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Dealing with Annoying Relatives on Thanksgiving

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Dr. Michelle Golland: When thinking about going to your family's Thanksgiving dinner, does the fear of seeing certain relatives put a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach? You know the ones: the close talker, the nonstop talker, the massager, the bully, Debbie Downer and Mrs. Right About Everything! This is just a sampling from my family, anyway. (I hope they don't read this!) There are others, of course, but what is key is learning how to deal with these personality types. That way, your meal will be festive, fun and less stressful.

Thanksgiving family dinner

The "Close Talker"
As seen on "Seinfeld," the close talker can be seriously annoying! You end up smelling things, and (God forbid) may even have food fly at you while they talk. One good coping technique is to hold your drink out in front you, thereby enlarging your space bubble with your hand. You can also step backwards slightly -- just be careful that you don't back yourself into a corner! Also, make sure that the relative is not actually hard of hearing and doesn't have major cultural differences. In the United States, the normal range for talking is arms' length or the distance of a handshake.

The Chatty Cathy
The nonstop nattering and going on and on and on can seriously drive one batty! Chatty Cathys are not meanspirited, but really don't take hints well when those they're talking to need to exit. I find that having some good, solid exit strategies works well with these family members. For example, saying you need to check something in the oven, change a diaper, make a phone call .... For the most part, these people are harmless, just a bit exhausting. So make small talk and then move on to the other guests.

The Massager
This overly touchy family member (besides being sort of creepy) just seems to lack personal boundaries. We have a family member who randomly starts giving shoulder massages! Seriously, it's not relaxing at all -- and clearly unwanted. If you don't feel like you can tell them to simply get their hands off you, it might be easier to say something like, "Thanks" while touching their hand that is near your neck and walking forward so they need to stop. Make sure you don't sit next to him or her at dinner or on the sofa, either. Creating a physical barrier is the easiest way to stop this annoying behavior.

Mr. or Mrs. Right About Everything
These family members tend to make all conversations about themselves and break a very important etiquette rule: Being a good conversationalist really is all about asking the other person things about him or herself. I have a little running game with the family member who fills this bill. I always ask her how her work is going, and it is now a joke because she hasn't asked me about my work in the last six times we were together! So my strategy with this person is to have my own little inside joke, and when she is done talking about herself, I let the silence speak for itself.

Debbie Downer
Just like the famous "Saturday Night Live" character, this relative has the uncanny ability to put a negative spin on just about everything! They are the glass-half-empty people and tend to focus on the misery in life rather than the blessings. Especially during Thanksgiving, this can really bring your mood to a low point. The best strategy for dealing with these people is to ask them questions like, "What was the best thing about your vacation?" In other words, direct them to the happy things in life. Try not to chime in on the negativity, because complaining can be contagious.

The Bully
These family members are plain mean. They like to unsettle people by making cutting comments. They enjoy getting a rise out of family members and stirring the pot to create tension. They can be aggressive and unlikeable, or at times seem charismatic. The bully likes to undermine other family members and often has one or two victims that they see as "inferior" to them. They can often try to manipulate other members to dislike their victims as well. They enjoy gossiping and creating alliances within the family. The best way to handle a bully is to deal with them directly and calmly. It is best to not defend yourself or get into a yelling match with these people. That's what they want; it makes them feel powerful. When someone is trying to bully me, I say things like, "Wow, that is an interesting comment" or directly confront them with a response like, "What do you mean by that?" The goal is to destabilize them by not playing into their game, almost as if you were being friendly and curious about their bullying behavior.

Who will be at your Thanksgiving meal? Are any of these annoying personalities in your family? What other ones do you have to cope with?


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5 comments so far | Post a comment now
jen November 23, 2010, 5:25 AM

Actually, I’m cooking partially just so we don’t have to deal with them. I highly recommend it.

Jonie November 23, 2010, 7:51 AM

OMG, the massager!!! My sister’s sister-in-law does this and it’s one of the main reasons I avoid her at all costs. I haven’t spent a Thanksgiving with her in years and don’t plan on it any time soon. I occasionally see her at my sister’s parties and if I see her reach her hands out I book it! PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ME!!!!! Seriously, who just starts giving a back massage without being asked????!!!

Sarah Hoffman November 23, 2010, 11:51 AM

We have a toucher in my family; my aunt always pinches the children’s cheeks. They say it hurts so they aren’t disappointed when she doesn’t show up to family gatherings. On my husband’s side, we have everything but the Chatty Cathy and the Massager. This year the hubs said he didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving with his family. I didn’t argue!

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