Surviving Christmas When Your Family is The Worst

'Tis the season to be problematic, it seems. We asked two experts how to cope with Christmas time when your family is less than woke...

Feature by Eilidh S. | 05 Dec 2016

Christmas, I’m often told, is a season for spending time with your family. It’s also supposedly dedicated to tolerance and understanding. Unfortunately, in my case, those notions are mutually exclusive.

Every year it’s the same – a selection of my aunts and uncles (and occasionally the grandparents), prone to racism and homophobia swallow their weight in After Eights and retch up a year’s worth of vitriol for the benefit of the oversensitive young ’uns in the room. Meanwhile, we sit aghast, wondering whether the best course of action is to take the bait and unleash a hurricane of righteous rage, sink into a Baileys black hole or file for some sort of familial emancipation.

Unfortunately, none of the above prove an adequate solution to the problem; Baileys runs dry, patience wears thin and it turns out that divorcing your family is actually too lengthy a process to be completed by the end of December.

What’s more, thanks to the EU referendum, murmurs of another #indyref and the fact we’ve got an odious lacquer-fringed cuntwallop leading the United States, it’s highly likely that unclesplainers the world over are girding their loins for a stint of bollocks-spouting. And it’s our job to stop them... Or is it?

I emailed Erica Curtis, a California-based marriage and family therapist and Dr. Scyatta A. Wallace, an award-winning psychologist residing in Brooklyn, and quizzed them both on the best ways to manage familial indiscretions this Christmas. Think of it like an early Christmas present from Deviance – your very own guidebook to navigating even the most antagonistic of aunties. Let’s do this.

When it comes to political correctness, why does it sometimes feel like my family is baiting me?

Dr. Scyatta A. Wallace: They don’t see the problem in what they’re doing. They likely think 'We’re not talking about her, so what’s the big deal?' They will only see it as silly pranks. Set those boundaries and walk away. It may take practice, but you can never let them see you sweat.

Sometimes my extended family make jokes which aren't necessarily targeted at me, but which I object to (for instance, comments about race or gender). Should I call them out? If so, how do I exert a little damage control along the way?

Erica Curtis: Whether or not you let a family member know you object to their insensitive comments is a personal decision. If you do decide to say something, maximise the likelihood that they’ll hear your message with these tips:

1. Stay matter-of-fact. If you raise your voice or come across as defensive, the likelihood is that they’ll get defensive.
2. Say 'I' instead of 'you'. For example, instead of 'you shouldn’t make comments like that', say 'it really bugs me to hear things like that' or 'I don’t find those kinds of jokes funny.'
3. Get curious. Really curious. Ask matter-of-fact questions like, 'what makes you say that?' or 'I wonder why you say that'; 'When you make comments like that it makes me think you don’t like people who are X, Y or Z. Is that true?'
4. Remark on feelings rather than facts. Try saying, 'it makes me sad to hear that.'
5. Be baffled. 'I don’t know how to respond. I don’t like to hear things like that so I just don’t know what to say. I’m kind of at a loss.'

SW: Set boundaries. If a comment is made, tell family members that you do not support negative comments about others and you would appreciate it if they did not make those comments around you. Do not make it about them or try to convince them why they are wrong – the request should be made firmly, but without any tension.

I feel like a failure when I fail to call people out on their shit. How should I deal with these feelings?

EC: When people choose not to confront family members about their behavior, it’s often because they know it won’t be productive – perhaps they’re not going to hear you, or they’ll get defensive. There is nothing wrong with picking your battles.

Rather than beating yourself up for the times you don’t confront family about their offensive comments, instead congratulate yourself on not thinking like them. When you grow up around certain views and attitudes, it’s no small feat to choose to think and behave differently. So instead of thinking 'I can’t believe I didn’t say something', instead think 'I’m so glad I don’t think like that.'

SW: Do not feel compelled to show others how to be. However, it’s important to communicate that their behaviour is not something you want to be around. This should be done with respect and kindness. As hard as it is to do, it’s the only way to properly address hatred.

I’m not really open to discussing my sexuality and/or partners with my family, but that seems to cause yet more curiosity. How do you advise dealing with intrusive questions or homophobic comments?

EC: If someone asks you something about your relationships or sexual preference you don’t feel comfortable getting into, you can respond with a casual, 'Oh, grandma, I don’t talk about personal stuff like that' and then change the topic: 'Let me tell you what I’ve been doing at work/school…'

You may also want to consider the reason for their asking in the first place – are they being nosey or judgmental, or do they really want to know you better? If they seem sincere in knowing you better, but it’s not the time or place for a heart to heart, let them know you appreciate their interest in your life and that you look forward to talking some other time about it: 'Thanks for asking, Grandma. Let’s talk about it later, okay?'

What’s the best course of action if my family makes an insensitive joke or comment in the company of a friend or a partner?

EC: If your family is likely to make insensitive comments, warn your guest ahead of time. Let them know how you feel about those comments in advance – that it’s embarrassing when your dad starts to talk about X or that it makes you angry when your sister makes jokes about Y. Let them know how you’ve dealt with it in the past and how you plan to deal with it if it comes up at the upcoming family gathering, even if that means ignoring it. Likely your partner or friend will be supportive and empathetic about your situation.

SW: Do not apologise to your friend in public, as this may make the friend feel worse. Wait until you have time alone and then you can talk freely.

Worst case scenario, a civilised dinner descends into a row. How do I deal?

EC: Some of the most effective de-escalation strategies include identifying the other person’s underlying needs and feelings and speaking to that. Ultimately, people want to be heard and understood. Most arguments escalate for the very reason that both parties are desperately trying to be heard and understood, but neither are demonstrating that they hear and understand the other person... Disengaging is also an option. Suggest a different topic. Agree to disagree. Help clear the table. Walk away.