Getting along at gatherings

November 26, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Over the river and through the woods you went to the long-anticipated holiday family gathering.

Or maybe you didn't make the trip for Thanksgiving, but you'll be headed home for the December holidays.

The storybook visions of family togetherness have been dancing in your head like sugarplums for weeks, but there's another scenario in that dream of home.

You walk in the door and give your brother a hug.

"Is that a new hairdo?" he asks.

You start to feel anxious, or even cry.

He just asked a simple question. You heard the words, but beneath them were years of childhood teasing.

You reacted to the unstated message in the question, something author and Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen called the "heart meaning" that comes from the history of the relationship. Tannen wrote about family communication in her 2002 book, "I Only Say This Because I Love You."


The history of the relationship is packed with emotional baggage.

Messages have to be deconstructed, said Kevin Harney, a licensed professional counselor in Chambersburg, Pa. Messages have two parts - fact and feeling - and they're always bundled together. Facts will disappear over time. Feelings will endure.

Knowing that - understanding what's happening - can help preserve the peace.

"Avoiding conflict guarantees (conflict)," he said. It's better to deal with it.

He compared not resolving conflict to just paying the minimum on your monthly credit card bill. You carry the debt with interest and end up with a huge debt, he said.

Another way to foster family harmony is to communicate directly with family members. Avoid talking through a third person.

If you have a problem with your sister, don't talk to your mother about it. You might go to the family gathering expecting that your sister won't do the things that bother you - just because you've vented to your mother. It's not Mom's responsibility to talk to your sister about what bothers you.

"Forgiveness is critical," Harney said. "You have to give and accept it," he added.

Although Harney advised against avoiding conflict, there are topics that are best left uninvited to the holiday dinner table.

"Leave your politics and crusades at the door," Harney said.

Subjects people feel - and disagree - strongly about are landmines. It's OK to avoid topics of discussion that never can be resolved.

Holiday discord can be caused by all the work involved - the trouble of getting out the fine china and silver once a year, doing all the shopping and decorating.

"There needs to be a balance between relationships and tasks," Harney said.

No one's going to remember how sparkling clean the crystal was in 1985, he said. Family will remember laughing at home videos, singing songs, taking the annual after-dinner walk around the neighborhood - the good times together.

Ann Wilson, a licensed professional counselor, returned to Shepherdstown, W.Va., from France on Monday.

"I wanted to be home for Thanksgiving," she said.

While visiting family overseas, she'd been asked if the American holiday is a religious celebration.

"In a secular way, it is a religious holiday," she said. Thanksgiving has a spiritual aspect. It hasn't been totally commercialized. There's no pressure to buy things, to spend too much money. It can be a day of reflection. People can just enjoy being together, she explained.

Time brings changes - people die, people divorce - the holidays might never be as they once were or thought to be.

"Who knows who will be here next year?" she asked.

It's important to enjoy the people you do have, she said.

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