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Luci’s Guide to Holiday Small Talk

national lampoon dinner
Nobody is walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas!

A few years ago on Christmas, my notoriously tactless and tasteless uncle spent the entire day making jokes about PTSD and shooting people to my sister’s then-boyfriend (now husband) who had served for a year in Afghanistan.  Fortunately for all involved, my brother-in-law isn’t one to get too worked up about social gaffes, but the rest of us spent the entire day on edge.   The next year, my cousin, the 11 year old daughter of said uncle, took up the reigns and made similar jokes during Christmas dinner.  Now, gentle reader, I am sure that YOU would not be so gauche as to offend your family members during your Holiday meal.  But, I always say the best defense is a good offense.  If you have a handy arsenal of neutral topics and strategies, your Christmas day is likely to go more smoothly and hopefully you can avoid the annual blow-up over whether [local or national political figure] is [a commie or right-wing nut].  Here are some Dos and Don’ts to get you started.

DO ““ stick to neutral topics.  This is a given, but some people just can’t avoid being provocative.  Of course everyone here at Persephone thinks DADT should be repealed, but the time to discuss that is not with your step-dad who consistently displays a limp wrist any time your mom mentions going to get her hair done.

DO ““ Have a conversation strategy.  Effective small talk is kind of like a chess game.  You have to anticipate your opponent’s moves 10 moves in advance.  Sure you can all go around the table and remark about how unseasonably cold/warm/wet/dry it is this year.  You can even go check the Farmer’s Almanac for weather predictions.  But after you do all that, it leaves a really awkward lull that makes everyone uncomfortable and opens a window for your granddad to start talking about all the people named Jesus (pronounced geez-us, not Hay-soos) who come to the soup kitchen where he volunteers.  Awkward!  Similarly, if you know that mentioning someone getting married will open a window for your cousin to start a tirade about that bitch of an ex-wife of his, just go ahead and skip that.

home alone
He did NOT just say that!

DON’T ““ Drink most of a bottle of vodka that your granddad purchased when vodka cost $4.99 a bottle and educate the table on your theory about the urban legend that Marilyn Manson was Paul in the Wonder Years and how that relates to Noah’s Ark, ending with the statement “QED.”  That’s happened to you right? No? Ok, well to be more general, DON’T drink too much.  Yes we all make the jokes about how much egg nog it’s going to take to get us through the day, but if you’re the type to overdisclose (me) or get overly passionate when you’re drunk, it’s a good idea to pace yourself.  If you’re not the one who tends to over-indulge at the holidays, but another family member is, consider limiting the availability of alcohol if it’s within your control.

DON’T ““ Expect too much from people.  Your aunt who always likes to mention that “swimsuit season is just around the corner!” is probably never going to stop with the passive-aggressive comments. If you’ve decided that this year is the year you’re just going to tell her to shut up, that’s fine, but wait until you have a private moment and won’t make the day uncomfortable.  Plus, isn’t consistency nice?!

DO ““ Have a sense of humor.  This can manifest itself in various ways.  Pretend that your family is a sitcom and you’re just watching all the sitcom archetypes play out.  Have a bet with your closer family members ““ how many times will your mother-in-law use baby talk?  How long before your socially awkward cousins brings up her love of dragons and all mythical creatures? A well-timed joke can diffuse any number of awkward situations.  Your mom is always asking when she’s going to hear the pitter-patter of little feet? “Well, we were thinking about getting a dog soon!” Laugh and change the topic.  Don’t make jokes ABOUT people, but you can get away with a lot if you say something with a smile.

And finally, some neutral and open-ended topic ideas:

  • Comment on the food. People love talking about how much they’ve eaten and how good it was and what their favorite seasonal foods are.
  • Talk about movies you want to see or have seen recently.
  • Ask what everyone’s favorite holiday tradition is.
  • Reminisce ““ is there a funny thing that happened at Christmas 15 years ago? Yeah you’ve heard the story a million times, but it gets everyone laughing.

And, if you’re stuck, you can take a line from Ellen’s sitcom from the “˜90s.  Ellen threw a dinner party and was worried about lulls in conversation so she had planned some topics in advance.  My favorite? Seedless watermelon, how DO they do it?!

Enjoy your meal!

4 replies on “Luci’s Guide to Holiday Small Talk”

Most excellent advice, guidelines, and tips, Luci!

And keep a “cone of security” around yourself, white light or whatever you want to draw on, for those tough ragey moments. Looking at your family as a sitcom is a very practical tactic. It injects humor and places you in a safer position, outside the circle.

This is priceless. My conservative family dynamic often involves people digging, trying to get me to disclose what I really think about this or that political event. I’ve found that the ambiguous smile-and-nod, closely followed by “Huh” or “Yeah” and a thoughtful raise of the eyebrows, is good for keeping people off the scent without compromising your own beliefs or starting a full-blown family crisis.

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