How to Avoid Drama at the Family Holiday Table

Holiday season is upon us and for some of us, that means the dreaded comments that seem to follow us into whatever room we go. “We have to be politically correct now, we have a snowflake amongst us.” “All lives matter.” “I don’t see color.” “I stand for the flag because I love this country.” “I’m just going by what the Bible says.” “No one speaks English anymore.” 

Holidays with the family. They sometimes make you want to punch a hole in a wall or drink too much eggnog and take a nap.

For many of us who are committed and passionate about social justice issues, family gatherings can literally become battlefields. What should we do/say when we hear comments from family members that we perceive as horrifyingly opposed to our values? If we don’t confront those statements, are we complicit? If we do and it turns into a blow-out, are we dividing our family over political opinions?

In over 30 years of counseling, I have come to accept that families are unique and messy. There is no one-size-fits-all rule book. It’s whatever works for you in your family.

So, here are a few options when considering hot topic conversations and the possibility of family drama.

Option #1: Opt Out.

You can choose to avoid all topics in the family red zone. If you know that discussions about things you’re passionate about will not come to anything productive and always escalate to the level of insanity, just say no.

Respectfully have a family discussion before you arrive, set those boundaries with your family and stick to them. If you have a setback, as people are learning how to live by the rules often do, just reboot. It can work brilliantly and the detachment from emotionally charged issues seems to allow people the safe space to reconnect.

And by the way, this means you, too! Comments like “Happy National Genocide Day” or “Jesus wasn’t Yeshua’s name and He wasn’t born on this day. This was a holiday that had its roots in paganism and its motivation in anti-Semitic political control” shouldn’t be spoken, no matter how tempting.

Option 1 Alternative Ending: If your family does not agree and will not rein in the racist/sexist/homophobic speech, there’s another form of opting out. Vermont can be beautiful in the holiday season! Just sayin’.

Option #2: Have the conversations well.

For many of us, we will want to have the discussion with our families about issues that we are passionate about. But you understand that realistically, you may not change anyone’s mind. Your expectation is to clearly express your own viewpoint and understand theirs. Even if one small moment of enlightenment happens—like having a family member understand what microaggressions are, but they aren’t ready to watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th documentary with you, you’ve still made progress. Take the win.

Guidelines for having those challenging conversations:

STAY ON POINT.

Try not to bounce around from sexual harassment to Russian influence on social media to Black Lives Matter. When you’re in the middle of a conversation about gun reform laws and Uncle Bob descends into “whataboutism” with “Have you seen the gun violence in Chicago?” this is a diversion. Respond with something like “We’ve lost our primary narrative here, those issues are important, but let’s get back to the original topic.”

LISTEN to what your family member is saying.

Not what you think they are parroting from news outlets, but rather the words they are actually using. Their opinions, if they are like most people, are connected with their own experiences, which are often connected to fears. Listen to them and validate with something like, “When we talk about ‘white privilege,’ I am not negating the fact that you busted your butt to get where you are today. I am not saying it was handed to you. However, when we talk about privilege …” Then tell a real story about a real person you know. Statistics don’t change hearts, other people do.

Speak face to face, you’re talking to a person, you’re not making a speech or posting a rant on social media. Look them in the eyes, let them feel your heart and feel theirs. Live the vulnerability and the respect that you are wanting to see from them.

AVOID SHAME.

When you hear a person say, “I can’t say anything that won’t offend you” or “I guess I’m just one of the stupid people,” there is shame there.

Remember, there’s a learning curve to understanding the meanings of commonly used phrases that may be racist, sexist or xenophobic but your relative never knew why. When you enlighten them, do it without shaming. Let them have that space to learn and then practically apply it. Your relatives are most likely not part of the Alt-right. (At least, I hope they are not. If they are, abort and go for the Vermont option!) So, be careful not to project the anger you have toward that group of people onto your family.

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DO NOT ANSWER ON BEHALF OF OTHERS.

Not for groups or political parties or another person. Not only is it never wise to speak another’s person’s mind, but when you speak for someone or some group that your family opposes, the anger they feel toward them gets directed at you.

Speak your own truth, what you believe and why. If asked to explain why religious terrorists kill innocent people, avoid the sarcastic response, “Which religious extremists are you talking about? Christian ones?” Try answering with, “I don’t know what religious extremists think, I’m not one.”

Even when these guidelines are practiced, there can still be tension. Relatives will often say in family gatherings, “Let’s just have peace.” Which is code for “Keep quiet and don’t disagree with us.”

Here’s the thing about peace, in Hebrew, it’s shalom. We know shalom to mean wholeness and reconciliation.

The spelling of the word using ancient Hebrew pictographs, shin (teeth), lamed (shepherd’s staff), vav (tent peg) mem (rushing water) gives us a deeper understanding of what it takes to have shalom. The word picture meaning is “destroys the authority that establishes chaos.” Peace sounds kind of intense, even warlike, doesn’t it? To have wholeness and reconciliation, we see there is an intense confrontation. This chaos of oppression has established itself and put down its roots in “nice” people’s foundation of their belief systems. But shalom destroys that authority. So let there be peace on Earth, but know that that peace may cause some tension.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells us, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” Amen. 

 

 

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