind/Insufferably Nosy Relative: "So, when are you going to finally finish your dissertation?"

You: "How I would love to be able to answer that for you! I've just completed the [first few chapters], and I am really excited to dig into [fascinating thing you're dissertating about]. The next milestone is…"

And if the news is bad and the topic is a sensitive one:

Curious and Kind/Insufferably Nosy Relative: "So, when are you going to finally finish your dissertation?"

You: "Thanks for asking! It's not going so well right now, so I would love to talk about anything but that today. How are things with you?"

Alternately, you could take a page from my older brother, who answers every question of this ilk with "It's hard to say," except he has a thick Boston accent, so it's even better: "It's hahhhd to say."

• "So, how is the job search going?" "It's hard to say."

"What are you majoring in?" "It's hard to say."

• "What are you going to do with a degree in that?" "It's hard to say."

• "When are you getting married?" "It's hard to say."

• "When are you two going to have kids?" "Wicked hard to say."

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