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  • Deah Curry PhD

Avoiding the Arguments and Negativity of Holiday Family Gatherings

The American holiday illusion is that we'll all have a great time at the obligatory family gatherings, office parties, and social events.

The reality is often much less than wonderful.

Especially this year as our election politics provoke strong opinions, and the growing climate of everyday violence touches more communities, conversations are ripe for argument, negativity, dissention, and the foamings of fear-based prejudices.

While some may be energized by lively discussion that stirs up many criticisms and passions, those of us who are really introverts find this season less than jolly. Even if you are a love and compassion oriented extrovert, the holiday season can try your patience.

If you're like me, you might prefer to skip it altogether.

Discerning When to Speak Up

Therapists, lightworkers, spiritual advisers and other human services professionals, along with positive-minded folks, sometimes give others tacit permission to vent. By not interrupting a negative thought, we allow a ramping up of the potential for emotionally explosive talk that could turn into aggressive behavior.

Maybe you've been in a situation when your own tolerance of others' mean spirited expression of fears, and frustrations cost you a bit silencing your own conscience, forfeiting your own comfort, and abandoning your own growing edges of your integrity. It's a difficult spot to be in, especially at the dinner table.

We want to be gentle with others, sensitive to their thoughts and feelings, and kind to a variety of points of view. But in doing so we end up being really uncomfortable in letting lies, ignorance, and ugly language prevail.

In these situations a bit of spiritual warriorship may be called for. It is up to those who see the fallacy in a line of argument, who hear the danger in certain mindsets, or who just feel uncomfortable basing personal beliefs on unfounded fears to speak up. It is up to us to demonstrate that what is being said, or how it is being said is unacceptable.

After all, what you tolerate says something about who you are, too.

But speaking up is easier written than done in person. Typically, I find myself trying to balance a number of considerations as I discern what to say and when to interrupt a heated or unacceptable discussion:

  • how much do I care about preserving relationships above all?

  • do I agree with the content but not the tone?

  • if I speak up will it do any good? for whom?

  • can I speak up without being self-righteous or sarcastic?

  • am I contributing to the problem by staying silent?

  • who am I really ?

  • what does my integrity demand?

  • what is the greater good of the moment?

  • what is the danger in allowing disrespect, injustice and negativity prevail?

What I dislike the most -- when trapped in groups I can't escape where emotions are running high -- is being caught between my usual conflict-avoidant style, and the discomfort of letting ignorance and malicious thoughts go unchallenged.

​Letting people vent their frustrations over turkey and cocktails isn't really useful for anyone's digestion. If you have any position of authority at the gatherings you attend -- perhaps you're an elder in the family, or it's at your house, or you organized the event -- it's up to you to take charge and put the brakes on conversations that are likely to get hurtful.

Avoidance is Often the Best Solution

My solution more often than not is to avoid groups entirely when possible -- and truthfully, short of funerals for close family members avoidance is always possible -- or to leave when conversations turn to the obnoxious.

I find emotional arguments tiresome and unproductive, given that too many people are incapable of looking at topics with a dispassionate level of intellectual criticism. I don't always have the energy to referee, or educate. It's not always my job to convert the ignorant to the more enlightened worldview.

So this holiday season, if you find yourself surrounded by people who are engaged in negativity and fear-based spouting, entrenched in their opinions and unwilling to hear alternative views, you have a choice -- speak up or step away.

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