For some of us, Thanksgiving dinner can include a cornucopia of intrusive, inappropriate and anxiety-producing comments from loved ones. (“No plus one this year, huh?” “Wow, your hair went fully gray!” “Are you still unemployed?”)
These remarks can feel more potent when everyone is together, said Mala Matacin, co-chair of the department of psychology at the University of Hartford. Several generations may be fumbling for common ground. Expectations are high. Some people only see each other once a year.
We can also fall into our old family roles, she said. And sometimes, in the face of unsolicited advice from people who’ve known us our whole lives, we regress.
“I know this is true for me,” Dr. Matacin said. “I’m an adult; I’ve had a career.” But once back in the family fold, she says she finds herself thinking, Oh, my God, am I 5?
How, then, do you maintain the peace? I asked experts for advice.
Have some responses at the ready.
If someone starts ranting at the table, I’ve found it helpful to have short replies to draw the line. Here are some favorites I’ve heard from friends: “I’m not your target audience”; “I’m not sure how to respond to that” and “Hey, you might want to turn on your filter.”
If politics are a contentious topic in your family, Matt Abrahams, a lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and author of “Think Faster, Talk Smarter” suggests this quip: “Let’s keep the spiciness in the food and not the conversation.”
It’s best to avoid any dialogue about people’s bodies in general, Dr. Matacin said. But if someone shares unwelcome observations about your weight, I like these two comebacks from Kami Orange, a TikTok creator whose “boundary phrases” have gone viral: “I’m not taking feedback about my body at this time” and “I only discuss that with my doctor.”
Stifle questions ahead of time.
Joy Harden Bradford, a psychologist and author of “Sisterhood Heals,” said that before she was married, she would be pulled into unwanted discussions about her love life during the holidays.
“It was usually my uncles who were the offending parties,” Dr. Harden Bradford said. “Finally, I told my mom, ‘I’m really anxious about this. Can you talk with them before I get home, to say that I don’t want those kinds of conversations?’ And it actually worked.”
If you are anticipating uncomfortable questions — about work, dating or anything else — have someone ask the inquisitor to stop on your behalf, Dr. Harden Bradford suggested.
If the offender persists at the Thanksgiving table, you might try crafting a few responses ahead of time, Dr. Harden Bradford said: “You can say, ‘Oh, I haven’t met the right person yet, but you’ll be the first one to know.’”
Answer an intrusive question with another question.
If someone asks you something off-putting, respond (politely) with a question of your own, Dr. Matacin said.
“In a genuine, curious way, you can say: ‘Why do you ask me that?’” Dr. Matacin said. Putting it back on the person compels an explanation, she said, and it may open up an honest conversation.
You can also change the subject by saying, ‘Oh, thank you so much for asking, but there’s so much more I want to talk with you about,’” Dr. Matacin said.
Do a cost-benefit analysis before starting a fight.
If your Aunt Suzie makes her usual snide comment about how your kids are always on their phones, weigh the pros and cons before you speak up, Dr. Harden Bradford advised.
“Is Aunt Suzie really hurting anybody?” she asked. “Is it going to make everything more awkward because you took on Suzie when you really could have let that go?”
There may be remarks that can’t be let off the hook. Boundaries are necessary so that everyone has a good time. But we all have an Aunt Suzie, and maybe this Thanksgiving we can give her some grace, Dr. Harden Bradford said.
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