I’ve been on the receiving end of countless awkward comments. Unfortunately, I’ve uttered plenty of them too. Navigating social situations is a bit like dodging roadside IED’s while blindfolded. The obstacle course often gets more treacherous at family gatherings during the holidays. Christmas get-togethers are already rife with turmoil and stress. Merely sharing surnames and relatives doesn’t mean anyone will agree on anything: faith, politics, diet, fashion, or even what’s funny. Why would anyone want to pile on and make an already difficult situation more strained? “Pass the green bean casserole, Uncle Ned, you pony-tail wearing, commie-loving hippie!” Obviously, not appropriate. But what about the more veiled remarks delivered with the best of intentions? These little conversational nuggets are the dirty bombs of small talk. The gift that keeps giving—like my father-in-law’s homemade sugar-free cranberry sauce which packs a bitter wallop upon first taste, but the memory of that punishing, mouth-puckering sharpness lingers a lifetime.
While we are all at risk of saying something blundering, there is no need to approach the next party with trepidation. In an effort to promote peace and goodwill this Christmas, I’ve compiled a list of 5 things you should never say at family gatherings. These are friendly little exchanges that may seem well-meaning, but can ramp up the tension faster than you can say, “Donald Trump.” Don’t step in it!
5 THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER SAY AT FAMILY GATHERINGS:
1. You’ve lost/ gained weight!
Even if the weight loss or gain is dramatic, please keep a lid on it. It’s too tricky to comment on someone’s weight. They may have slimmed down due to sickness or depression. If they’ve packed on pounds, they don’t need someone pointing it out in front of the whole family. A better way to handle the visual change—“You look nice!” Leave it at that. If you don’t think they look nice, don’t say anything other than a genuinely warm greeting. Unless you’re confidants, it’s not appropriate to have a heart to heart with someone about their weight in the middle of a bustling kitchen. A good rule of thumb, refrain from making pointed comments about people’s looks. No one wants to hear they look heavy, exhausted, pasty-faced, scrawny, or anything else that happens to occur to the observer.
2. Are you engaged/ married/ pregnant yet?
This line of questioning is wrong on so many levels. It makes light of a deeply personal and important step in a couple’s life. Even if you’re dying to know when your cousin is going to pop the question, it’s inexcusable to pester him about it over cocktails with extended family. Unless private information is volunteered, it’s just impolite and nosy to pry it out of someone. Putting pressure on a dating/ engaged couple as to when they plan to change their status is in bad form. Bringing it up over ham and turkey is obnoxious and embarrassing. In the same way, while baby news is always thrilling, asking a couple about pregnancy is crossing a line. Consider that the couple may be struggling with infertility, or have a history of miscarriages. Even if there are no problems, Emily Post would surely scoff at such a forward question. Always better to let someone open that line of conversation if and when they choose to do so.
3. Cheer up! It’s the best time of the year!
It’s hard for some to imagine that Christmas could be a trigger for depression, but that is the reality for many. Those who are grieving, alone, or away from home can find Christmas an extremely difficult time. If someone seems down, rather than drawing attention to it and ordering them to change their mood (which accomplishes the opposite) a better approach might be to offer warmth and affirmation. “I’m so glad you came to the party. I bet it’s not an easy time for you. We are blessed to have you here!” And if that doesn’t seem appropriate, just let him/ her do the talking. It is not necessary to fill all silences with chatter. Sometimes the strongest words are the ones left unspoken. Showing gentle deference to someone who is struggling is a selfless, Christ-like gift. Do your best to accompany people in their depression and pain, which means don’t aim to fix them!
4. Why are you still single? I know someone I can set you up with!
Talk about conversation killers… The implied question behind the question here is “What’s wrong with you?” Showing up to parties without a significant other can be tough enough. Don’t make someone feel worse by putting them on the spot, adding to their self-consciousness. Rather, try to make the person feel comfortable and valued. “It’s good to see you again. The party just kicked up a notch!” Avoid discussing their solo status. And here’s a tip, no one wants to be set up with your thirty-year-old second cousin who lives in his parents’ basement, even though he’s probably a really great guy.
5. Why aren’t you drinking? or Why aren’t you having any dessert?
Don’t be the kind of dinner guest who thinks it is his job to monitor everyone’s fun quotient. If someone chooses not to imbibe or indulge in holiday confections that is their business. Period. They certainly don’t deserve to be called out on it. It’s presumptuous to think that everyone has to be drinking or surfing the dessert table in order to experience fun. Besides, some who abstain from such indulgences may have perfectly legitimate reasons for doing so. Even if they don’t, it’s still no reason to insinuate yourself. Butt out! Peer pressure was stupid in high school, but it’s beyond boorish when attempting adulting. Make an effort to track your own intake and all will be fine.
Getting through the holidays without stepping in it can seem nearly impossible! But adhering to some of my mom’s sage advice, “think before you speak,” will certainly help you limp across the finish line. And when you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these little zingers, do your best to roll with it. The key is to politely and kindly let the offender know they’ve gone too far with their probing question/observation. Don’t let someone’s social clumsiness ruin your fun. Move on, but above all, do not forget it. It will make a great story at the next party. Did I mention the time I was 8 months pregnant and a family member said I looked just like an oompa loompa? Good stuff, right?
God grant us all patience and wisdom at our next holiday event.