Sometimes the best part of the holidays can also be the most frustrating part of the holidays: quality time with family and friends. Just because we love our families and friends doesn’t mean we see eye to eye with them. Especially in these tense, divisive times, when the political climate is as volatile as it is now, it may feel like you’re walking on eggshells at every turn. The holidays are one of the rare times of the year that we get to gather with the people we care about and celebrate what we love in each other. We don’t want to let that go to waste. And while there are indeed times to have the important conversations, as for the holiday gathering, in most cases we are just happy to get through it without ripping our hair out.
We don’t know who it is you usually butt heads with at the family or friends gathering; it may be a parent, a sibling, friend, or a grandparent, uncle or aunt. It might be all of them or any combination, but for this discussion of holiday civility, let’s refer to this family member as your knuckle-headed uncle.
So read on for some of our thoughts on getting along with your knuckle-headed uncle when he rolls into the family gathering.
1. Pick easy conversations
We can’t help what conversations our relatives initiate, but we do get to choose what conversations we engage ourselves. There is no shortage of safe, pleasant subjects you can pursue together, but here are the chief three topics to give a wide berth:
• Religion: If you and your knuckle-headed uncle have different perspectives on religion, and you know these differences often lead to touchy disagreements, then leave that conversation for the theologians, or wait for another day.
• Politics: Politics is a big holiday sand trap. Whether it’s immigration, gun rights, democrats, republicans, presidents, foreign and domestic policies, or whatever else, as much as it may be on your mind, these topics are better left on the table or for a later day. And make sure no one has the news playing on the TV, to be safe.
• Sex: This is another subject area that can tense up a holiday party. But who wants to spend the holiday talking about sex-related issues with a knuckle-headed uncle anyway? Like religion and politics, sex conversations might be best to have at a later time.
2. Instead of taking the bait, take a new direction
Many of us have a knuckle-headed family member who seems unable to help themselves from dredging up touchy conversations. It may even feel as if you’re being goaded into an argument. Just remember: no one gets to force you to argue. That’s your choice. Ask yourself: is this argument worth it? It’s OK to sit the conversation out or to change the subject. Ask someone a question. Compliment the cooking. Bring up a fond memory. Even when you’re right, a bitter argument at the holiday meal almost always leaves everyone looking like they’re in the wrong.
3. Look for common ground
Cherishing the people we love requires compassionate work. Even when it may feel like your uncle is from a different planet, you are more alike than unlike, we promise; you’ve just got to figure out how. Maybe it’s sports, or a shared love of the outdoors, a TV show you’re both watching, or family matters. It may even be something you’re both struggling with, like a demanding job, or just a shared pet peeve. Just keep searching. Once you’ve found an issue on which you find yourselves miraculously on the same team, dig in. Suddenly this is a safe space, and even better, it’s a space that helps you all remember why the family is so good to have around (disclaimer, don’t use the phrase “safe space” around your uncle).
If the conversation starts feeling tense, remember what the holidays are for: celebrating each other. Try to bring up good news. If your knuckle-headed uncle is trying to talk about gun rights, immigration, and abortion, try throwing a celebratory curveball at him like, “My dear Uncle, did you hear that my little brother got all As and Bs on his first-semester report card?” Or, “Hey, my not-at-all-knuckle-headed Uncle, did you know that Mom joined her first ever bowling league?” Or ask about good news from your knuckle-headed uncle himself. It can be easy to forget that family is always something to celebrate, but you can be the holiday hero to remind everyone.
5. Keep perspective
Remember—and this is key— that no matter what your knuckle-headed uncle believes about politics and social issues, or how loudly he believes it, changing his mind won’t change the issue at large. No national decisions will be made at this holiday gathering. When you feel yourself getting worked up by someone else’s opinion at the dinner table, try to slow down and ask yourself: if this argument can’t change anything, why am I getting so upset? Sometimes an argument makes us feel insecure, for instance. It can feel as if our intelligence is being undermined when someone tells us we’re wrong and they’re right. And, as we said earlier, while there are a time and place to engage in productive civil discourse on the pressing issues of our time, in this case, it’s OK to let people be wrong quietly. In arguments like this, the victor is always the first person to say, “Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. Would you pass the stuffing?”
If a disagreement does come up, if nothing else, remind yourself to proceed with compassion and show that you are willing to listen to all points of view with a fair mind. You can’t always agree, but you can make sure that everyone feels heard, respected, and loved.
We want to hear about your holiday gatherings. What do you do when a combative conversation shows up at the party? How do you practice compassion even in the middle of an argument? Join the conversation on social using the hashtags #Bewell, #Bethere, and #Beheard.