Is your family ready to get woke?
Last year, I made my holiday pilgrimages with my lips pursed. Ferguson was fresh and my heart was aching. I wanted to dispel the misinformation and confront the deeply-rooted privilege and yes, even racism, that I knew I’d find waiting for me. I wanted to, as W. Kamau Bell recommended recently, collect my people.
I wanted to have hard conversations about social issues that really mattered.
What I did instead was keep it light, because it’s not always the right time to say, “Hey, friends and family that I’ve known for a long time, I fundamentally disagree with your worldviews.”
This year, though, I’m reconsidering—because there’s value in finding the right time to have those conversations, too. The important part is figuring out what issues you can actually bring up without starting the next family feud.
This year, it may feel especially difficult; not only are we running headlong into an election season, but divisive topics like gun safety, women’s health care, and racial injustice are leading the nightly news.
You really have two choices if you’re confronted with differences of opinion this December: You can either grit your teeth and try to keep the peace, or you can attempt to (diplomatically, politely) have a real conversation about a tough topic.
Before you decide which path to take, you need to establish the climate of your upcoming holiday celebration.
Will you start a conversation, or just a fight?
There’s an important distinction between a discussion and an argument. But in some families, they may be one in the same. If you suspect your family’s conversation is going to devolve into a cacophony of name-calling and glass shattering, it might be best to avoid it.
It’s all about gauging your company, says says author and relationship advice expert April Masini. When it comes to politics, sa ys Masini, some people become vigilant about their views, and that creates a stand off. “If you feel you’re with people who are going to take a dug-in stance, and you’re not up for a family feud, by all means, bring up the weather,” she says. “But if you’re with people who are open-minded and interested to hear about the views of others—different as well as alike—politics can be a great way to connect.”
In defense of the talk-about-it approach, conversations about tough topics can set a useful model for teens and younger adults, says Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher LMHC, CRC, owner and clinician at Polaris Counseling & Consulting LLC.
“We should be talking about touchy subjects within the family unit,” says Weaver-Breitenbecher, because “we need to raise kids who know how to respectfully disagree with others.” This kind of discussion involves exchanging ideas and hearing someone’s perspective, not just waiting to prove your point louder than the person next to you.
It’s crucial to be realistic: Are your kin ever going to be receptive to a conversation about Black Lives Matter, restriction of assault weapons, or the importance of Planned Parenthood? If the answer—the real answer—is “no,” then the holiday season is not the time to have these conversations.
“If your family is hopelessly conflicted about politics, religion, sexuality or any other hot-button issues, focus on what you do share in the spirit of holiday celebration,” advises Kathy McCoy, a psychotherapist in Arizona. “Keep the emphasis on family holiday traditions, happy memories, and positive feelings.”
Your other option is to broach these topics after the holidays. This may happen to be the time of year when you see your particularly racist cousin, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only opportunity to talk about important issues. You could drink eggnog now and hash out the consequences of the gender equity gap another time.
But if you think you can talk about it civilly...
Once you’ve assessed whether or not this kind of conversation will be fruitful and productive, and if you feel up to the task, it’s time to set some ground rules.
First, don’t make it personal. Every expert for this piece asserted the same sentiment: This is about politics or social issues, not your own relationship with your family. That means no low blows (do not mention your aunt’s second divorce), and nothing that’s just intended to cut. Instead, come prepared with information, statistics, and facts to combat misinformation.
Second, remember that this isn’t a one-sided deal: Keep an open mind and consider that you may actually benefit from it, too.
“A difficult discussion may help you to clarify your own thoughts, realizing how these may differ from the opinions of your family,” says Dr. McCoy. Such a conversation can not only help you better understand how you feel, but also help your family see you differently. “It may establish you as a separate, thinking individual in the eyes of your family, though they may shake their heads at your thoughts,” she adds.
This is a big potential benefit to having a real conversation, too. Sleeping in your childhood Little Mermaid sheets has a way of prompting many of us to regress around our families, and an honest, adult conversation can help parents and young adults cultivate a more mature, peer relationship.
Know your exit strategy. Look for signs that a conversation is devolving into a fight. “Tell-tale signs of a conversation going south are the classic nonverbal warning signs of arms folded, darting eyes, or grimaced face,” says Michael Boman, LCSW, clinical director of England Counseling Services in Magna, Utah. “Voice volume and intonation are also huge in this arena. Raised volume and shaking voice are indicators of a potential bad situation,” he adds. “If you detect these, taking a break and revisiting later (if safe) is highly recommended.”
Practice opt-outs that don’t place blame. Whether it’s “We’re going to be late if we don’t get going soon!” or “Yikes, looks like we’ve waded into some agree-to-disagree territory,” it’s essential that you know when it’s time to back off and move on.
It’s also important to get out (and get help) if a conversation gets actively hurtful. “If someone from your partner’s family makes off-color remarks or is very aggressive in a combative way with you, this is one where you can loop your partner in and let him or her know what’s going on,” says Masini. “Be firm, be swift, and make a speedy exit. This is family and you’re going to see them again (and again and again and again).”
Regardless of what happens, it’s important to practice self-care. Clearing your head will not only make it easier for you to continue to have tempered, polite conversations with your family, but will also make the holidays less hellish for you, personally.
Boman has three key tips for self-care:
- Take time for yourself. Whether it’s taking a quick walk around the block or sneaking in an episode of “Jessica Jones,” do whatever you need to do to collect yourself—and advise your family members to do the same.
- Talk about it ahead of time. If you’re traveling with your spouse or significant other, be sure to talk about “how to manage conflict before it arises,” says Boman. “Whether it's about money, kids, or just feeling ignored due to the hustle and bustle, make sure that you address these issues right away.” Your holiday season happiness may depend on it.
- Remember to actually enjoy it. It’s easy to see traveling home for the holidays as a huge hassle—and it is—but this time should also be “fun, connective, and memorable,” says Boman. “Be fiercely loyal to you and your family. You'll find much more peace and happiness this year if you do.” And if you really, truly can’t enjoy the visit at all? It might be time to address why you’re traveling in the first place—and whether or not it’s time to start celebrating the holidays in a way that actually makes you happy.
Not every family is ready for real-talk—and in some instances, that might be the cue you need that it’s time to start celebrating Friendsmas instead of shelling out for plane tickets. In other cases, though, some jocular disagreement might actually add a little bit of much-needed color to an otherwise pretty tepid holiday celebration.
The best thing to do is whatever’s best for you and your family.