Culture & Society

Avoid Family Conflict This Thanksgiving

A Texas A&M communication expert recommends using humor to defuse tense conversations at the dinner table.
By Amber Francis '22, Texas A&M University College of Liberal Arts November 25, 2020

overhead shot of thanksgiving table
Humor can be an effective strategy for avoiding tense conversations at the dinner table.

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Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the a contentious presidential election, Thanksgiving dinner conversation may seem doomed by controversial topics that are sure to stoke tempers.

To keep the stress of 2020 from ruining the holiday, Texas A&M University communication expert David Tarvin recommends avoiding tension-filled conversations that aren’t likely to produce any meaningful dialogue.

“Just because you want to stay clear of these conversations doesn’t mean that your family members do,” Tarvin said . “When that occurs, there are a couple of strategies you could use, as every situation is going to be different. Family dynamics vary greatly based on varying perspectives and experiences.”

Tarvin, a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication, focuses on the rhetoric of humor. He points to humor as an effective way to de-escalate heated discussions. Something as mundane as a cheesy holiday jokes can be used to lighten conversation. Inserting an arguably groan-worthy joke in the middle of a conversation might sound ridiculous, but it’s the ridiculousness of it that catches people off-guard enough to deflate the conversation, he said.

Regardless of how good a joke is, though, it’s inevitable that some family members may not consider the topic at-hand a laughing matter. In that case, Tarvin recommends a more subtle strategy: deflection. Rather than abruptly putting a halt to the conversation the way a well-timed joke does, this strategy is about slowly guiding discussion toward less contentious subjects by means of quietly connecting two seemingly unrelated topics.

“This is where we can use pop culture. You can relate their perspective to something in a show or movie that you saw, and then start talking about said show in order to present the front of a semi-political point, but in truth using that to direct the conversation towards pop culture,” he said.

It’s this gradual, natural shift in topic that creates degrees of separation between them and the original topic, transforming the conversation into something friendlier and more enjoyable for all parties involved, as opposed to spending the rest of the meal screaming about mask mandates.

“The goal is not to create arguments,” Tarvin said. “But to tell stories.”

Going into a conversation  with bold statements and a confrontational attitude is a guaranteed way to ensure that everyone at the table will be debating election fraud, a topic probably nobody in the family is an expert on, for the next hour. Instead, when politics are brought up, try telling a story about something hilarious you saw in line at the polls, or share how you stopped to get coffee on the way to vote. Then invite people to join your new conversation topic with a question like, “Don’t you think seven dollars is way too much for a cup of coffee?”

Tarvin said that when someone is talking in political jargon or using language that seems aggressive, avoiding buzzwords is imperative. People may associate certain buzzwords as synonymous with talking points from either side of the aisle and immediately rebuke what you say after hearing them, regardless of your actual statement or the intent behind it. Using words like “privilege” or “racism” may automatically have some individuals on the offensive, so instead, tell stories hinting at those ideas without explicitly saying those terms.

“In dealing with these situations, it’s a lot of listening and participating and then being incongruous and flipping the script, which is what humor is all about,” Tarvin said. “It’s just being different from what people expect.”

Above all, Tarvin stressed that listening to your loved ones is of the utmost importance and can make a staggering difference to the tone and direction of a conversation.

Instead of making assumptions or negating their experiences, take the time to hear what they have to say. Rather than treating Thanksgiving interactions as a foregone conclusion, use the opportunity to gain genuine insight into why your loved ones have their opinions, even if they may be opinions you ultimately disagree with. Show that you’re empathetic to their concerns and needs, taking their experiences into account the same way you would want them to do for you. Be aware that even if you disagree, they can still have a valid opinion.

“What’s most important is to not assume you know the other person’s perspective, and instead, actively and authentically listen to them. When you listen, oftentimes you can use humor to navigate those conversations,” Tarvin said. “If all else fails, just stuff your mouth full of food so nobody can talk to you.”

This article by Amber Francis originally appeared on the College of Liberal Arts website.

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