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Holidays on Ice 

Embarrassing personal questions, hurt feelings, and grotesque social gaffes: ah, family gatherings.

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
Dear Social Grace,

Several years ago, I severed all ties with my family, and I am much better off for having done so. They are very bad people, let's just put it that way. During the holiday season, I deal with awkward questions about the subject of family, i.e., "Are you spending the holidays with your family?" Without sounding self-righteous or going into personal detail -- which is rude and boring, I know you agree -- how do I deflect such questions?

Via the Internet

Dear Emphatic Madam or Sir,

When deflecting undesirable but well-intentioned personal questions, simply aim for something you do want to discuss. For example, this response would do the trick: "No, I'm spending Thanksgiving with our friend Mavis; we're going to cook a goose. Don't you just love Mavis? Do you know how to cook a goose? And what are you doing for Thanksgiving?" Someone with your forceful way of communicating should have little trouble steering a conversation in this fashion.

Dear Social Grace,

My father-in-law has cancer, and he has beaten it longer than expected. He's actually my husband's stepfather, and became so after my husband was grown, but he is Grandpa to my children, and every year we have Thanksgiving with my in-laws, for the last 15 years. Under the current circumstances, my mother-in-law has said that she is having her siblings over for the holiday, not her children and grandchildren. This is touchy, and these are not my "blood" relatives, but there are hurt feelings, and I'm wondering how I can talk to my in-laws and my husband and kids about this and get all of us to feel better about this new decision.

Thank you!

Dear Madam-in-Law,

I'm afraid that you really must let your father-in-law and his wife -- the person who probably knows his wishes best -- decide what he feels up to this Thanksgiving. Perhaps he feels too ill for a big family holiday, kids and all. There are any number of reasons that this celebration might need to be different from those in years past, and none of those reasons should cause hurt feelings (though I understand you may have to fight them off consciously).

Let your in-laws know how much you and the kids will miss them, and consider proposing a visit for another day when there won't be so much going on. Even very young children should be able to understand a brief explanation: "Grandpa is too ill to have a lot of guests this Thanksgiving." You can ease their (and your) disappointment by helping them write Grandpa a letter (letter writing is such a wonderful habit for children to develop) and getting them involved in this year's Thanksgiving preparations.

Dear Social Grace,

My cousin is going to be married this winter. In the invitation to their engagement party was a little piece of paper, about the size of a bookmark, titled "Sam and Laura's Info." I have changed their names to protect my cousin, who had nothing to do with this list, I'm sure. On it is a list of items, including their china pattern, miscellaneous items that they need (like a DVD player), the color schemes in their home, a couple of stores (where I guess they are registered), and their taste in furniture and décor. Now, aside from the fact that I know this is not my cousin's doing but his soon-to-be wife's (my cousin isn't the kind of guy who really thinks much about "décor"), and aside from the fact that my mother and I have already agreed that this is extremely tacky, what do you actually do when you receive such a list from a family member you happen to love? Should we pitch in and buy them a DVD player? And are we crazy, or is it weird to bring presents to an engagement party?

Crazy Like a Fox

Dear Foxy Madam or Sir,

Engagement parties -- being small, intimate affairs attended by people who will be invited to the wedding itself -- are not traditionally gift-giving affairs. In fact, at many such gatherings I've attended, the engagement announcement has been a surprise. Such celebrations are (please permit me an exasperated sigh here) happy occasions at which two people in love bask in their families' delight and warm wishes.

Now, when a beloved cousin commits an utterly grotesque social gaffe (and that's what we're dealing with here), you can do him the immense favor of pretending not to have noticed. It's very easy to misplace bookmark-size pieces of paper. File away the knowledge that Sam and Laura's living room is salmon and taupe until it's time to select a wedding present. In the meantime, try to work through any resentment you're feeling, because the one thing you do have to bring to an engagement party is joyful thoughts.

About The Author

Social Grace


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