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How To Survive Uncomfortable Holiday Dinner Conversations


Thanksgiving can be an ordeal. Family, overeating and booze can lead to some epic blow-ups. Now that we're in one of the most politically chaotic times ever, Thanksgiving this year could be cataclysmic. Every topic at the table could become a conversational landmine. So how can you get through the holiday without your family imploding? To find out, we turn to advice columnist Mallory Ortberg. She writes Dear Prudence for Slate. Welcome.

MALLORY ORTBERG: Hey, thanks for having me.

HU: Well, first, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. I'm the daughter of immigrants, so doing Thanksgiving was new for my parents. So for those of us in the audience who might have different cultural backgrounds, what kind of rules or norms should we be paying attention to if we're new to the idea of a traditional American Thanksgiving?

ORTBERG: I mean, the great news is Thanksgiving, like most things, is mostly made up. So depending on the family or group of friends who have invited you, there will be different rules. You know, you should always be governed by basic etiquette of, like, you know, if it's appropriate, bring a small gift, like some flowers or a bottle of wine or something. Thank whoever made the meal, be friendly, use a napkin - like, just the sort of basics. But beyond that, you know, mostly I think just check in with the person who's invited you of like, hey, is there anything really, really bananas that you guys do that I should know about in advance?

HU: OK. And where do you come down on this notion of avoiding topics that might be divisive, like politics or religion?

ORTBERG: You know, it depends on how often you see your family, right? Like, if these are near strangers that you see twice a year, there may be, you know, no real foundation of mutual understanding and trust upon which to have a productive conversation. Or you may all be very much like in the same political spectrum or you may all actually have a history of being able to talk about difficult topics really well with one another. I don't want to imply that everybody listening to this show is, like, the lone standout in a family full of just, you know, political trolls and is trying desperately to drag them all into the light because that's not everyone's situation.

But I would say certainly it's possible to talk about issues that are, like, painful and divisive in a way that advocates for what you believe to be true. That does not necessarily have to begin in a place of saying you are garbage and I want to throw fire at you. And it's also OK to sometimes say like, hey, let's put a pause on this conversation if it's just getting really heated and unproductive. Like, I care about you. We can revisit this later. Let's just take a break.

HU: So let's get a little bit more specific to this Thanksgiving, which is happening against a backdrop that we can't ignore - a flood of sexual harassment stories. So what do you do if somebody brings up conversations about sexual harassment at the dinner table and things get heated?

ORTBERG: Oh, man. You know, for anybody listening who has experienced sexual harassment, whether at work or elsewhere or any form of sexual violence, just know that you have my full permission to just bail this year or any other year. You're going through a lot right now. It feels like every time you turn on the news, there are 100 new reminders of this thing that you have experienced personally. So if somebody brings it up, if they're talking about it dismissively, if it seems like everyone's willing to engage on it on an intellectual level but is sort of assuming obviously this has never happened to any of us and you just cannot deal, holy smokes, take a walk. Go outside. Lock yourself in the bathroom and stare at your phone for 15 minutes. Go sit in, like, the nearest K-Mart parking lot and just wait for the sun to go down. Do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. Like, you have no rules that apply to you.

HU: Less political more social - what if the food is bad?

ORTBERG: I think one of the great things to remember, especially around a day that has a lot of, like, cultural importance, is it's just one meal, you know. Like, if it's a lousy meal, go to McDonalds afterwards. Go to the grocery store, get something you like. If you eat a bunch of peanut butter in your car before you take a deep breath and steel yourself to head in, that's fine. If you go out with some pals afterwards to eat something, that's great, too. You're going to be all right, you know. There's a meal before. There's a meal after. You're not going to starve. It's all right.

HU: All right. Mallory Ortberg writes the advice column Dear Prudence for Slate. Mallory, thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.

ORTBERG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 21, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier Web intro for this story incorrectly identified the interviewee as New Yorkmagazine advice columnist Heather Havrilesky. The interview was with Slate advice columnist Mallory Ortberg.