The Art of Holiday Conversation

Donna Ison


Loose lips sink... gravy boats!

The holidays have a way of bringing out both the best…and the worst in us. Careless comments made at the dinner table can leave a bitter taste for months to come. And this year offers some special challenges with families choosing to celebrate in new and untested ways. Psychologist Robin Salyer Fleischer offers some sage advice on how to keep this holiday as sweet as candied yams.  

“Thanksgiving: Bringing out the best in family dysfunction since 1963.” — Anonymous

Talk Turkey… Literally

If you’re opting for the traditional family gathering, Fleischer offers this basic rule; “Keep in mind that being polite, ‘thankful,’ and kind is always in style. So, talk about subjects that one is grateful for, say kind things to others, and respond respectfully when spoken to. This will generate a ‘safe environment’ for conversation.”  

Here are few topics to keep the conversation civil:

• Share favorite recipes, along with a memory of the first time you ate/cooked it. 

• Discuss your best vacation or dream destination.

• Name a valuable lesson or skill you’ve learned over quarantine. 

• Ask grandparents/parents to talk about their wedding day or the days the children were born.

• Discuss books or movies that changed you in a positive way.

• And, of course, you can go around the table and have each person announce what they are most thankful for this year. 

That’s a Pie in the Face

However, if Cousin Melissa can’t hold her tongue (or Uncle Frank can’t hold his liquor) and tensions do arise, there are a few things you can do keep it from it turning into an all out food fight. According to Fleischer, “It is good to think through possible scenarios prior to going to a family function, especially if tensions and arguments have been known to happen. Always, always have an exit plan to keep yourself psychologically and emotionally protected. If you feel uncomfortable when tensions break out, feel free to go ahead and leave—we don’t have to play referee at every family game.”

Virtual Victuals

Fleischer, who is a Board Certified TeleMental Health Provider, has seen firsthand how effective communicating via Zoom or another platform can be. She says, “Perhaps a virtual holiday dinner can be in the works. Share recipes prior and bring the family together through a Zoom mealtime. It’s time to be creative and to give ourselves permission to ‘switch and pivot’ with new plans.” 

Here are a few tips to make your virtual soiree a success: 

• Planning makes perfect; decide on the number of courses and plan a shared menu, so you will each be enjoying the same foods at the same time. 

• Do a mini, mock run the week prior, so you don’t waste time with lighting, sound, or technical glitches on the day. 

• Set the table. Use your best china and cherished glassware to add an element of elegance. 

• Choose either a simultaneous soundtrack or silence, so you don’t have competing background noise. 

• For an added element of fun, each person can pick a different Zoom background to reflect their personality. 

Table for One, Please. 

And, finally, if either health concerns, financial restrictions, or personal preference cause you to opt for dining alone, there are still ways you can feel connected. Fleischer states, “Sharing with others what we have, volunteering in the community, and being thankful even in our challenges, will create an atmosphere of gratitude and celebration.” So, take the opportunity to start a gratitude journal, donate to a worthy cause, volunteer, write letters or emails to family members telling them why you appreciate them, or spend time in nature and reflect on its wonder. 

Ultimately, the holidays are about celebrating another year passed and acknowledging there are fewer to come. Fleischer says, “Life and holidays are about joy. It’s not a dress rehearsal, and we only have one opportunity to enjoy our time.”