With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many of us will be headed home for the holidays, anticipating massive portions of turkey, gravy, and contentious conversations. Unless your family has some strange accord of opinions on all things that may be discussed in passing, there's likely to be some friction at times between family members. Thankfully, there are a few easy ways to change the subject when your relative brings up the kind of uncomfortable topics that will make you cringe, irritate you to no end, or even leave you seething in resentment.
As inevitable as death and taxes are arguments with your weird uncle after they've had one too many PBRs. Steering him away from topics that may lead to you throwing the turkey at his face is usually the best option. (After all, that turkey is delicious and his face is likely not so yummy. Why waste the meat?) Sometimes, you might be able to let certain comments roll off your back, but other topics that hit home personally for you at the time are harder to ignore.
I remember when I was going through my first set of fertility treatments and my husband's family was constantly gushing over a cousin who was pregnant. It was crushing. Luckily, my husband got really good at the re-direct, and saved me from most of the potentially upsetting questions by taking them on himself.
And now, in today's political climate, I find myself having to do the same... especially during the holidays. Not only am I a die-hard liberal who rallies for Black Lives Matter and Swing Left, but many in my family came here undocumented, while others have been here for generations. With my personal connection to the controversial topics making headlines right now, I have some family that consistently tries to bait me. It's hard, and I can't avoid them all the time, but I can maneuver — with the help of these techniques.
1. Acknowledge Your Discomfort — Gracefully
Not every convo is going to have an easy out. Some things are either too confrontational or too personal to be discussed. There will always be one nosy relative who feels like it's OK to ask you invasive questions, and there's simply no way to redirect them without being direct. I spoke about this with wellness expert and racial justice advocate, Rebekah Borucki, author of You Have Four Minutes To Change Your Life, and the upcoming book Managing The Motherload (Hay House, 2019). She tells Romper that the simplest, most graceful way to move the conversation is just to say, “Can we talk about something else? I’m uncomfortable.” If they don't get the point, they're not worth your time, and they clearly don't care.
2. Make It About Them
When I was speaking to fellow political advisors recently (who are of course skilled in the art of dodging conversational land mines), I asked them how they deal with awkward family talk during the holidays. Andrew Gotlieb, a community organizer from Brooklyn, says that when his very conservative family brings up something like abortion rights or immigration, he turns it back on them. "I'll say something like, 'that's a fascinating point of view, when did you start getting interested in politics?'" He says that "While it seems like I'm encouraging them to continue talking about what they were talking about, I'm actually changing the topic entirely to their own backstory." Clever!
3. Bring In Someone Else
Are you feeling cornered? One of the few easy ways to change the subject when your relative is talking about uncomfortable topics is to bring in someone else. They can take some of the heat off, and you can use the distraction to steer the conversation in a different direction. Maybe there's something more comfortable that's tangentially related. For instance, say that your nosy aunt is talking to you about freelancing, and how you'll never be able to retire, and all you want to do is tell her that you're only a freelancer because her generation changed the face of labor and saddled us with debt. However, your cousin is an expert in Roth IRA accounts so you bring him into the conversation. Not only do you maybe learn about retirement, but your aunt is hamstrung in the conversation because it looks like you're actively involved in your retirement even if you charged last night's Seamless order.
4. Find Another Vein Of Conversation In The Thread
If you work a little deft conversational maneuvering, you can pick up on something inside of what they're talking about and slide into a conversation about that. I do it all the time with the parents at my kids' school. Even though I live in Brooklyn, my neighborhood is fairly conservative. Just this past week, one of the parents at the school was discussing a book they wanted removed from the library, and I had already told them what I thought about banning books, but they continued. So I started talking about how when I was that age, my classmates and I would look up "dirty" words that you could find in the dictionary, like "penis" and "vagina," and "republican." Not only did it shut them up, it reminded them that even if you ban something, kids will find a way around it.
5. When You Just Can't Anymore, Tell Them Where To Stick It
Sometimes, you just have to lay it out there and let the chips fall where they may. There's no middle ground or getting around some things. "Hey Uncle Chad, you seem either not to understand or care how racist/misogynist/hurtful you're being, so I'm just going to remove myself from this conversation. I don't want the holiday to be ruined so I'm going to choose not to speak with you any longer."
This does work. If you feel strongly enough about something, feel free to just burn it all down. Make a powerpoint. Go full Andrew Lincoln in Love, Actually, and make a series of poster boards. However you need to get your point across.