When are you getting married? When are you having kids? What are you going to do with that degree? Is your life everything you hoped for and more? Why don’t you call more often? I’m just making conversation!
People are notoriously annoying when it comes to sticking their noses in your business. Throw in the word “family” and suddenly all boundaries are gone. What do you mean you don’t want to hear about Aunt Denise’s surgery or answer intimate questions about your personal life? You also don’t want to Skype your boyfriend in the family room so everyone can meet him? But we’re family!
Unless you’re planning to cut ties completely, sometimes you just have to cringe and bear it. Make the small talk, eat the potlucked food, outlast the uncomfortable hugs. But, like any social situation, it’s better to be prepared. You’ve probably already developed your own coping mechanisms by now, but really, can you ever have too many ways to survive awkward family dinners? No, no you can’t.
Bring a book.
You have two basic options here: bring a book you can easily get lost in while you tune out the rest of the family, or bring a book that makes you look good reading it. Obviously the best course of action is to hide and read in peace, but that isn’t often easy when a house contains twice the amount of people it should. So as you nestle yourself into the farthest corner of the couch, what are you going to read? You’ve only got one shot—put away one book and pull out another and people will pounce.
There are pros and cons to each approach. If you bring something you can easily get lost in, like a high fantasy or nondescript YA, there’s a chance your relatives will judge you for it. No matter which book you pull out, you’ll inevitably get the “What are you reading? Is it any good?” so you’ll have to be prepared to back up your choice (or just perfect your noncommittal, uninterested grunt). You may even be accused of anti-sociability or squandering quality family time, so the book also has to be worth the potential fallout.
On the other hand, if you bring something prestigious, like a classic or one of those books like Infinite Jest that everyone says they’re going to read but hasn’t, your ability to ignore everyone will be hindered by the heavy prose, but when you’re asked what you’re reading, you can crow your literary accomplishments proudly, and Uncle Bill might add a smidgeon of respect to that liberal arts degree disdain. Or, if a holiday miracle occurs, you might find that one other family who’s also read it, and you’ll actually have something in common with someone. But don’t get your hopes too far up.
It’s a gamble either way, but going to a family get-together without a book entirely is just asking for disaster. You never know when you’ll have the opportunity to escape. And if you don’t take it, well, say goodbye to peace and quiet and hello to a rousing game of family-friendly charades.
Have answers ready.
The surest way to end up in familial conversation hell is to answer a question wrong. One slip-up and you’ll be talking about that thing you really didn’t want anyone to know about all night. You don’t actually know what you want to do with your major? Everyone else knows what you should do! Recently started dating someone? Your fam will know her better than you do by the end of the night. Even if you like being the center of attention, you can benefit from having your answers to these invasive questions ready. Wouldn’t want to accidentally answer with something that will move the conversation onto someone else!
Most reunions revolve around the same basic questions that no one really has a good answer to. They might vary family to family, but you’ll probably have to deal with the basics: What are you doing with your life? Who are you doing it with? And what are you planning to do in the future? Deceptively simple. Riddled with pitfalls.
No one can answer them for you—unless, of course, you made deals involving some shady backdoor cash or favors with another disillusioned family member—so just know what you’re getting into. And be ready for it.
Have questions ready.
If you’re just fielding questions all night, people might start getting the idea that you don’t actually want to talk to them. Even if that’s true, it’s never a good feeling to give somebody. And it could suck you into an argument or lecture rivaling that time Cousin Sue tried to sneak out mid-dinner to meet her boyfriend for a movie. Nobody wants that. So along with the answers you’ve prepared, come up with a few questions you can ask anyone. Not ones that encourage long, drawn-out, inescapable conversations, but also not ones with yes or no answers. It’s a fine line to walk, but no finer than the one where you avoid any mention of anything having to do even remotely with politics. If you can do that, this will be easy.
Before you get there, try to remember all the major life events that have happened recently. If you don’t know or don’t care, check Facebook. Surely at least one relative overshares the lives of half the family. Ask about weddings, ask about graduations, ask about promotions. Bonus points if someone had a baby. That will buy you a solid half hour of dutiful conversation with minimal effort. Avoid bad things, obviously. Empathy takes so much more effort than ooh-ing and ahh-ing over pictures of a new house/pet/child/Xbox.
If you don’t want to get that personal, ask about popular movies. Talk about the restaurant that your brother-in-law recently checked into for the 5% off coupon. Have they heard that there’s a recall on lettuce again? Take in interest in their lives and opinions without getting answers that you’ll have to remember next time.
Feign a sickness.
Sometimes, if they’re going to treat you like you’re twelve, you might as well act like it. It’s not the most dignified response to awkward situations, but if it works for possums and Ferris Bueller, it could very well work for you, too. Stomach ache, period cramps, headache—go for something undiagnosable that no one can argue with. Depending on your family, it could earn you the rest of the evening in a quiet room, or you could be told to suck it up, buttercup, and it’ll only earn you the twenty minutes it would take an Advil to kick in. If that.
Maybe don’t use this as anything but a last resort, but it’s good to have on hand, just in case.
Actually engage and make conversation.
It’s easy to approach family reunions with dread and count the hours until they’re over. But what if you tried… not doing that? Situations will rarely surprise you; if you go into family time thinking it’s going to be terrible, it almost inevitably will be. But if you go in with the idea that maybe at least one relative will have an interesting story or two, and maybe one other is worth actually talking to, well, that could happen, too.
Take an interest in the play-by-play of Nephew Jack’s Little League game. Play video games and sneak food with all the cousins still too young to drink. Share a glass of wine with Great Aunt Sally and find something that the two of you have in common. There’s a good chance she actually is interested in your life and what you’re planning to do with it. And who knows? Maybe she even has a friend in knitting club that can get you an in at that perfect job.
It takes the same amount of effort to engage and smile as it does to maintain a chip on your shoulder all night. So why not bring everyone’s morale up?
It’s easy to think that these people you have nothing in common with but blood and marriage are useless to you. And no matter how many times your mother tells you that you’ll actually want them around later in life, you’re probably not going to believe her. But burning bridges without good reason may very well come back to bite you. Connections are connections, and you were born into these. All you have to do is not screw it up.
Make the most of it. Enjoy it. After all, you’re family.