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What NOT to ask around the holiday table…. and what to say instead

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

The holidays are often a time for gathering with people we don’t see much during the year– distant relatives, neighbors, and friends of the family that by chance or by choice are not part of our everyday lives. At its worst, negotiating the several hours of a holiday dinner can feel painstaking or repetitive. But having a handy list of the questions that avoid causing conflict and instead open up the door to engaging and meaningful conversation can turn those long holiday meals into a time for joy and connection.

The key to success is avoiding these 5 questions:

1)“Have you accomplished X yet?” Common variants of this question include “Have you found a job yet?”, “Are you seeing someone?” and “When are you two planning to have children?”. Although it’s nice to express an interest in what’s going on in someone’s life, all of these questions have the potential to make the recipient feel bad. No one wants to think about their unemployment or difficulty finding a romantic partner at Christmas or Hanukkah dinner. For the one in 10 couples who struggle with infertility, a question about childbearing could stir up serious heartache. You don’t know what pain or pressure might be lurking underneath a delay in achieving some of the milestones in life.

INSTEAD ASK: “What’s new in your life?” If someone has a new job, partner, or pregnancy that they want to share, that question gives them an opportunity to talk about it.

2) “Do you really need to eat all of that?” It should go without saying, but commenting on someone’s body or eating is never helpful and almost always hurtful. There’s a lot of good evidence, familiar to regular readers of this blog, that comments that stigmatize someone based on weight not only do not encourage healthier habits, but can instead worsen physical and mental health. Similarly, don’t talk about your diet. I guarantee there is nothing less interesting than listening to someone talk about being paleo/avoiding nightshade vegetables/going on a juice fast.

INSTEAD ASK: “Which of the desserts is your favorite?” or “What’s in the green beans that makes them so delicious?” Food is a source of joy and comfort around the holidays; treat it as such.

3) “What do you do?” This is one of the most dreaded questions for party guests you don’t know well. Very few people want to talk about work while they’re out having fun. Variants of this question like “How’s XYZ project going at work?” can also feel like a request for a status update, and might stir up unnecessary pressure.

INSTEAD ASK: “Have any good book/TV show/ movie recommendations?” or “What are you looking forward to next year?” Invite people to talk about the things that they love and you’ll amplify the joy in the room. Plus, you might get some great ideas of things you could enjoy.

4) “Have you been watching the news? I can’t believe anyone would vote for Roy Moore/ believe the women accusing Roy Moore/ take a knee during the anthem/ obstruct justice…” Even if you’re in a room full of people who agree with you (which, frankly, you’re probably not), there’s no good reason to get people riled up. Anything that stirs up a lot of negative feeling is probably better left for a more productive time– say, a phone call encouraging your friends and relatives to call their senators or support a fundraising drive you’re starting.

INSTEAD ASK: “Did you see the really nice responses to Keaton Jones?” or “Did you catch that video of the cat petting the bird?” Preet Bharara has a great tradition of ending his podcast each week with a recap of a news story that caught his eye, usually something positive or meaningful. There are plenty of those stories to go around, and they’re another way of expressing your values (be it anti-bullying or pro-cat) without risking setting off a tinderbox of bad feelings.

5) “How come you never visit?” or “Why don’t you call your mother more often? She’s worried sick about you!” These well-meaning questions usually backfire. Psychologists know that behaviors people do because they feel forced (or guilted) into doing them don’t tend to last. Instead, the goal should be to increase someone’s internal motivation to engage in that behavior– to make them feel like visiting, calling, or sending weekly Bitmojis is something that they enjoy and value.

INSTEAD SAY: “I’ve been thinking a lot about you since I saw you last, and wondering how things are going for you.” Express your genuine affection and try to make the conversation positive instead of punishing.

Most importantly, try to go into these conversations with your values front and center– why do you want to be a part of this meal? How can you use this time together to strengthen connections, learn something new, or spread some joy? Letting your values, rather than a sense of obligation, steer your holiday interactions is a surefire way to increase your own happiness and sense of meaning during this celebratory time. Happy holidays!!

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