Chicago comedienne Bonnie Hunt once said that all of her family holidays went well–until someone said “What did you mean by that?” Sometimes it’s just one remark that can set off a huge argument, but sometimes the argument has started before your family even gets to the house for Thanksgiving dinner. How can you get through the drama and actually enjoy your holidays this year?
Distract the Crowd
It’s not quite throwing meat to growling guard dogs, but it’s a similar idea. If tensions are running high in your family, sitting around a silent table staring at each other for five hours is way too intense. Consider a buffet style dinner and let your guests watch football or a movie on TV. Play some holiday music to keep the mood light and fill in any awkward silences. Set aside some puzzles, toys, and games to keep the kids from getting bored and antsy.
When a formal dinner is tradition, plan some distractions to keep the focus off of dangerous conversation topics once the meal starts to wind down. Get a stack of your daughter’s art work and report cards to show off, or share recent vacation photos. Have the kids put on a mini-recital of anything–playing piano, singing, even telling jokes. It’s hard to get into a fight when the kids are being so darn adorable. If everyone loves Uncle Bob singing show tunes, then get him some sheet music. Gather everyone into the den and play the latest Wii game. Find whatever activity works for your family and let the focus be on that, rather than any hard feelings that might be simmering.
Diffuse the Argument
When I was six and misbehaving, my mother snapped that she was “losing her patience.” Very smoothly, I replied, “I didn’t know you were a doctor.” Mom couldn’t help laughing over my grade school level play on words and it broke the tension of the moment. I learned right then that well-timed humor can quickly diffuse an argument. Even if it’s a bad joke, a stab at lightheartedness can help remind the arguers that it’s supposed to be a pleasant holiday dinner and it’s time to let it go.
Unless you’re a talented comedian, however, save the humor for breaking up petty arguments. If there’s some serious airing of dirty laundry, you might have to let that play out or derail tensions in a different way. CosmopolitanUK actually has a list of 15 ways to diffuse an argument, most of which include taking the high road. You can admit that you’re wrong, or “agree to disagree”, but I personally have found success with the highest road of all: let them be right.
We all have at least one family member that thinks she (or he) is right all the time, and will fight to the death even when you’ve got a mountain of evidence and a jury of your peers backing you up. The quickest way to end it? A non-committal response like, “Oh, I guess I thought it was 10 years ago,” and then let it go. The argument is over, she’s happy because she thinks she won, and everyone can go back to enjoying Grandma’s awesome fruit Jello. Console yourself with the fact that the know-it-all might realize you’re right later and feel like a total jerk.
Distance Yourself–and Others
Do you know that Aunt June is still mad at Aunt Polly for stealing her boyfriend in 1952? Seat them at opposite ends of the table. It’s a lot harder to argue around the centerpiece and the neutral parties sitting next to you. If you’ve got a couple getting on each other’s nerves, put their kids between them–or if the kids are the problem, seat them over by their doting grandma to give the parents a needed break.
Some people thrive on family drama and enjoy starting an argument. If you’d rather not listen to the usual gripes or political fights at the dinner table, get up and leave. Use the excuse of clearing the table or getting refills on drinks. This way you won’t add to the drama, but you can get away from the bickering for awhile and calm yourself down. This is also a fine way to bail on that argument you’ve diffused by graciously admitting defeat. Remove yourself from the situation and let the family move on to something else. Once the tone has shifted, you can return and get back to enjoying your holiday.
Read more from Valerie David:
Is Putting Your Hand on Your Man’s Inner Thigh Appropriate in Public?
Three Cheap Christmas Napkin Ring Ideas to Make Yourself
Christmas China Dinnerware Shopping at Five Fabulous Stores