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Let It Be

How To Hold Your Tongue During the Holidays

Illustartion by Miles Anderson

From the kitchen doorway, I get a glimpse of what I’ve invited into my home for the evening. My living room holds a strange mix of people, an odd concoction of personalities. Short ones insistently direct whines up toward the ears of taller ones, who continue to converse as if no interruption has been persistently attempted. A group of three adolescents murmurs in conspiratorial tones and casts furtive glances across the room. A booming, authoritative voice pulses from one corner. Someone giggles a bit too loudly for such close company in crowded quarters.

Large bulbs flash red and green, dangling from a pair of tired, sagging earlobes. A child repeatedly plays one choppy verse of Jingle Bells on a recorder for a reluctant, nay, tortured, audience. My over-sized Christmas tree rises up through the middle of the chaos, its joyful twinkling lights silent on the remark made about its gross imperfections. I think, “Oh my gosh! These people are my relatives,” as I let the kitchen door swing closed behind me and I enter into the fray.

Seasonal Sensitivity

Nerves wear thin this time of the year. It seems, sometimes, as if taking the turkey to the table is the cue for talking out of line. Who hasn’t witnessed one snide comment ruin an entire afternoon and the cranberry sauce to boot?

“High expectations and extended families getting together increase the stress,” says Caffee Wright, a licensed professional counselor with The Counseling Group in Augusta. She notes the persuasive content of advertising giving the illusion of perfect families and creating unreasonable hopes about real-life celebrations. “We’re usually very sensitive when we’re stressed,” she adds as an explanation to why people over-personalize the words, deeds or inactions of others. Wright says, “How we respond can make things worse or diffuse it.” No one can control the words and actions of others, but she can keep the wrong response from slipping through her teeth.

The perceived transgression may not be personal even if it’s directed at her. It may be an ill-targeted expression of the sender’s holiday depression, or grief over a loved one not there due to death or distance, or financial frustration associated with gift giving. Any number of things can generate a poorly timed gesture or jibe. Lashing out defensively may make a person feel better in the moment, but it will likely elevate tensions and create problems for the long run.

Help for Holding Your Tongue

Holding one’s tongue in the face of egregious insult is tough. Emotions put pressure on the heart and push for release freely into the face of the offender. Before allowing them that unbridled, but fleeting, pleasure, consider the impact they’ll have. “Don’t let a slight or an insult ruin everyone’s good time,” warns Kathy Bertone, author of The Art of the Visit: Being a Perfect Guest, Being a Perfect Host. “Biting your tongue and holding back that tear is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s important to do at the holidays.” A few strategies can reduce potential hostilities and replace them with a jovial atmosphere:

• Minimize personal use of alcohol and availability of it for guests. Alcohol has a tendency to lower inhibitions and loosen the lips.

• If hosting a gathering at your house, include elements of the season that soothe the senses: a fire in the fireplace, candles, flower arrangements, the mild scents of pine and cinnamon, etc. You and your guests will be too relaxed to be combative.

• Avoid trigger topics like politics, religion, lifestyle choices and issues to which any one individual may be sensitive.

• Skillfully change the subject, without calling anyone down, should a trigger topic come up. When Uncle Ed says, “Well, that election certainly didn’t turn out as expected,” be the first to respond with, “Uncle Ed, is that the shirt Mayzie gave you? It’s very handsome.” Gently nudge the conversation in another direction.

• Before voicing a curt or bitter response to someone’s hurtful remarks or actions, politely excuse yourself from the table or from the room and give yourself a couple of minutes to regroup. Take a deep breath and smile.

• Anticipate ahead of time what might happen at the annual family get-together. Some people have predictable go-to subjects and/or behaviors (or lack of behavior) in these situations. Prepare by thinking of what you will do or say in that case. When slender Cousin Suzy sarcastically asks, as she always does, “What diet are you doing this year,” you might plan to answer, “Diet? I’m not dieting. I feel better than ever.”

• Anticipate what relatives might say or do, but don’t go baiting a fight. Just because you composed a list of lovely reactions to their foreseen biting remarks doesn’t mean you need to make sure you get the opportunity to refer to it.

• Laugh. Humor has the power to diffuse tension and alleviate stress. Self-deprecating humor, in particular, takes the fire out of people’s fuses.

• Don’t be the perfectionist workhorse. Let go of the expectations and magazine-standards for what your holiday should be like. Relax. Enjoy the trimmings. Enjoy the day. Enjoy the company of the people who, whether or not you can always tell it, love you more than anything.

After Auld Langsyne

Again, however, this is Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas in the real world. Just because a snipe is overlooked in November or December doesn’t mean it sinks back into the depths of family brine. “You tend to play it over and over again and exacerbate it in your mind,” says Wright. Bertone suggests, “When everyone is gone and the holidays are over and you’re still feeling bad, address it. If you don’t, it’s going to be a problem for the next holiday.”

Attempt a resolution without confrontation (a letter works well) that thanks the person for visiting or hosting, offers an apology or acknowledgement of the issue and asks what you can do to make it better.

Wright says, “Each holiday season brings its challenges.” Often they arrive dressed in the skin of kin. Take them as they come, not personally. You will be richly rewarded with family harmony in the New Year.


Lucy Adams is the author of Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson, Ga., with her husband and their four children.

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