Thanksgiving can mean the ideal family get together or a day of awkward moments, uncomfortable silences and eruptions of family feuds.
In a recently published Hyperion book, “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” author Debra Fine offers a guide for gatherings of family members — in-laws, out-laws, close and twice-removed — to keep the day sailing smoothly.
Here are Debra Fine’s top 10 conversation landmines:
1. “Are you two ever going to get married?”
Most mothers — along with the rest of the planet — presume that long-time dating results in marriage. It isn’t necessarily so.
And for those young people at the table already blissfully wed, “When are you two going to make me a grandmother?” is another conversation landmine. Back off! If they wanted you to know their intimate intentions, they would be sure to send you a press release.
2. “I heard Sarah got into Northwestern. Why in the world is she going to Michigan State instead?”
Maybe the economy has made attending private institutions impossible.
3. “Thanks, but no wine for me. I gave up drinking after I saw the toll it took on you.”
This is meant to deliberately point a finger. If you must address someone’s over indulgence, do it in private. And making someone feel bad about him or herself does not typically motivate better behavior.
4. “Why did you two leave that beautiful home for this?”
Low- and no-interest loans created a housing crisis for all, not just those strangers you read about in the newspapers. Remember what Mom always said: If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
5. “I knew your candidate did not stand a chance. What do you have to say for yourself now?”
Stop the post-election gloating. Folks from both sides of the political aisle can all enjoy turkey together.
6. “Aren’t you full yet?” or “Why aren’t you eating anything?”
Leave people alone about what they eat or don’t eat, and worry about what you put in your own mouth. While eating at the holiday dinner table is a marathon of gorging for some, it may be an Olympic feat of discipline for others. Also, just because you slaved over the pumpkin pie or prepared grandma’s traditional stuffing does not mean we are required to consume it. Eating is a personal decision.
7. “Yes, I know you’re a parent. But haven’t you ever thought about working?”
Is this just a reflection of the mommy wars? Whether someone chooses to work outside of the home or stay at home with their children is their choice — one that should be respected. Instead, show a genuine interest with appropriate questions such as: “What are the challenges of staying at home with kids today?” or “Describe a typical day,” or “What keeps you busy outside of work/home?”
8. “I see you still can’t be bothered with ironing a shirt.”
Leave it alone. Not everyone has the same priorities.
9. “How is it that your son looks just like you and your daughter looks like she could be from a different family?”
Personal questions that you do not know the answer to are never a good idea. Other examples include: “Did your son graduate?” and “How is the boyfriend?” and “Did she go to prom?”
10. “Did you cook this yourself, or did you just thaw it out?”
You may be asking because you sincerely want to know how you can create this dish yourself, but you are putting the host/hostess on the spot. Instead, ask for the recipe after the meal. If it was not homemade, she will let you know at that time, or maybe she’ll be coy and say that the recipe is a family tradition that is not shared outside the family.
There are so many safe topics to discuss at the holiday dinner table. They include: good movies, favorite gifts received or given and best childhood holiday memories. So why risk stepping on a conversational landmine when you can mine your own holiday gathering for great small talk and meaningful connections that will last beyond the season and well into the New Year?
Fine is the author of "The Fine Art of the Big Talk."