7 Tips for Awkward Family Gatherings 

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Ever have an awkward family gathering? Here are 7 tips to help make them a little less awkward (and maybe even save your sanity).

Growing up in Chicago with a large Italian family meant four things during the holidays: 

  1. We never went to the Olive Garden – those commercials lie. 
  2. We’d gather together and eat lots of food, including multiple dishes of pasta next to whatever turkey or main course was supposed to take center stage. 
  3. One of my aunts (who couldn’t cook) would bring a can of black olives as her contribution. No one knew why, nor to this day has anyone ever asked her.
  4. There would be lots of expressive family hugs and kisses, and then a huge fight among at least two family members, followed by smaller fights among other families about the huge fight, followed (strangely enough) by a lengthy game of Trivial Pursuit… and lots of expressive family hugs and kisses. 

These gatherings have the potential to be amazing, which is perhaps why you travel long distances in cramped vehicles on icy roads because “your family wants to see you.” The next thing you know, you’re sitting around a huge meal near a distant cousin you have strained conversations with or opening random presents from a well-meaning uncle who assumed you wanted an automated singing moose head. 

Maybe the awkwardness will never completely go away, but you can navigate it intentionally to nurture some of that amazing potential you keep hoping wins out.  

Here are 7 tips for awkward family gatherings that just might save your sanity: 

  1. Change one thing: Your family may have a tradition that keeps things the same every year, or perhaps a rotating schedule for hosting. Either way, decide to do one thing differently this year to be intentional versus passive. For example, bring different food than you normally do or leave earlier than everyone else. Obviously do this with gentleness and respect, but also allow yourself to feel control over the experience instead of reactive.
  2. Recognize the dynamics: Soak this liberating truth in: you probably get along better with your friends than your family, and that’s understandable. You’ve chosen your friends for how they complement your life but your family is bonded to you whether you’re like-minded or not. Realizing this can help you quit expecting everyone to get along and to instead focus more on loving people despite their differences.
  3. Rehearse beforehand: If you know someone is going to bug you about your job, kids, or other personal topic, practice that conversation in your head to develop an intentional response. Feel free to get stealthy, like slyly steering the conversation toward topics you’d rather talk about or giving a simple answer and letting awkward silences do the rest. You don’t have to answer every question in the way someone wants you to answer it. 
  4. Be fully present:  In contrast to the last tip, it’s valuable at times to wholeheartedly talk with family members we disagree with. Let your body language lead the way by giving face-to-face attention; don’t ignore their humanity or an opportunity to be challenged by an alternative perspective. You’re not talking with an irritation – you’re talking with a family member.
  5. Stay off social media: Someone else will be having a better family gathering than you (or at least appear to be). Holidays are often when people go online to brag about how amazing their experience is with hashtags like #WeAreFamily or #TheGreatestLoveOfAll. Take your photos and post them a day or two later so you can take part in your gathering without comparing it to others.
  6. Footnote tensions: Sometimes a family funk happens because of something someone did in the past or typically does at every gathering. Other times the tension is rooted in not knowing what to do with family members who tell us what they think without considering how it makes us feel. If things get intense, mentally footnote why things escalated so you can deal with the source and not merely the symptom. You may also want to identify “problem areas” ahead of time, like a family member who just lost a job or is struggling somehow, so you can show empathy with no strings attached instead of resenting their demeanor. 
  7. Settle in: This is your family. Let me say it again: this is your family. You’re not a victim to their whims but a participant with a voice, so claim your ground and enjoy the experience.  Try connecting with your favorite family members to build up for those who drain you. Build in “outs” by suggesting everyone go see a movie or hit a store together. Look out for the host by using coasters, picking up trash, and keeping kids out of rooms they shouldn’t be in. You’re already there so you might as well get into it. 

Maybe if we keep these simple guidelines in mind, we’ll move beyond fulfilling our obligations and really enjoy time with our family. It might even be fun.

by Tony Myles 

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