Notice that’s “inside voice,” not “indoor voice.” You know the voice–the kind, smart, “I don’t have to win this” voice we are all born with but somehow manage to trample underfoot as we begin to compete and learn the joy of winning.
Thanksgiving dinners can be stressful. You know that. So do I. I wrote about surviving Thanksgiving with a crowd, as well as getting through Thanksgiving by yourself several years ago. The advice still stands.
This year is a particularly ticking time bomb. Not everyone agrees. In fact, we agree to disagree a lot of the time.
Much of the battles happen in your head, fewer actually take place, if you manage your emotions and your tongue. Here are some ways to set boundaries, manage them, and survive Thanksgiving this year.
- You are not going to change any minds about anything at the dinner table. I know, you think if you trot out just one more great fact, Uncle Harvey will admit he is wrong and see it your way. Except, it doesn’t work. Uncle Harvey has been stoking his ideas from inside his bubble with TV shows, viewpoint journalism, and radio talk shows for decades. Your brilliant facts will not faze him one iota. Don’t take his bait, and don’t try to hook him into agreeing with you.
- Practice small talk. This is hard if you are an introvert. We don’t like small talk and are often not good at it. That is the exact reason you need to practice. Learn several phrases that don’t take sides and can serve as topic waxers–they gloss over the top and are easy to slip into conversation.
- “We are having such a [cool, long, warm, unexpectedly delightful, rainy, snowy] fall, aren’t we?
- “How was your flight?” (That should be good for 20 minutes of complaining while you help yourself to more dressing.)
- “Such a cute [nice, bold, clever] T-shirt! Where did you get it?”
- “That color looks wonderful on you! It brings out the color in your eyes.”
- Is this Grandma’s recipe for the turnips?
- Have several safe topics to bring up for discussion. They do not have to be about history, current events, or the Constitution. Examples:
- If you have the opportunity to try something new, does the fact that you have not tried it before make it more or less appealing?
- Would you like to choose a design for a postage stamp? Would you like to put your own picture on it or something you are passionate about? (No criticizing answers, just keep chewing.)
- What home routine do you never want to change? (“Your” side of the bed, a brand name toothpaste, putting on one sock and then that shoe or both socks, then both shoes.)
- Would you rather play a game with someone more skilled or less skilled than you are? Explain circumstances that would make you change your mind.
- Have a group of questions available that any person can answer. One person asks the question, each person gets 30 seconds to answer, no one judges the answers.
- You catch a foul ball at the fame. There is a 5-year-old sitting in front of you. Do you let him have the ball?
- You notice you have been given $10 more in change than you should have received. You are still in the store. What do you do?
- You choose a paint color. You try a swatch. You hire a painter. The color on the wall looks awful. What do you do? The painter is being paid by the hour.
- You are about to give a big presentation. Your fly zipper (or bra strap) rips. You do not have time to repair it. What do you do now?
- If you hear something that sounds like an insult, you do not have to answer or respond. Your messy divorce, your affair, your inability to conceive–you are not obligated to explain or defend your decisions. You can smile and say, “let’s talk about something else”–and ask one of the questions above. If the questioner persists, smile (again) and say, “Oh, let’s talk about this some other time.”
- If someone will not stop bulllying or demeaning you, you also do not have to answer. You can turn to someone else and start a conversation. You can say, “thanks for asking, but I’m not going to continue that line of conversation.” If you are called a chicken or made fun of, pretend you didn’t hear. If the comment is repeated, say, “Oh, I heard you. I decided not to answer.” Break eye contact. Ask for more ice water, or better yet, get up and say, “Does anyone else want more water?”
- Don’t snap at bait. There are people who love to bait others at Thanksgiving. They often do it for shock value and to see if you will squirm. It is very hard not to. It’s also hard not to snap back, “I’m not going to fight with you,” or “You are not the boss of me!” That line of answer just encourages more goading.
- Set your boundaries before you set the table. Once you have set a boundary, it is your boundary to protect. People, even those who love you, will try to get you to change your mind, belittle your boundary, laugh at your decision, call you cruel, tell you how angry you made them, declare you selfish, and do everything they can to roll their verbal tank over your white picket-fence boundary. Your boundary, your rules. Think about your boundaries, then state them and protect them.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who teaches writing.