In the Hallmark movie version of the holiday season, life is a winter wonderland of gingerbread and twinkling lights. In real life, December is awkward A.F. As if everyday family dynamics weren’t enough to drive a person bonkers, throw in distant cousins, new significant others and political opinions that are way too loud, and you’ve got the makings of a uniquely uncomfortable month.
Thankfully, Thomas P. Farley has more than a few solutions for surviving the festivities. Otherwise known as Mister Manners, Farley is an etiquette expert, speaker and author who knows a thing or two about maintaining decorum in trying times. His book, Modern Manners: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Social Graces, is an anthology of the popular Town & Country column he helmed for almost a decade, and he’s a regular guest on NBC’s Today show when he’s not delivering workshops and keynotes to some of the country’s top companies.
“The holidays are charged with so much emotion, excitement, build-up and tension,” Farley says. “A lot of families are perhaps holding themselves up to impossible standards, but the fact is, reality is not perfect. We should be supremely understanding of the fact that anxieties are running high, give one another as much room for lack of perfection as possible, and try to embrace the celebration and spirit of being together and loving one another.”
Awkward scenario #1: You’re not a fan of the food.
“There’s a distinction between not loving a dish and simply not eating it as a matter of practice,” Farley says. “If your aunt makes Brussels sprouts and you think they’re yucky, that’s not an excuse to not try them and compliment her. On the other hand, if you’re a strict vegetarian or vegan and meat hasn’t touched your lips in 10 years, simply say that to the host. A good host should always ask if there are any dietary restrictions, allergies or dietary preferences. If you haven’t been asked and have one, put that out there: ‘Aunt Martha, as you know I’m a vegetarian. I’d love to bring some vegetable dishes for everyone to share. Is there anything you might like me to bring?’”
It’s important to realize that the likelihood of changing anyone’s mind is slim to none. Take the high road and if you feel like you can’t bite your tongue any longer, resist, resist, resist. Thomas P. Farley
Awkward scenario #2: You’re a first-time guest on unfamiliar territory.
“It’s nice to bring a little something like a box of cookies or bottle of wine,” Farley explains. “But if you want to make a nice impression, also bring a host or hostess gift—not something to be consumed the night-of, but to be enjoyed after the fact. Show that you’ve done a little research into their preferences; maybe they’re a fan of midcentury architecture, so you buy a beautiful coffee table book, or you know they have Greek ancestry, so you bring Greek pastries from a local bakery. Even something like bath salts, so they can enjoy a Calgon getaway after a long week of preparation!”
Awkward scenario #3: So. Many. Kids.
“If you can’t accommodate everyone at one large table, that merits having a table for the like-aged guests to really bond and let the adults have their time,” Farley says. “Otherwise, the preferred option for kids over 6 or 7 is to have everyone at the same table. It’s a great opportunity for them to learn manners and how to have conversations, and a nice opportunity to share a blessing if that’s a tradition in the household.”
Awkward scenario #4: Sibling rivalry is alive and well.
“This is going to sound like pie-in-the-sky advice. But ideally, the two who are squabbling get together in advance of the gathering [to] have a conversation and say, ‘Look, I know we’re not on good terms, but let’s settle our differences for the sake of Mom and Dad and just bury the hatchet for the gathering and be on our best behavior.’ That’s the most upstanding thing, but not every situation is so easily resolved. A significant other can also act as a peacemaker—maybe talking to the other person’s significant other and saying, ‘Gosh, this has been going on for 10 years. I wonder if there’s any way we can broker peace.’ If that hasn’t happened beforehand and it’s simply not realistic, I recommend not engaging at all—if the party is big enough, it’s easy to get lost amid other guests.”
The Issue of Politics
Farley’s pro tips for sidestepping political talk
If you’re a guest:
“Avoid watching the news in the days before the event so you’re not feeling riled up. If someone tries to engage, say, ‘I haven’t been following that. I’ve been tuning out of the news because I prefer to focus on the holiday celebration—perhaps we can all do that tonight.’ Take the high road and make sure any scars from watching the news have healed for at least 72 hours.”
If you’re the host:
“If it’s an ongoing issue, put it in the invitation up front: ‘In the spirit of peace and understanding, the host requests there to be no political conversations so guests can focus on what they’re thankful for.’ If people love having respectful, thoughtful engagement, that’s fine, but not everyone wants to hear it; designate a special room and say, ‘This is where to engage in political discourse. We’re going to close the door and we’ll let you know when dinner is ready,’ and have the table itself stay sacred and separate.”
If you just don’t want to start WWIII:
“It’s important to realize that the likelihood of changing anyone’s mind is slim to none. Take the high road and if you feel like you can’t bite your tongue any longer, resist, resist, resist.”