Ahh, the holidays. That joyous time of year where we all forget our problems and bliss out on turkey, latkes, binge shopping and wassailing. While it should be a time of pure merrymaking, let’s face it—nothing is as placid as Currier and Ives would have you believe. Not only can it be a time of family tension, money worries, elevated anxieties and social pressures, but some people don’t even celebrate and are frequently put into awkward positions among all the warm wishes. For those of us who do partake in holiday traditions, this should be a time for rejoicing and connecting to our loved ones—but what if those loved ones make you want to swallow a wishbone whole?
Let’s talk about some strategies for dealing with uncomfortable social situations and get you through the holidays feeling brighter than Rudolph’s nose.
1. Your super offensive relative
We all have one. I have several. There are entire movies made about this person—that one awful, terrible person you are unlucky enough to be related to who is hell-bent on turning every gathering into a form of punishment. No matter if you’re talking social issues, recipes, or sharing anecdotes, this person somehow manages to be made of absolute garbage. So how do you deal?
-Ask yourself if you do, in fact, HAVE to deal with them. Can you skip the dinner they are at? Or show up for dessert after they’ve left? If this person is so toxic that it causes you emotional or mental anguish to be near them, give yourself the gift of passing on the party. You don’t even need a good excuse, because everyone else is likely aware of their behavior. Simply saying, “I can’t make it this year” or “How about we get together one on one?” are fine ways to dodge the interaction.
-Gird your loins. If you have no choice but to interact, or they show up and ambush you, take a moment to remind yourself that their behavior is THEIR problem. Sure, you will be exposed to it, but as soon as the day is over, you can go back to your normal life where you aren’t sharing pie with complete jerks. Take a few deep breaths, tell yourself its temporary, and be prepared to focus on what YOU want to get out of the day. Uncle Bob mouthing off about his support of Donald Trump? Excuse yourself to a different room or step outside. Text a friend. Grab another relative for a quick chat on the patio.
-Prepare your guests. If you’re bringing a friend or partner home, have a conversation beforehand about what to expect. If Grandma Helga is going to tell racist jokes over Jell-O, make sure you’ve prepped your pal.
-Change the subject! When Cousin Larry starts spouting off conspiracy theories, acknowledge it with a “Hmm, interesting—hey, who made this gravy? Can I get the recipe?” Don’t allow room in the conversation for your rude relation to set the tone for the day. Keep people talking about things you’re interested in.
-Set some ground rules. A few years ago, I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for my entire family (including several people I’d rather never see again) and beforehand, I did some ultra-control freak planning. At every place setting, I wrote out a question for each person to ask/answer over dinner. These were things like, “What is your favorite Christmas carol?”, “What’s the best vacation you’ve ever taken?”, “Which kind of pie are you most excited to eat?” Not only were these neutral topics, but they kept the conversation flowing in a positive, happy direction.
2. You are passing on the holidays this year
Look, it happens. Sometimes you just aren’t up for the entire to-do. Needing a break from the holidays is perfectly valid, even if it can make some conversations a little difficult.
-Use social media for good. Post a very neutral, concise status about how you will be spending the holidays and your wishes for your family and friends. “Hey guys! This has been a crazy year and the best decision I can make for myself is to skip the holidays and focus on some other priorities. I hope everyone reading this has an amazing time and knows that you are all in my heart. I kindly ask that you not invite me to any parties or gatherings, as I just don’t have the energy for it right now. As well, I won’t be able to stay on top of exchanging gifts or cards, but I’d love to spend time with you as our schedules permit. I’ll give this thing a go again next year and thank you all for your amazing, considerate friendships.”
-If your co-workers or acquaintances ask about your holiday plans, there’s no need to get into it. Simply explaining that you aren’t celebrating this year (or ever) is fine. Ask them about their plans, so they know it’s okay to mention it, or if you feel up to it, elaborate about why. “The holidays aren’t really my thing, but I’d love to hear more about what you’re up to.”
-Remember, people want to wish you well, but sometimes they don’t realize they might be stepping on a landmine. It’s okay to set boundaries—just communicate as well as you can, and understand that people want to engage. Let them know which ways work best for you.
3. Being asked stupid questions
it’s probably going to happen. Be prepared with some responses that range from avoidance to throwing shade right back at your nosy relative.
“Say, when are you going to get married?”
Change the subject: “Who knows—hey, check out this picture of my dog in a sweater!”
Be diplomatic: “You know, not super into talking about that today, but how’s your relationship going?”
Be direct: “That’s not a question I feel like discussing. Please don’t ask me again.”
“Have you gotten a real job yet?”
Change the subject: “Have you tried the stuffing?”
Be diplomatic: “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘real job,’ but I’m very happy at work. Thanks for asking!”
Be direct: “I’m not sure why you’d want to minimize my professional accomplishments.”
“Are you really having seconds?”
Change the subject: “Yep! Everything is great. Gonna go grab a drink.”
Be diplomatic: “Yes, would you like me to grab you something?”
Be direct: “I’m not sure why you feel like it’s appropriate to monitor my food intake. Please refrain from making any such comments in the future.”