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Five Ways to Survive Awkward Holiday Dinner Conversations

You’re headed home for the holidays, or you’re the one hosting them. Despite best efforts, there’s no chance that every event will go off without at least one person who is guaranteed to ruin the night if they aren’t stopped. So, here’s a list of ways to salvage your dinner, brunch, party, or casual coffee meet up without having to duct tape anyone’s mouth shut.

1. The racist/sexist/classist/homophobic guest that swears they aren’t bigoted but…
You know the type, they regurgitate “facts” straight from Rush Limbaugh, Facebook myths and email forwards. You can try to respond with actual facts, but all too often they’re allergic to any source that isn’t in line with their existing biases. No matter how many facts you have or how well you argue, they aren’t going to listen. You already know this, so how can you keep them from ruining the night?

Short answer? Don’t invite them over. If for some reason that isn’t an option, then don’t waste time or energy arguing with them. Instead find a way to occupy their mouths and minds for the night. Serve them the stickiest toffee you can find so they are too busy chewing to talk, introduce them to that one person that never stops talking so that you solve two problems at once. If all else fails, put them to work. If they’re helping to set the table, clean the kitchen, or opening wine bottles then they are too busy to get on your nerves. And if you have the right tone of voice and facial expressions they’ll never even realize you’re keeping them busy and away from everyone else. All of your guests will thank you.

2. The person who doesn’t eat anything, but wants you to make everything to suit their tastes.
A good host asks about allergies, religious restrictions, preferences, but there is always one person that has a list of things they want, and who manages to only push the food around their plate while you lament the loss of your favorite holiday recipes. What can you do without being rude?

Short answer is still don’t invite them over, but since that’s not always feasible, make a salad, a casserole and a dessert that fits their criteria. That’s their dinner. Everything else is about what you and other guests want to eat. That way you aren’t being rude, and your dinner is what you want to be eating with your friends and family.

3. The Person Who Really Doesn’t Understand Boundaries
So this person isn’t a guaranteed guest, but I’ve had the misfortune of meeting a few of them over the years. They are often strangers, or those relatives you only see once a year. They ask you about your job, love life, plans for children–you name it, they want to know about it. And the response is never fit for polite, casual conversation. No, they interrogate you like you’re interviewing for a place on a deep space mission. At best, if they like your answers they’ll just talk your ear off. At worst, they’ll start telling what you ought to be doing with your life. Loudly and at length, while you try to drink your way to the point where they sound like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoon.

You probably didn’t invite this person, and you may not even know them before the barrage of questions start. Chances are excellent that no one is coming to save you because they’re so happy they’ve dodged that fast talking bullet. So how can you escape? Well, this is one of those times where technology can be a solution. Set off the ringer on your phone and pretend to take a call. Excuse yourself from the conversation to get a drink, use the facilities, anything but continuing to drown in words. Is it polite? Probably not. But anything short of telling them to mind their own business is probably the best you can do under the circumstances.

4. The Person Who Knows It All
Or at least they claim they have been everywhere, done everything, and they are better at it than anyone else. When someone’s life is a walking fanfic of reality, there’s this urge to challenge what they’re saying. And sometimes if they’re claiming to be the person who invented glue it might even be worth it. Maybe.

Most of the time, you and everyone else in the room already knows that they’re exaggerating. And you have to ask yourself why they’re acting that way before you react. Is there a game of oneupmanship happening and they’re just trying to participate? Are they nervous about fitting into an existing group? Did they recently read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? A little patience can often turn off the font of not-quite facts, just by asking them what they like to do. A few minutes of talking about their glass painting, knitting, or other hobbies can help them relax and everybody can start enjoying the food and drink together.

5. Donnie/Debbie Downer
Nothing is good enough. There is no joy in them for anything. They are at your party and they have turned one corner of the room into the Despair & Doomville. People keep trying to talk to them about the good things in life, and they shoot everyone down. It’s like they are Murky and Lurky Dismal brought to life and determined to drive their gloomy Grunge Buggy over your holidays.

They are usually people you can’t get out of inviting (if you could they wouldn’t be there), but you really want them to have a good time. Maybe something tragic happened recently, maybe they are just this way period. Either way they’re killing the fun, and you probably can’t cheer them up. So you turn on the TV to something sporty or festive, let them pick what they’d prefer, offer up some snacks and booze, then leave them alone. They’ll either leave Gloom Mountain to join the rest of the party, or they’ll sit their in their corner providing great contrast and be completely out of your hair.

These are only a few of the potential problems you could face, but they are unfortunately among the most common. There is always the chance that you will have the over-excited whiny kid that loves you the best, but they can be distracted with a cookie and a cartoon most of the time. And while the awkward interactions with relatives you’ve never really liked can’t be completely avoided, you can certainly use any of the tricks in this article on them to make the holidays easier. And if not, there’s always hot toddies, cake, and swag to make you feel better after it is all over.

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