How to survive being a guest at another family’s Christmas


Welcome to the holidays, a time for families coming together. It’s exciting to visit your partner’s family and experience new relationships and rituals – it’s also potentially mortifying. Holidays are a crucible for surfacing relational histories – and conflicts – as well as highlighting the eccentricities of others’ private lives. It can be challenging enough in our own families. But it’s a whole new set of challenges when we’re thrown into the midst of someone else’s family.

Families can be seen as a microcosm of society and culture, with their own interaction order: a collection of particular behaviours, rituals and ways of acting in specific situations. Differences can pose challenges, especially when you’re forced together for hours, making small talk over mulled wine, passing salt down the dinner table and navigating who gets the last mince pie.

As an American who had to encounter new Christmas rituals when I moved to the UK, I was genuinely, albeit not unpleasantly, disoriented. The food was different. The music was different. I was especially baffled about watching the monarch’s speech.

But some differences can be awkward.


Quarter life, a series by The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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When you walk into someone’s home, into their personal private long-standing relationships, you’re walking into a host of expectations you don’t necessarily understand. And you’re going to have to deal with them then and there.

Here are some tips on navigating being a guest at someone else’s Christmas.

Communication, not psychology

It’s common to think of families psychologically. They have unique attitudes to conflict, attachment styles and political beliefs. But when we encounter one another in the moment, face to face, we don’t necessarily know (nor have time to reflect on) histories of thought patterns, emotional tendencies or values.

In the bump and bustle of social interaction, we have to contend with whatever is dealt to us on the spot – no pauses, no rewinds, no consulting an AI chatbot for insights. Psychological understanding, if you can get it, may be helpful as background information, but it doesn’t necessarily help you react. It may even lead you astray, encouraging you to think of people based on what you assume about them rather than taking their actions seriously.

So the first word of advice is to resist the urge to psychologise or assume you know what others are thinking. You might even want to take any warnings from your partner about certain people with a grain of salt. Focus instead on what the people you meet do and what they say.

People cheers over a holiday dinner.
Take what your partner has said about the way their family communicates with a grain of salt and base how you interact on what you experience yourself.
Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Dealing with the smallest family members (children and pets)

Families can have very different norms for their younger and/or animal members. The trouble is that norms are just that, they’re normal for the people adhering to them and they become part of a family identity.

Your rejection of certain behaviours (or their rejection of yours) can feel like a rejection of the person and cause defensiveness. So it helps to have explanations for resisting that don’t sound like criticisms.

For example: “I love your dog but my jumper is delicate so please don’t let him jump on me.” You can also add some self-deprecation that acknowledges your outsider status: “I know I’m the weird one here, but I have to let my little girl run in circles around your Christmas tree or she’ll struggle to sit still at dinner.”

Gaffes

Dying on the spot isn’t a practical solution to accidentally saying something embarrassing. If it’s a bit more serious – like if you ask where Uncle Makram is (he died last year) – the best thing to do is simply apologise and let the conversation move on. By interrupting whatever current activity is going on, you risk making the oversight worse by turning it into its own conversation.




Read more:
Going home for the holidays? How to navigate conflict and deal with difficult people


Something more trivial can pose a similar problem but you can make a joke of it, too. Most people are willing to laugh along and forget it (but be prepared to be teased for it later if it’s one of those kinds of families).

Criticisms

Maybe someone keeps criticising little things, like your clothes or how much you’re eating. Maybe they ask somewhat interrogatory questions.

Unless too much eggnog is involved, people rarely come out and criticise directly, which is hard to counter (maybe even harder around people who are used to Aunt Marsha’s antics). But the great thing about interaction is that you always have another opportunity to change the direction of a conversation.

A “pivot” is a term for when you respond in a way that attends to what was just said (so it doesn’t seem you’re ignoring the person) but in the same turn initiates a new trajectory. For example, if your partner’s granddad asks why you haven’t saved enough to buy a house yet, you can say something like “we’re still squirrelling away, in fact instead of going to Spain this summer we had a lovely time at the seaside. Let me show you some photos”.

Sometimes people are difficult (whether they are members of your partner’s family or your own) but luckily, I’ve already written a whole article on dealing with those particular cases. Hopefully, all of these tips will help make holidays away a bit easier.



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