Opinion: Home for the holidays

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Family dinner table.

With Thanksgiving just behind us and the December holidays fast approaching – or already upon us, if you celebrate Hanukkah – many of us are in the middle of navigating the playing field of large family gatherings with rarely-seen relatives.

The standard questions are to be expected, of course: extended family often seems to be uninterested in anything but your love life and what you plan to do after you graduate. This can be paired with a total lack of awareness that you may not, in fact, want to be manhandled by 20 different people who think they need to comment on how big you’ve gotten, despite the fact that you stopped growing a good 10 years ago by now, for the unique and liminal feeling that you occupy a space in your relatives’ minds that is mostly child with enough adult qualities thrown in that they don’t feel the need to filter their conversation around you, even when you would very much rather not hear about how much sex your aunt thinks your cousin is having.

So how do you deal with this? How does one prepare for the inevitable truckload of emotional labor that must be performed, politely jumping through every hoop presented in order to survive gatherings of extended family without dissolving entirely?

There are a few things that may help if this sounds like a familiar situation. The most obvious is to stay with someone that you’re close to such as a sibling, close-in-age cousin or even a parent if you know they’ll be having a similar experience.

Any uncomfortable experience becomes instantly more tolerable if you have someone to trade meaningful looks with and who can commiserate when your grandparents ask when they’ll be getting great-grandbabies. It can also be beneficial to have a series of stock answers prepared, so that when the expected questions get asked you don’t have to spend an awkward few seconds reaching for an answer that will end the conversation as quickly as possible.

The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that if a conversation is making you uncomfortable, you are allowed to say no. Most people will back off after a calmly delivered, “that’s a little personal, don’t you think?” If they keep pressing anyway after you’ve made it clear you don’t want to answer, you can repeat that you don’t think this is a topic they need to know about – and remember, you are always free to walk away from a conversation that is ignoring your personal boundaries. If you, like me, have trouble maintaining your boundaries at these kinds of events out of fear of seeming rude, keep in mind that it is not rude to protect yourself.

The holidays can be a fun and exciting time, but they can also be difficult for the more private and retiring among us. Hopefully these reminders will help to make family gatherings a little easier to traverse, no matter what holiday you’re going home to celebrate.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Ayres, Getty.

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