8 Phrases You Should Never Say at the Holiday Table
And what you should say instead.
There’s something about gathering around the dinner table during the holidays that loosens up the lips of family members. Whether it stems from anxiety from having to see (and talk to) distant relatives, the stress of cooking and serving an elaborate meal, or just the unfortunate side effect of a little too much wine, coming across a tense moment or two in the family conversation is something that seems to happen to every family during the holidays. Though there’s not much we can do as individuals to stop our well-intentioned loved ones from saying the wrong thing, we can educate ourselves on some topics we should stray from, and how to handle an uncomfortable conversation with grace. Here, eight phrases you should never say at the holiday table (and what to say instead).
Stray away from spitting out “should” at the family table. “The word invokes an immediate judgment and disappointment,” says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in New York City. “To avoid the negativity that’s inherent in should, replace them with coulds—they allow for personal agency and allows dignity in our decisions.”
Though traditional etiquette dictates that politics should stay far away from the table, it is unrealistic in the current political climate—with policies and laws that affect many lives directly—to expect that the topic will not come up during dinner. If you are uncomfortable or would rather shy away from controversial discussions, don’t be the one to instigate the conversation. For more tips on how to handle politics at the dinner table, check out this article on how to handle political conversations with family during the holidays.
Even if you’re the host’s favorite sous chef in the kitchen, it’s impolite to step into the role of a food critic as a guest. “This is not the time to offer suggestions about how the various dishes could have been prepared better or to compare it to meals you’ve had in the past,” says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. Instead, focus on how delicious the food is, how wonderful everything looks, and how much you appreciate the hard work that went into the meal.
It’s easy for families to slip into gossip mode—especially about other family members who aren’t present. “I’m sure you’re all resentful that cousin Joe decided to go to Florida for the holidays, but disparaging him at dinner only leads to sour stomachs and bitter hearts,” says Hokemeyer. If you find the conversation is starting to sound like a tabloid, try to steer it to towards affirming, positive statements. In terms of cousin Joe’s absence, “talk about how wonderful Florida is this time of year and how even though you miss him, you’re glad he can have some fun in the sun.”
Talking about anyone’s weight—whether too much or too little—is bound to make someone listening uncomfortable. Instead of focusing on how slim your cousin looks, try to steer your compliments towards general wellness, peace of mind, and serenity.
“Judging the progress of other family members is never appreciated,” Gottsman says. Try not to put a family member on the defensive or make them feel like they are “falling behind.” Find yourself in the hot seat? Gottsman suggests deflecting with good humor. Smile, maintain a friendly tone, and let them know that when the time comes, they’ll be the first to know—then change the topic.
The world seems to be a scary place, but the dinner table is not the appropriate venue for devolving down this dark and foreboding rabbit hole. “Instead of doom and gloom talk about human resiliency and the long tail of justice,” Hokemeyer says, try to remain positive and focus on the love surrounding the table. “There have been dark times before and the love of family and friends has gotten us through. They will again.”
No matter how hilarious it might seem to you, it’s impolite to put a family member in the spotlight for a less-than-flattering story. Not only does it bring up uncomfortable memories for that person, it also puts those empathizing with them in an uncomfortable, cringe-worthy position. “If the conversation turns to the mistakes a family member has made, stand up for them (or for yourself),” Gottsman says. Try to keep your response light, perhaps by saying, “That was in the past, and I’m so glad we look back and laugh about it now.”