The holidays are nigh, which means wonderful things like massive feasts, cool gifts and seasonal booze are around the corner. But another thing comes with the holidays: family, along with all of their quirks and drama. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a family that gets along, there’s always that one aunt, uncle or random family friend who drinks one-too-many Old Fashioneds and starts to pick a fight or gets in your face with inappropriate personal questions. While some of us have our practiced responses down to a science, others may be blindsided if cornered and not know the proper way to react on the spot.
So, to help us all navigate the waters of awkward family functions this holiday season, we enlisted the expertise of Emily Moore, a licensed master social worker in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. We spoke with Moore about common scenarios you may experience with someone who’s nosy, brash, or has simply had too much to drink and won’t leave you alone. Follow her advice so you can breathe easy this year.
Supercall: Coming off a year of tumultuous politics, where opinions differ more than ever, what is the best way to deflect a conversation you know is going to get heated?
Emily Moore: Utilizing humor and more light-hearted conversation generally works to de-escalate someone else's heightened emotion. Now this is not to say make fun of the other person, but lightening up the conversation with a friendly joke or comment will not only ease up the tension, but may also create room for a subject change.
SC: How can you get your own opinion across in a mature way without someone going berserk?
EM: I always think it’s important to make sure the other person knows their opinion is heard and that they have been listened to before delving into one's own opinion on a touchy subject. I find that it’s difficult for a person to get crazy mad at you if they feel their feelings have been heard and validated.
SC: We all have that one aunt or uncle who's a close talker and gabs so much you can't get a word in. What is the most polite way to to step out of the conversation if you have no real excuse?
EM: I get into these situations all the time! If I can't use the excuse of having to go to the bathroom or get another drink (which is usually much needed during an occasion like this), I think the politest way to step out of the conversation is to use the excuse of having to catch up with other people who you haven't had a chance to talk to. No one can get mad at you for that.
SC: When you hit a certain age, people start to ask very personal questions—especially after a few drinks—like “Why aren't you married?” and “When is the baby coming?” Is it possible to give a satisfying answer so they get off your back, without being rude?
EM: Once again, this is where a light-hearted and somewhat humorous comment comes in handy. However, if nothing comes to mind, there are two things I would suggest: One would be to turn the conversation onto the person you're talking to and begin asking questions of your own (people generally love to answer questions about themselves). The other suggestion is to give a general answer that sort of sums up your situation without going into too much detail—like "I'm just focusing on work right now and having fun with friends," or "I'm not too worried about that right now. It'll happen when it happens.” By providing an answer that is succinct and to the point without being mean or too detailed, it doesn't really give the other person much space to ask any follow-up questions.
SC: Let’s say you’re meeting the family of a significant other for the first time, and someone tries to pull you into a fight. How do you politely say you don't want to be involved without offending any of the involved parties?
EM: Oh boy. This one's a doozy. While there is a chance that, because tensions are running high, it will be difficult to please everyone, there is no shame in simply saying, "I'm new here. I'm bowing out of this one!" and clinging to your significant other for dear life.
SC: In the same vein, booze always helps to make you feel more comfortable around strangers, but it can be your downfall if you drink too much. What are some good tactics to help ease you into conversations with new people that don't involve one too many cocktails?
EM: Find common ground—conversation is always easier when there’s something that you're both interested in and know something about. Start off by inquiring about the other person and give them space to tell you about themselves a little bit. Like I said before, people generally like to talk about themselves, so asking broad but conversation-opening questions can get things off to a good start.