Conversational No-Nos To Avoid During The Holidays

The dish you don't want at the dinner table

The holiday season is a joyous time that gives us the opportunity to invite assorted family and friends over for a large meal.

At least it should be a joyous time. These meals require conversation, sometimes between people who—how shall we put this?—wouldn’t typically get along or even socialize. Things can get tricky, fast.

Whether you’re hosting or just a guest, you’ll want each gathering to be festive, lighthearted, and fun. So it helps to think about proper table manners, and not just the kind that dictate where our napkins and elbows go.

There’s an art to conversation, and if you know the right things to say, you’ll keep holiday harmony intact. (And keep the pumpkin pie from flying, too.)

So what should you say? What topics should you avoid? We’ll provide you some of the best answers to some of the worst questions and more!

You voted for whom?

In today’s political climate, this topic is one sure to inflame passions. The last election showed us one of the biggest divides our country has ever seen, yet there’s no need to go into detail about it at the holiday dinner table. We all have an uncle who has different political ideas from ourselves, but now’s not the time to try and convert them from the dark side.

So when a troublesome topic comes up, it’s time to make like a presidential candidate and pivot. Experts call changing the subject “bridging,” and if you look at it this way, you’ll find several natural ways to segue into another topic, says Fast Company.

For example, try to redirect the conversation by turning to someone—maybe even the haranguing uncle himself—and asking an interesting question: “So, Jerry, how are your 10 cats?” Or the less obvious, “I’m so glad you mentioned that, Sandra. I’ve been meaning to ask you …” and ask for details on a related (but less controversial) topic.

Did you go to church on Sunday?

Here’s another hot-button topic, if there ever was one. Religious differences have raged worldwide for as long as there’s been a world, and we are sure they’ve raged among your dinner table as well. It’s hard to bring up religion and expect an unbiased conversation.

If someone is specifically asking about your religious beliefs (or your guest’s), feel free to redirect or simply deflect the question in a vague way. “Oh goodness, people do love to talk about [religion, church, why people believe in X, Y, and Z], ha! Let’s go back to talking about television … Netflix isn’t a religion yet, right?”

Now, pass the yams.

Did you see my new 75" TV?

If the economy and your family’s health are going well, great! More to celebrate at this festive time of year.

If not, though, expect conversation to veer this way without much of a push. Before you comment about how much you spent on your new car, think about different financial situations and the current job climate. Think about how someone struggling with their health might feel to hear you brag endlessly about that marathon you just ran.

To steer away from boasting, try to find common ground about something we can all agree on: “It’s a shame so many in our community are in need. This year the kids collected canned goods for the local food pantries.” “Don’t we all wish we could exercise more! What yoga class do you recommend?”

Did you get a new dog yet?

It’s holiday time, and the kids are on you about getting a new puppy. You’re a bit allergic, but it’s not totally out of the question—you just want a little rest from the topic.

Even though they’re all sitting at the kid’s table, if Grandpa says “Hey, I hear you’re getting them a puppy,” your kids will be on you like white on rice. Cue the eye roll.

In this case, let the others tell their story first. Ask your kids to talk about what kind of dog they want and why. Get a little sentimental and ask Grandpa about his favorite dog growing up. Then, if you absolutely need to make an exit (keep that technique in your back pocket), refresh your drink or go to the bathroom.

These potatoes are so runny ...

Ah, the food sitting there before you. What should you say about it? Well, it strikes us as obvious that someone (or multiple people) went to a lot of trouble to prepare the table!

If something doesn’t fit your fancy, refrain from the snark about the food quality or selection. (And for the love of all that is good and buttery: do not write off an entire country’s cuisine in one fell swoop. Just don’t.)

According to the blog “Dinner: A Love Story,” one way to be a good guest is to show “enthusiasm, curiosity, and gratitude.” Be curious about food: “Is this a family recipe?” is much better than “What is this!?”

You’ll thank us for this suggestion because you’ll be invited back to next year’s festivities 😉.

Mind your own plate

While you may have a rather modest appetite, others may go for what’s behind door number three, four, and five. They’ve come to play, and they aren’t shy about it. And then there’s those of us who can only choose door number three: we’re vegetarian, vegan, or have food allergies.

Refrain from comments like “Hey, save some for the rest of us!” or “Look at you, eating like a bird!” even if you put a forced little fake chuckle in there.

Food is a big part of the holidays, no shaming please! If you follow a specific diet that often prompts questions, prepare a pat phrase you’re comfortable doling out (and don’t feel obligated to elaborate): “I found this is the best diet for me.”

How Is Monica?

Dating and relationships can be tricky. And, if someone is going through a painful divorce or separation in your family, they surely don’t want to talk all about it over holiday dinner.

So, think before you speak … a tough one for some of us. Maybe do a little intelligence gathering before everyone sits down to determine if this road is worth driving down.

This is another instance where it pays to be prepared: if your dating life could come up, have your answer ready. When addressing this or any other tricky topic, be sure to keep your body language strong. Show your confidence and maintain eye contact. There are times when you might have to say, “Thank you for asking, but I’m not ready to talk about that” and mean it. You might suggest something you do want to talk about: “Things are going great at work.”

Remember that time ...

Every family has one or two topics specific to their history that are best left alone. Leave the past in the past. This is not the time to dredge up old hurts or offenses.

And if you have someone who is less than polite at the table—who won’t take a hint—you may have to turn the tables on them. Experts suggest asking “What’s funny about that?” or “Why do you want to know?” and letting the offender try to explain. Some people just need a pointed reminder of this type to correct their behavior.

If you’ve slipped up and these responses are directed at you, handle them with grace, says the Southern Poverty Law Center: “What an insensitive thing for me to say. I’m sorry.”

Now go forth, be merry, and stuff your mouth without biting your tongue.

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