How to Survive Holiday Dinner With Your Family

Hot-button subjects are bound to come up around the dinner table—perhaps this year more than ever. Here’s how to deal when your problematic uncle chimes in

Russ Martin
An overhead view of a family holiday dinner

(Photo: iStock)

When the holiday season rolls around there are two time-honoured traditions that we’re pretty much all guaranteed to experience regardless of whether and how we celebrate: We’ll have Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas Is You” stuck on repeat, and we will all fight with our families.

These arguments will range in their level of pettiness, but no one who returns home for the holidays makes it to New Year’s Eve unscathed. And in a culture that feels more divided than ever, disagreements are all but inevitable when hot topics like #MeToo, minimum wage or immigration come up at the dinner table. Maybe you’ll be seated next to an uncle whose holiday aesthetic includes a red Make America Great Again cap (in f’n Canada, no less!!!!), or your cousin who keeps posting flat Earth propaganda on Facebook. Whatever the case, the holidays are here and it’s time to come up with a plan for not losing your damn mind.

The first thing you need to know is this: However zen you intend to stay, political conversations are bound to leave you at least a little shook. A study out of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute shows that  conversations about politics—especially ones that challenge our core beliefs—activate the part of the brain associated with threat, uncertainty and anxiety. There’s also evidence the brain responds emotionally to political conversations, so even if you want to stay chill, your brain might not let you.

Next, accept that the old maxim telling us not to bring politics or religion to the dinner table feels not only outdated, but increasingly impossible. If you avoid talking about gender equality, racial tensions, labour issues and the like, honestly, what’s left other than A Star Is Born? (Please, please, please don’t tell me sports.) And while I could spend the holidays re-hashing the finer points of Ally and Jackson Maine’s love story—and tbh, might—I also feel a responsibility to act as an ally and educator in my family when topics like anti-Black racism or trans rights come up.

I posed that maxim as a question to two super smart women with experience navigating these kinds of conversations, Toronto-based activist and community planner Talisha Ramaroop and Maedean Yvonne Myers, a registered clinical counsellor who works in Vancouver. Ramaroop agrees “it’s impossible not to bring politics to the dinner table.” She says, “There’s nothing that isn’t political at this point. Our everyday lives are political.”

For Myers, it’s more of a judgement call. Basically, she says you have to decide whether the conversation is worth it—especially if your family members won’t budge on their beliefs. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to spend my holidays pushing against a brick wall? Is that how I want to spend this time with my family?’”

“If you’re one of those people who says, ‘You know what? Yes.’ Then I say go for it, but if you’re thinking, ‘I’d rather have more peace and a sense of harmony over the holidays,’ then avoiding some of those really hot button topics can be a good strategy,” she says.

Whatever path you take, it’s essential to go in with a plan. Here, expert tips for what to do when your turkey comes with a side of politics.

Plan ahead—and follow up after

Having allies in your family is crucial, but Myers says the time to reach out to them is actually way before the presents are wrapped. If you know a certain topic might be sensitive for someone in your family, she recommends touching base with them before the holidays to ask how you can support them should a disagreement arise.

“Find out what it is they need to feel supported,” she says. “In a conversation, it might mean being the one who’s willing to stand up and say, ‘This is not a subject I want to talk about’ or ‘I disagree, here’s what I think.’”

It’s doubly important to check in Boxing Day and beyond—especially if things got heated. Being a good ally, Myers says, means reaching out after an incident and saying, “Did I support you in the way you wanted to be supported? How can I support you better in the future?”

Make the political personal

Instead of abstract conversations, try to bring political discussions back to a personal level. If, for example, you’re in Ontario and have a member of Ford Nation in the family, talk about a teenager you know who told you they wish consent was a part of their sexual education at school rather than raging against Doug Ford’s curriculum changes at large.

“People cling to stories,” Ramaroop says. “If I tell a story of somebody who has been impacted by [Ford], that brings a human aspect to it and that’s what people remember.”

And whenever possible, see if you can relate the topic at hand back to something the person in your family you’re talking to has experience with, whether that’s linking queer rights to gender equality when you’re talking to your mom, or the refugee crisis to a parent or grandparent who emigrated to Canada years ago. “Remind people of their struggle and try to relate—even if it’s hard. Find ways to have that conversation.”

Put things into context

In family arguments, Myers says it’s common for people to say things they don’t mean as discussions escalate. That doesn’t let whoever’s throwing insults or saying offensive things off the hook, but there’s often a chance to return to common ground even when it feels impossible.

“I say this coming from a mixed background, where I’ve had some family members say things that made me go, ‘Oh, wow. That’s really offensive,’” says Myers, who identifies as African American and German. “But in their behaviour in their daily lives, they’d never act on what they said in the heat of a political discussion.”

Myers explains the arguments in her family have ranged from religion to women’s rights, race and politics. When things have gotten heated, she reminds herself they’re often arguing for the sake of arguing. “When I’ve disagreed with something a family member has said, sure, I’ll say my piece. But at some point, at least in my family, we love each other.”

“The reality is that people are really complicated,” she continues. “Even though a family member might voice views that seem extreme, it doesn’t necessarily mean they act that way.”

Know when to disengage

You may feel a responsibility to educate your family, but at a certain point, the healthiest thing to do is to walk away, even if it feels like you’re swallowing your pride.

Marginalized people may feel especially compelled to educate their loved ones on topics close to their hearts, Ramaroop says, but we need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves and we’re not causing ourselves any harm when we’re having these types of conversations.

“If you’re feeling like mentally, physically, spiritually you’re not up to it, that’s OK,” she says. “If you need a moment to say: I can’t deal with this uncle right now. That’s fine.”

So, how do we know when to disengage? Myers says the best clues come from within. “Notice what’s happening for you. You might literally have a physiological response like nausea or your heart slamming or finding it difficult to think. That’s a good point to take a break. Take a breath.”

What happens in those moments, Myers says, is that our brains essentially get hijacked. The executive functioning part of the brain stops making cohesive, clear decisions and our system get seized by our emotions. If you can feel your body changing, that’s a good time to excuse yourself and head to the washroom, take a detour to the kids table for a little colouring, or volunteer to pitch in with the dishes.

Ramaroop puts it this way: “Listen to your mind and your body and what it’s telling you. If it’s telling you: Don’t get into this today, Felicia, then maybe don’t get into it.”

If all else fails, take positive action

Post-holidays, self-cafe might mean face masks or meditation or loads of Netflix and leftovers. Myers has an excellent suggestion to add to the list: political action. This is especially pertinent if you got into an argument about a topic where support is urgently needed.

Say your TERF aunt made a derogatory comment about trans people. Instead of stewing on it, find a GoFundMe page raising money for a surgery (there are loads of them!) or advocate for gender-neutral washrooms at your workplace. Maybe your dad said something offensive about Syrian refugees that really upset you. How about volunteering with the UN Refugee Agency?

“If you felt like: ‘God, I’m really not having the influence I’d like to within my family,’ but you still have that energy and you still want to make a difference, then taking some action to do so can be an important part of self-care,’” Myers says.

Whether the holidays turn out to be the most wonderful time of the year or send you into a stress spiral, there are plenty of ways you can have an impact and affect social change. If even THAT fails to make you feel better, I have one last tip: Turn off Mariah’s Merry Christmas and blast “Heartbreaker” instead. It’s a classic that’ll have you dancing around your home in bliss. And it’s good all year.

Related:

12 Millennial Women on How to Get Involved in Canadian Politics
As a Black Woman in 2018, My Creative Expression Is Still a Political Act
Conversion Therapy Is Harmful and Wrong—So Why Is It Still Legal in Canada?

 

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