By Michelle Schmidt
1. “So what do you think of this whole health care thing?”
You know this one can’t go anywhere good. So unless you’re trying to set off familial fireworks, avoid talking about politics. While you’re at it, skip tragic world events, negative speculations about the future, religious views your family doesn’t agree on, the family member who just got out of jail or anything else that might inspire an argument or make people feel bad.
Instead, Jennie Mitchell, a relational coach in Wilsonville, Ore., suggests the host of the gathering take a proactive role by preparing for positive interaction. One thing she does is gather everyone around the table and ask each person to briefly share from a general prompt, for example, a favorite childhood memory. This makes for a time of personal, balanced and positive communication.
2. “I love your rum cake, but it has never tasted quite like my mom’s rum cake.”
As if getting along with our own family wasn’t hard enough, we’re usually spending some portion of the holidays with our in-laws. According to Mitchell, most conflicts with in-laws arise when family members switch allegiances.
So if you side with your parent against your spouse, go off with siblings and leave your family to fend for themselves or fail to consult your spouse before changing your family’s plans to accommodate a parent’s wishes, you probably deserve the flak you’ll get.
“Realize that your core family is your core family,” Mitchell said. “Your obligation is to each other, not to pleasing other family members.”
3. “Well, it looks like someone is ready to play Santa this year, heh, heh …”
Don’t bring up anyone’s weight. Criticism, whether passive-aggressive or direct, has no part in a family gathering. That said, your relatives might not be reading this wisdom and you might find yourself on the unpleasant end of a critique, weight-wise or other. And when that happens?
“Literally smile and bite your tongue,” said Mitchell, adding the holidays are the perfect time to exercise the adage, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.”
4. “I hate Christmas.”
That might be true — and it is for a lot of people — but that doesn’t mean you need to say so. Even more important than not saying it, is not even thinking it. If 90 percent of our communication is non-verbal — and according to Mitchell, it is — your sour tone and eye roll are a dead giveaway that you’re not optimistic that anyone’s going to have the merry Christmas you’re wishing them.
Deciding to have fun and enjoy yourself no matter what — and yes, it could get ugly — generally makes for a better day and inspires a better response from others than our customary holiday grimace.
6. “Sorry kids, you didn’t get as many presents as your cousins because we don’t want you to be spoiled brats.”
Your extended family members may have different values or opportunities than you when it comes to holiday spending. Pre-empt the present-envy (or mockery) by explaining to your kids ahead of time that money isn’t unlimited and families have to make choices about how to use it. If avoiding debt, saving for family vacation or other values affect your holiday spending, take time to communicate these to your kids ahead of time — just make sure you do it without putting down the other family.
7. “Geez, you’re always so emotional. What is your problem?”
The holidays are an emotional time, even when you don’t use accusatory words like “always” and “never.”
“There’s really high expectations, there’s stress, there’s some people that so look forward to it and some people dread it, so you’re coming into it emotional,” Mitchell said.
In addition to this, she adds that pain from a loss or traumatic situation is heightened during the holidays. Invite all these emotions to gather in a confined space for a few hours and chances are things will get messy.
Mitchell recommends taking preventative measures. Remember that others’ outbursts at you aren’t necessarily about you. Don’t seat yourself by the family member you always fight with. If there’s one person in your family who instigates an outburst every year (induced by emotions, alcohol or something else), talk to them ahead of time, asking them to leave before they react emotionally — or make the decision not to invite them to the big family gathering and arrange to see them another time.
8. “But you’re not doing it right.”
“During Christmas we have ridiculous expectations,” Mitchell said. “People expect it to be perfect, in terms of the meal, the time together … everything has to look a certain way, be a certain way.”
None of us can live up to these expectations. So understand that there will already be a houseful of them, and we’re better off leaving our own at the door. Instead, use the time to think about others.
“It’s about the ‘we,’ not about the ‘I,’ ” Mitchell said.
Schmidt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 305-4578.