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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Getting to Know You: How to Relate to Your Relatives During the Holidays

Well, the great Thanksgiving pilgrimage has begun and as you head over the river and through the woods to your relatives, some of you may be dreading a turkey day that comes with judgmental relatives, healthy servings of shade, and conversations that rarely progress beyond "can you believe how hot/cold/icy/snowy it is today?" But, I think there's a deeper issue - how little we know our relatives. Whether you're breaking the wishbone with your blood relatives or your in-laws, it's a sure bet that you don't know as much about each other as you assume you do. And I'm not talking about your hopes and dreams and fears, I mean basic stuff like favorite food, favorite color, favorite movie. 

For blood relatives who've known each other for most of their lives, the Thanksgiving table turns into a session of Mad Libs: The "remember that time..." edition. There are certain stories that make up the family mythology and the ritualistic retelling of these tales further cements the familial bond - or something like that! But, these stories sometimes don't allow for the telling of new stories and the family becomes frozen in a narrative loop that doesn't allow the characters in these stories to develop an interior life and to progress. 

Crazy Uncle Duck who accidentally blew up the family barn when he was 12 years old while deep frying a turkey will always be that character, even when he's 20 and in college, when he's 27 and doing his medical school residency, and when he's 45 and is tops in his field as an orthopedic surgeon. There is comfort in hearing this story and in telling this story. But, Uncle Duck - who now goes by Ben - might hate this story, and he might wonder why the family seems disinterested in who he has become and the journey he's taken to get there. 

In studying Biblical literature, the phrase "closed text" is used to describe a list of scriptural books considered to be authoritative, to which nothing more may be added. For instance, the books that comprise the Torah. In our family lives, we can become the human equivalent of "closed texts", not allowing space for the natural evolution that happens in human beings, and greeting these changes at the holiday table with scorn, disgust, derision, or dismissal. 

Years ago, when I was in grad school - broke and hundreds of miles away from home - I had the best Thanksgiving of my life. It was at the Westin Copley Place with a dozen or so other grad students, a couple of whom were my friends and the rest of whom were strangers. We laughed, we talked, we ate too much and over the course of several hours we got to know each other. We were genuinely interested in learning about each other and by the end of the night new friendships were forged and established friendships were deepened. 

So, starting this Thanksgiving, get to know your families. Ask them the who/what/why/where/how questions that a reporter or a stranger in an airport bar would ask. Bypass the family shorthand and truly engage with your family. If you're with your in-laws, don't let them cut their long stories short, assuming that your significant other has given you a pre-dinner briefing about who begat who and whom divorced whom. And if you're the one bringing your significant other into the family fold, let them get to know your family members one on one. Seat them next to a favorite aunt and let the two of them have a dialogue and get to know one another. It's better for your relatives to experience first-hand how wonderful your partner is and not hear about it from you. In short, don't talk about each other, rather talk to each other. The holidays are annual opportunities to check in with each other - don't miss your chance.