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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Holiday Mayhem

How are you going to get through the holidays without the stress caused by some family blow-up? Can you manage without wanting to disown your family? Read on for tips to help rein in the holiday mayhem.

The holidays are upon us. No matter what holiday(s) you celebrate, this seems to be the season of our discontent. And tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the U.S. I'm guessing you aren't fretting about an argument over which is tastier, white meat or dark (even though that might be the best thing to argue over).

There are so many things that make the holidays stressful. Perhaps it is the food. Perhaps it is the drunk uncle. Perhaps it is the in-laws. Perhaps it is a pet. Perhaps it is children. I am also guessing it has something to do with unwelcome and uncomfortable conversations.

I have had several people lament that they are dreading getting together with family because they know that inevitable arguments will ensue. They also ask me if I have any tips and tricks to handle those arguments and make things more tasteful (pun intended, of course).

I study conflict and, readers of this newsletter will know, I also study disinformation (sometimes there isn't a difference). Most people are dreading the inevitable holiday dinner table conversations that are riddled with disinformation. Of course readers of this newsletter are always correct because we are geniuses. If only we can get everyone else to agree that we are correct, everything would be smooth as mashed potatoes, pass the cranberry sauce.

How can you maneuver the gathering without resorting to fisticuffs? Here are a couple of things you can try. Caveat: These are pretty tried and true techniques but results may vary. They can't fix every problem, but it may be worth the effort.

  1. Banish the offender to the kids' table. When we were kids we wanted nothing more than to be adults and sit at the adult table. Now that we are adults, we want to be back at the kids' table. But do we really? The seats were uncomfortable, there wasn't much elbow room, and you got food after everyone else that was picked over. (Please tell me this was everyone's experience and not just my family?)

  2. Ignore the comments and don't engage with the speaker. No one likes to be ignored. It may make the person madder.

  3. Tell the offender they are stupid. No one likes to be called stupid and no one is. You may think someone is stupid but don't say it. I can't control your thoughts. There are a number of reasons people believe as they do. If someone doesn't know what you know, it doesn't mean they are stupid. It means they don't know what you know. Future issues of this newsletter will unpack the different reasons people believe. Past issues have also done so.

  4. Start a food fight. As the person who generally cleans up and who does the laundry, please don't do this. It will make me mad. Kids are also starving in Africa and could use the food you are wasting. (The last statement is no longer politically correct, and quite frankly, doesn't make sense, but if you are a member of Gen X, you heard this comment repeatedly throughout your childhood.)

Bad news. The above are not reasonable responses. They may be things you want to do but you shouldn't. Let's discard those and try some of these:

  1. Before getting together, establish what subjects are off limits. In polite company, you generally steer clear of politics, religion, and sex. Family gatherings aren't always polite company. In my family, we've established what is off limits. When someone raises one of those topics, they are politely - and good-naturedly- told they've violated the rules and the subject should be changed. If it persists, you may banish the person to the kids' table even though I said that isn't a reasonable response. (It is sometimes allowed but keep in mind, this person will be talking to the kids. Do you want your kids to hear disinformation?)

  2. Find common ground. You can pick your friends but you cannot pick your family is certainly a true statement. That said, I bet you are reading this because you actually love your family (and your friends). You may not love all the things about them but they probably don't love all the things about you either. Mutual feelings. That said, what else is mutual? There must be some common ground. One of the things my family bonds over is games. We like all sorts of games. A family favorite is pinochle. When you are playing games, you generally aren't talking about politics, religion, or sex. (Choose games that don't have any of those topics as part of the game.) I have yet to see a game like Clue with Biden/Trump in the library with the candlestick (please no one create one). Professor Plum is tame by comparison. Another family bonder may be sports. Thankfully, there is a game of some sort on at all times to distract from politics, religion, and sex.

  3. Walk away. If you know that you aren't going to get anywhere with the argument because you are both set in your ways and in your beliefs, don't engage. That doesn't mean ignore them. You can politely move away from the conversation. Can you go into a different room? Can you take a walk outside? Go the bathroom. You shouldn't be followed there. If it gets really bad and other tips haven't work, leave. There is no need to cause yourself undue stress. I also like to imbibe in a nice red wine but that isn't always the best option either. It becomes truth serum and the sober poker face becomes Medusa with her stone-inducing glare. I digress.

  4. Choose your battles. Your uncle has decided to tell you that he's been abducted by aliens and he's just waiting for the mother ship to return to beam him up, Scotty. Is this really the time for you to point out that you don't believe aliens are real and no one has been abducted? That there have never been confirmed sightings - not officially anyway? Let the poor man have his beer and conspiracy theory. Generally speaking, this particular conspiracy is innocuous.

  5. Choose your battles. Some disinformation may be harmful so decide if you want to engage. If you do, be sure you have accurate and relevant information. What if someone says something related to Covid? (BTW, it's not gone.) How do you respond? Think about what it is that may help to persuade the other person. If you are trying to persuade me, you better come with data and research. I don't want to hear an anecdote. Other people may want to hear an anecdote. I have a friend who thought Covid was no more harmful than the flu. No amount of data was convincing her otherwise. What did the trick? A very close friend died from complications of long Covid. She said to me, "I guess I have to rethink this." That was my "in" to say, "have I got info for you!"

  6. Choose your battles. Some conspiracy theories are not harmless. Generally, if someone has gone down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole - like believing in QAnon - there isn't much you can say or do at the holiday dinner table - or anywhere - to change that person's mind. Try reminding the offender about the ground rules or find some other common ground. Redirecting and changing the subject may work. Go into another room, change the subject or just leave.

In the end, you may just have to say, "we will have to agree to disagree." Or, "I think we need to change the subject because I don't want either of us to say something we may regret." Both are usually signals that the subject should be changed.

I don't generally approve of arguments handled via text message but sometimes the distance helps. For example, a few years ago I argued with a relative. It got very heated and I think we both said things we didn't necessarily mean. After he left we texted each other. We said "I love you and I don't want to argue. Let's agree to not talk about politics or health care when we get together." That was how we established boundaries. We have since gotten together and even shared a long weekend family vacation with no issues.

In all instances, please try to keep your cool. Don't yell, scream, cry, flail, even though that's what you want to do. Try to be reasoned. As a last resort, you can always just kill your family and bury them in the backyard.

(Please don't do that. It's a joke.)

What else might help? There is a fantastic book that is now available for preorder that may help you determine what disinformation is and how you may respond to it. It doesn't show up until April, but get your orders in now. Fake News, Witch Hunts and Conspiracy Theories, an Infodemiologist's Guide to the Truth is my first book! Yay! I am thrilled to share it with everyone. You may preorder here.

If you don't preorder the book, you are destined to be banished to the kids' table forever! They don't serve alcohol at the kids' table. Do you really want to live a life of juice boxes?

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