PR advice to keep your holiday dinner peaceful
Facebook fights can come to life when family and friends from across the country gather around the holiday ham. As PR professionals, we can apply our professional know-how to our personal lives, steering conversations and enacting strategies to bring down the temperature when things get heated. If you’re dreading an upcoming soirée, heed advice from our team of experts!
In our media and ambassador training sessions, we teach clients how to avoid communication traps. Everything from hypotheticals to wide-open questions and cringe-worthy silence can be pitfalls, especially in a holiday family discussion. If we can be more mindful of those things going into discussions, we can do our best to avoid them or divert the conversation if it starts going south. PR people are certainly adept at taking conversations to a more positive and encouraging place.
Choose to be a peacekeeper. In PR, part of our job is to temper fires. I’m a listener and absorber of information rather than someone who prefers to jump in on conversations of which I know little about. Being a quiet listener allows you to observe and be ready to interject when a heated conversation arises.
Especially if you’re around family members you don’t see that often, even some innocuous topics can take a turn for the dramatic. If you don’t want to spend Christmas uncomfortably discussing the weather, try having a great topic ready to go. This one comes with the caveat that you have to be OK with a little awkward rejection. (Because let’s be honest, if someone tries to discuss most pop culture topics with me I’ll probably fail miserably.) You can also let the other person lead, which is a typically sound strategy for winning friends and influencing people (as long as you are able to brush off anything that bothers you and/or nimbly turn the conversation another way).
Be cognizant of what could trigger fellow dinner guests. For example, asking your cousin who is the only unmarried kid in the family when they’re finally going to meet someone could be upsetting, especially if that is something weighing heavy on their heart. Instead, ask them about their job, a recent trip they took or about one of their passions.
This PR wisdom applies to every dinner party you attend this season: know your audience. Assumptions about your tablemates can lead toward topics that are heated at worst and touchy at best. So, when you don’t know much about your fellow partygoers, keep the conversation neutral. You can learn from my failure. One time, I was making flippant comments about the mullet hairstyle, thinking everyone shared my distaste for the polarizing ‘do. One person at the end of the table simply stated, “My dad has a mullet.” BIG YIKES! Luckily we were at the Olive Garden, a place where breadsticks cure all (and honestly, shame on me for bad mouthing mullets at the Olive Garden).
One of the best pieces of advice we give our clients during our media training sessions, in my opinion, is to breathe. I’ve never appreciated the power of taking a few seconds to breathe and collect your thoughts until I entered my 30s. If you get asked that looming question about your personal life, take a short breath before you answer (and likely deflect to another question :)). If you’re sitting next to that not-so-nice cousin of yours who’s right on the brink of starting a conversation with you, inhale, exhale, then relocate to another end of the table/room. Breathing allows you to center yourself and focus on the present to make the best decision in the moment.
If controversial topics are broached at the dinner table, be mindful of differences of opinions. Respect others’ attitudes about certain issues and avoid judging their views. Mashed potatoes don’t pair well with uncomfortable dinner debates! 🙂
People often call me “Switzerland” because I’m the master of pivoting when it comes to awkward or uncomfortable situations. If I sense any tension in the room, I tend to highlight the positives of each side of the debate, then quickly change subjects to a topic that everyone can enjoy or relate to.
My piece of advice for maintaining civil discussions during the holidays is to be considerate. Always ask yourself if what you’re saying or asking could be upsetting or hurtful. And, when in doubt – if you can’t say anything nice, you don’t have to say anything at all.
As the black sheep of my family, I’m subjected to the uncomfortable questions and conversations that often plague the holiday dinner table. My advice – and advice I wish most families would take – is that you don’t have to ask about someone’s house, roommates, job or dating life to have a good time or catch up with your loved ones. I hate being asked these questions because my answers almost never change. Try talking about what movies or TV shows you’ve been bingeing, the latest tea from TikTok or showing off your cute puppy pics instead! These are solid, positive talking points that make for way more interesting conversations then your typical small talk.
Coming from a family that loves to read, it’s easy to avoid those unwanted conversations about dating, kids, marriage, etc. by bringing up our favorite stories recently read. Now I know every family isn’t huge on reading, so try to plan ahead with one general topic in which your whole family can join. Do you all like Disney World? Talk about the new FastPass system or new rides. Maybe your family is more interested in documentaries (or retellings of historical events like those in “Spencer”). Talk about those and Kristen Stewart’s tremendous job of pulling off the accent!
I’m all about smoke and mirrors. I’ve found that bringing a fun game to get conversation flowing can easily distract from controversy and steer conversations to more fun topics. I’m a big fan of the table topic games you often get in the Chick-Fil-A kid’s meals (yes, I order a kid’s meal), but you can also make your own conversation starter game with a few index cards and elbow grease. As long as you ask anything more complicated than favorite colors, you’re set for at least 20 minutes – create the conversation you want!
My parents have always told me growing up “It’s not always what you say, it’s how you say it.” Sometimes you or a loved one may have meant well by something you said, but it didn’t come across in the way it was intended. Make sure to be conscientious of others and think twice before you add your two cents.
I am no fan of small talk. I’m a very cut-to-the-chase kind of gal. Talking about the same three topics once a year with your family that you never see can be exhausting and can also take a turn for the worse when differing views come into play! I like to prepare myself for gatherings with funny little anecdotes. I feel like my life is full of mishaps that might be crazy at the moment but make for a great story later! I talk to my parents at least once a day and sometimes multiple times. Every time I come to them with a funny story, my Dad says, “You should write that down!” Everyone wants to be amused, and the holidays when the family is all together is the perfect time.