Turkey, Stuffing and Drunken Uncle: Avoiding Conflicts at the Dinner Table

Thanksgiving is quickly approaching, which means it is time for family dinners and gatherings. With the presidential election coming up next year, the topics of conversation at the dinner table can escalate when hot topics, especially politics, are brought up during discussions.

Saturday Night Live pokes fun at this idea with its “Drunk Uncle” character, played by Bobby Moynihan, who regularly drinks too much alcohol and says offensive comments on the Weekend Update segment. This character has gained popularity because he is so relatable, as many people deal with a difficult relative at holiday functions.

Hot Button Issues

Families typically experience difficult dialogues around three hot button issues: sex and sexuality, religion and politics, says Jeffrey Child, interim director of Kent State’s School of Communication Studies.

“As young adults mature, they develop their own beliefs and ideologies that are sometimes the same as their parents, and sometimes very different than various family members’ beliefs,” Child says.

Young adults at college can sometimes get into discussions with older relatives because of these different beliefs and ideologies and from being away at school and learning.

“Quite often, people are expected to be listened to because they are older, and people are also expected to be listened to because they’re learning new things and their values could be changing,” says Susan Roxburgh, professor of sociology at Kent State. “Young adulthood is a period where people are growing towards their peer group and away from their family, in terms of socialization, so there are bound to be bumps along that developmental road.”

Politics is almost certain to be discussed at the Thanksgiving table this year because of the upcoming presidential election. Other hot-button issues that can get people heated include topics, such as climate change, immigration and marriage equality that generationally, people have different opinions about.

“Support for same-sex marriage is an example of an attitude that varies by age – a greater proportion of young people support same-sex marriage,” Roxburgh says. “So sometimes arguments at the Thanksgiving table are playing out over these generational differences in social values.”   

“There are an awful lot of hot button issues in our country and especially in this stage of the election cycle,” Roxburgh says. “Whether Donald Trump is going to be a good leader is presumably the subject around a lot of Thanksgiving tables this year.”

Tips to Avoid Conflict

Be Proactive: Being proactive in a situation like this is the first step to deescalate conflict. One method for accomplishing this is to “change the definition of the situation,” Roxburgh says.

“If you define the situation differently and say, ‘OK, I’m going to hear things from this drunk uncle that I’m going to be offended by, I’m just going to treat him as if he’s a total stranger and maybe even a crazy stranger,’” Roxburgh says.

Changing the way you view the situation can help prevent you from becoming upset because it will help you be more prepared for dealing with conflicts.

“The idea is to temporarily change the definition of the situation to one which allows you to avoid escalating the conflict,” Roxburgh says. “By contrast, if you define the situation as one where you have to win, you will lose and everyone else will also lose because it may degenerate into a shouting match, as these things sometimes do.”

Set a Goal: Instead of making it your personal goal to have your opinions heard or to “win” an argument with family members, having your goal be to simply get through the dinner will help solve some of the issues.

“There are ways to deescalate this situation, and they usually come along with saying, ‘I’m in this situation with this person who has had more to drink than I have, and they have these beliefs I don’t agree with. But I’m not here to convince them that I’m right and they’re wrong,’” Roxburgh says.

“The key to having a relaxing Thanksgiving time is to stop and ask yourself, before engaging in political debates with family, ‘Is it really necessary to create family conflict when my views are different or can I respectfully disagree and move the dialogue to safer topics that don't tend to stir as much controversy?’” Child says. “In-depth discussion of politics in the family can be enlightening if family members respect one another's opinions and the developing identities of family members. If you know your family members will attack you for your beliefs, move the topic to something less heated.”

Ultimately, the goal of any holiday get together should be to have fun and to see relatives and friends you do not see very often. By looking at it that way, and thinking about everyone who has worked hard to get everyone together and make food, you will not get upset because you will be looking at it differently.

POSTED: Thursday, November 19, 2015 09:24 AM
Updated: Friday, November 20, 2015 02:11 PM
Hanna Moore