Even though all that “making seasons bright” noise can be a load of crap, generally, you can get into it. The holidays are a pretty wonderful time of year. Holiday dinners are the season’s pinnacle, when you spend your time eating perfectly browned birds, creamy potato goodness, and, of course, pie with relatives who you mostly love.
But add in an opinionated uncle or two, and you’re in for a loud and stressful night spent arguing about politics instead of consuming all those different types of pie. You are smart, mature, and know your stuff. Uncle Joe, not so much. It’s a difficult dance between delicately proving him wrong and biting your tongue to avoid a full-blown fight and that token “I’m disappointed in you” look from your father. Brutal. Here’s how to navigate an argument while keeping spirits high and maintaining your seat at the adult table.
You wouldn’t charge into a war zone with no helmet, right? You’re not insane. Likewise, you don’t want to sit down at the dinner table, expecting a nice meal followed by a really excellent pie, completely unprepared for your weirdo second cousin prodding you about this year’s election cycle and his views on “all those damn plant-eating hippies” (very much against). You usually love talking about controversial subjects with your friends, but your relatives aren’t your friends. Get ready before the meal, so you’re not left angry and stressed.
- Do your homework. Anticipate anything they might talk about in the days leading up to the dinner. If there are any hot-button issues in the political landscape, like an election or a Supreme Court decision, prepare to talk about them rationally. If you’re ready, you’re less likely to fly off the handle.
- The key to getting through this meal unscathed is to keep the conversation apolitical and unsexy whenever possible. Keep your statements mild or maybe don’t express an opinion at all. Figure out in advance which topics may push you over the edge, then practice your best “I’m totally fine, everyone!” face in the mirror. Predict how you may react to these issues, then brainstorm ways to calmly talk about them.
- Use tried-and-true calming techniques to keep the stress at bay. Look up meditation practices or breathing exercises beforehand. Learn them, love them, and write them on a freakin’ index card if you have to. When your least-favorite aunt is yammering on and on about the proper way to de-fur angora rabbits for coats, you’ll be glad.
- During dinner, call on these techniques. (See? Homework can be fun!) Before responding, slowly count to five in your head. This will give you time to really go over what you’re going to say instead of the more satisfying but ultimately less beneficial response: angrily storming out of the room and declaring Thanksgiving the worst holiday.
Argue Like an Adult
You’ll want to fight the impulse to argue because it can easily turn into yelling, banging your fist on the table, or throwing a turkey leg or two. It’s fine to just let it go. You will save yourself an unwanted fight and a turkey. But sometimes, you may want to get into it. If you do decide to debate, you should do so like the grown-up you are — calmly and effectively.
- Remain courteous throughout. Don’t interrupt, shake your head, roll your eyes, or look away. Don’t bicker or call anyone names. You don’t have to keep an open mind, just seem as if you’re keeping an open mind. You’re less likely to anger your relative, and everyone at the table will be less tense.
- To show you’re receptive and open, let your relative make their points first. You’ll seem as if you’re listening, and you’ll have more time to craft the perfect, smart-sounding zingers.
- Use evidence to support your point. Do a little research beforehand, so you arrive armed with actual real-life facts to carry you through to victory. Knowledge is power, my friend. You’ll appear cool, collected, and even intelligent! Your vitriolic uncle on the other hand, with his arsenal of garbage pseudoscience, will be left sputtering with giblets nestling in his beard (which is the best revenge, really).
- Stay on topic. When you’re angry and emotional, it’s easy to get lost. Even if you’re feeling a lot of #feelings, you’ll appear a lot less frazzled if you don’t meander and move on to other arguments. Focus, focus, focus.
- Know when to retreat. If the argument reaches its boiling point, quickly change the subject to something less controversial. In a situation where your opponent is less likely to change his mind (you know, because he’s old and stuff), it’s more mature to ease the tension than win. You don’t want this to turn into “The Year George Threw Mashed Potatoes at Granny.”
Don’t Get Personal
Adequate preparation may not prevent you from getting all hot and bothered at the table, especially when someone is just flat out wrong. This is not good. You should be strategizing the most efficient method of fitting two servings of potatoes and four slices of pie in your stomach, not the best way to verbally conquer poor home-schooled Cousin Tessa. Remember: this isn’t personal.
- Disassociate from the issue being discussed. This may be difficult. Maybe you’ve spent years therapy-petting de-furred rescue rabbits, or maybe you are just morally opposed to fur outerwear in general. This argument isn’t about you, so use the meditation techniques described above and let it go.
- Don’t open old wounds or make personal attacks. The fact that your older brother wet the bed until age twelve has no place in your argument about animal rights (or anywhere, really).
- Remember that the way your family member thinks about something doesn’t say anything about you as a person. Because you share genes, it’s easy to take a family member’s political views as some personal affront to you as a rational, thinking human. Don’t do that. It’s not worth your time.
- Likewise, the way your family member thinks about something doesn’t say anything about them as a person. They’re still family. Sure, you may disagree with your dad’s regrettable politics, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you and didn’t clean your butt back in the day. Respect that.
Make an Escape Plan
If things get really bad, all of the above might not be enough to help you avoid stress. Worst case scenario: you’ll want to get out as fast as possible. But don’t leave all that wonderful pie behind: just think of a way to temporarily escape. Claim stomach problems and make the bathroom your new home. Or use your phone to maintain constant contact with the outside world. You’ll need your friends to remind you that you’re not crazy and keep you from turning into a weird old curmudgeon like the rest of your extended family.
At the end of the day, never forget why you’re here: to give thanks to the turkey gods. Make sure you don’t let Uncle Joe see you sweating your way through your argument. Instead, throw on a few solid swipes of Gillette Clear Gel. You’ll be able to get through the meal intact, relaxed, and stress-free. #NoSweat.
Nandita Raghuram is a Senior Writer for Studio@Gawker. She tweets here.
Illustration by Rob Dobi.