Everyone has a holiday horror story. But it's not easy to keep controversy away from the holiday, not perhaps even advisable.
Illinois State University student Rachel Lawrence's tale of woe begins with her mom missing Thanksgiving because she was sick.
“My mom usually keeps my dad in check and she wasn’t there so they get into a fight about my grandma,” she recalled. “There was a lot of yelling and the rest of the day we had to have them on separate floors. It was not good.”
Rachel said she handled it by bailing.
“I looked at my uncle and I told him I’m going to go get more mashed potatoes and left,” she said. “That’s really bad but I didn’t feel like getting involved so I heard the very end of it as I was going upstairs.”
Millions of Americans will soon be gathering with their loved ones to share in a tradition that goes back 220 years to a proclamation by George Washington. They will probably be eating some turkey too. But remembering the pilgrims and the first harvest in the new world is often not the only thing that happens at the Thanksgiving table.
There’s the fine old tradition of the dinner table political argument.
Escape routes are crucial when the subject matter gets to a place you don't want to go.
“I think I left my lights on. I’ll be right back,” said Joe Faust, the father of an ISU student who lives in Wisconsin.
Faust said he sees a lack of civility across our culture, not just at the holidays. He said spirited discussion often goes too far.
“It seems like the majority of the population all across the spectrum is not happy with the slow, steady progress toward a stated ideal,” Faust said. “They want someone to come in and punch them in the nose and tell them where to head out. People are frustrated.”
Different family members have different roles. The referee, the enforcer, the peacemakers, and yes just about every family has an instigator to stir the pot on hot-button issues. For ISU student Annika Alworth, that's uncle Bob.
“He’s a pastor and he’s just really strict about his beliefs and him and my dad don’t get along on politics,” Alworth said. “So if anything comes up, it’s just really awkward.”
Alworth said she doesn't let that ruin the holidays.
“It’s a little hard because you just want to enjoy family, but people can have conflicts and that’s kind of annoying. But overall it’s fine.”
Some families have rules to keep the peace. ISU student Anne Marie Schutt said potentially divisive topics are off limits when passing the turkey at the table.
“Politics, I guess we kind of avoid that topic, we don’t really talk about it that much,” Schutt said. “So everyone just kind of stays neutral. If we have any extreme beliefs that we don’t know if everybody agrees with, we don’t talk about it.”
Avoidance might seem necessary. But some experts on interpersonal communication say it can be unhealthy too.
Dr. Jonathan Lindsey, who owns a psychological counseling service in Bloomington, said many people deal with anxiety, depression and discomfort during the holidays, largely because they feel isolated—even from their own families.
“All of that can really coalesce during the holiday season when people want to be cheerful and want to have that holiday magic that we put in all of our movies,” Lindsey said. “Instead they are dreading family interactions or just not knowing how to talk and love each other during these dark times.”
Lindsey said generation gaps between Baby Boomers and Millenials are widening. Gen X'ers in the middle feel increasingly left out. Lindsey works with clients on learning how to listen and speak with empathy. He said that's what's usually missing when conversations turn ugly.
“That skill can be really, really difficult to turn on when we are in a heated moment, when people are talking about things we think are terrible or very harmful,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey said speaking with compassion is better than walking away. He said it's unlikely you are going to change the mind of someone with diametrically opposed views, but that's not the point.
“If I’m there in order to use my voice, if I’m there to express myself and I can just focus on meeting my need to do that, I might be able to walk away from my conversation feeling like my needs are met, versus if I focus on changing crazy uncle’s way of doing things, I might be left just agitated and hurt,” Lindsey said.
And for those who abstain from stirring the pot, there is a chance to eat the turkey and pumpkin pie.
“It’s nice if we are all just together,” ISU student Ann Marie Shutt said. “That’s what matters."
Schutt said she's grateful her family isn't trying to win political arguments when they gather during the holidays. She says her family gatherings are often boring, and that's OK.
Lindsey said politics has always been an issue that can divide families, but he sees deeper divisions these days. He says social media plays a role in widening those divisions by revealing opinions we might otherwise have kept to ourselves.
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