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Opinion: How to defuse tense Christmas gatherings

'Everyone talks about how cheery the holidays are, but, for many folks, it brings up the potential for forced, awkward interactions.'

It’s that time of year again when we’ll inevitably be seeing members of our family, extended family or family-friends we usually stay away from.

Everyone talks about how cheery the holidays are, but, for many folks, it brings up the potential for forced, awkward interactions.

For me, it brings to mind the Dysfunctional Family Dinner SNL sketch in 1998 that starred Will Ferrell, Ana Gasteyer and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

It begins with a very prim and proper upper-middle-class family eating dinner silently with silverware clinking loudly on their plates. Then comes the awkward attempts at making conversation.

Over the course of the five-minute sketch, their attempts at making small talk — “Karen, honey, how was school today?” “I had a funny thing happen today at work” — quickly devolve into cacophonies of screams and shouts.

Forever in my mind is Ferrell’s character bellowing at the top of his lungs, “I AM A DIVISION MANAGER IN CHARGE OF 29 PEOPLE. I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS,” and Gasteyer’s character making a lame attempt at shifting topics: “Honey, do you want to go to pottery class with me this weekend?”

The reply of Gellar’s character: “I wish you were dead.”

It’s an exaggerated rendition of things going horribly wrong at what’s supposed to be a nice family dinner. But it’s not that much of an exaggeration for some.

I think what made this sketch such a hit is that, at one point or another, we’ve all had to sit through incredibly awkward, tense gatherings. And while we didn’t all start screaming about what kinds of cars we drove, we probably were very glad to hop in those cars once the occasion was done and get out of there.

Let’s hope things don’t get that awkward when everyone goes back to visit their extended families and friends.

But hope is sometimes not enough. I’d recommend anyone interested in escaping these situations with a minimum of billable hours for your therapist to try doing some research into some very basic techniques that are used to diffuse tense situations — mirroring and labelling.

Mirroring is basically restating what a person has just said using your own words. It signals that you’re paying attention to what someone else is saying and helps build rapport.

Labelling is the act of acknowledging how a person is feeling by describing it. The idea behind this technique is that when a person says or hears their emotions being described, it takes a bit of the edge off of it. This is what to do when you sense a person is about to start screaming about the car they drive.

This, of course, is just a starting point. For more details on how and where to use them, I’d recommend doing internet searches on these terms, which pop up in the fields of negotiation, psychology, counselling and so forth.

With that being said, I DRIVE A TOYOTA RAV4!


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