The holidays are so awkward.
Even if you and your family normally have a barrel of laughs, there’s always that gift you hate (or that Grandma obviously hates), that new fiancée or estranged relative nobody knows what to do with, and those long, excruciating silences at the dinner table.
Worse yet, maybe you’re the only person in your age group attending this year, or you’re spending the holiday with a friend’s parents, or you are the new fiancée or estranged relative. A little silence at the dinner table can be good—it means everyone’s eating and enjoying the food—but sometimes, silence can be absolute, non-vocal Armageddon.
There’s no need to feel like you have an inadequate family or terrible social skills; awkward silence can be a sign that everyone desperately wants to get along. No one wants to say the wrong thing. That’s a convoluted sort of love. It’s certainly better than fighting. The fact is the holidays often require you to spend undue amounts of time with people you’re not used to talking with, and it’s natural to hit some speed bumps.
So, before Aunt Betty gives up and asks your father how his drinking problem is going, and for those moments when it looks like your sister is darn near ready to storm off and leave the table, here are ten safe conversation starters and topics. Even if your family has no trouble talking, these topics are still good go-tos for interesting, inspiring, and clever conversation that can strengthen your family’s familial bonds.
1. Thank you.
To some, this is a no-brainer, but you should definitely publicly thank your hosts, the cook, the person who bought the groceries, and even the person who stood in the kitchen for half an hour watching someone else cook the dinner. Err on the side of over-thanking; thank everyone at the table if you can manage it. Others will surely chime in.
2. Cinema, the great equalizer.
Despite generation gaps and lifestyle choices, our movie theaters treat us the same. If you’ve seen a great movie recently, ask if anyone else has seen it. Alternatively, ask, “Does anyone want to see a movie tomorrow?” and be prepared to back it up with a suggestion. That takes the pressure off the current situation and gets people talking about what they’d like to see—and don’t forget the age-old trick of going to the theater with the whole family but seeing different films. It ain’t ordering a pizza.
Avoid: “Anyone seen any good movies lately?” It’s so cliché, it will probably be met with disdainful chuckles, and it’s non-specific. If you’re not going to offer up an opinion, why should anyone else?
3. Pets, the small equalizer.
Pet lovers love to talk about their pets. If you can get one person talking about their dog/cat/pig/ferret, others will have stories. Someone may even have a new pet you haven’t heard about. A good way to start this is with the question “How’s your [pet]?” If the object of your question doesn’t offer much, follow it up with “He/she must be a really good companion for you,” or ask about the care of the animal. That should get them talking.
Exception: Don’t use this if someone’s dog just died. That makes you a jerk .
This is an excellent topic for the moment when everyone at the table is praising the wonders of Barack Obama, and conservative Grandfather is staring angrily into his mashed potatoes. Wait until the conversation wanes for a moment and say, “Grandfather, who is someone that you admire?” It takes the politics out of the conversation and puts you safely on the road to discussing great people in history—the more ancient, the more likely you are to agree. Everything is clearer in hindsight, after all.
5. Big, blockbuster news stories.
Always, always shy away from politics and religion, but feel free to ask, “Did anyone catch the news today?” If nobody offers much of anything, bring up the latest thing, such as, “Oh, I was just wondering if there were any developments with Jake Gyllenhaal and Taylor Swift …” Everyone seems to have something to say about whatever the big story of the moment is; take advantage.
Kill ’em with kindness. Compliment someone at the table on something they’re wearing. Be sincere, and don’t passive-aggressively pick something that you think looks horrible. Also, address the person by name. “Where did you get it?” is the next obvious leading question, and if you’re still getting one-word answers, follow that up with “Do you shop there much? What do they have?” and get them talking about other stores where they shop.
Avoid: “Compliments” about weight loss, hair, or makeup. It can imply that the person didn’t look good before, or it can be construed as a judgment of someone else at the table.
7. The Interwebs.
While blanket statements like “What’s your favorite animal?” are about as dry as they are obnoxious, the Internet is a treasure trove of conversation pieces. I mean, if your grandma just got her first computer, aren’t you sort of dying to know what her favorite website is? It could be Hampsterdance.com  for all you know (remember that?). Teenagers at the table will be way into this if you get them talking—and they’re likely to know about some cool websites you’ll want to check out yourself.
8. Past jobs.
Times are, irritatingly, still tight. (It’s like Santa didn’t get our memo.) May Oprah and Dr. Phil help you if someone starts moaning about their job or someone brings up the job they just lost. Here’s your savvy conversationalist’s out: ask someone to list all the jobs they’ve ever had. This works great on the over-fifty set, who love a stroll down memory lane, and it can be very entertaining. Not only that, but if someone just lost their job as, say, a lawyer, it’s humbling to remember that someone else at the table once scrubbed toilets to support their family. Humility is an important part of the holiday spirit.
9. Bring up the good stuff.
This may require a little previous investigation, but if a family member had a triumph this year, make them talk about it. “Hey Norm, tell them about your fishing trophy” or “Did you guys know that Alison graduated with honors last May?” work well. The trick with this one is to sniff out a coup that not everyone at the table will know about—that way, congratulations will be issued, and things will progress organically from there.
Exception: Try not to bring up a triumph that’s directly in opposition to someone else’s failure. Talking about someone’s great new house when someone else just lost theirs is likely to end in tears. Also, be wary of heaping praise on one kid and not on another (even grown kids). That’s mean.
10. Piggyback it.
When all else fails, return to a previous successful conversation with a piggyback question. If everyone seemed to like Cousin Jessie’s road trip story, ask your brother what the farthest distance he’s ever driven is, or ask your parents about their scariest hotel experience. Even if you orbit the same conversation for the entire meal, if everyone’s talking and laughing and having a good time, it’s a success. Holiday dinners are under no pressure to touch on a range of topics like some kind of town hall meeting; they’re about being together and enjoying each other (and hopefully the food).
A few more tips:
- Don’t over-help. If you’re trying to ask leading questions, give the person you’re asking time to answer, and give others a moment to consider and respond. What sounds like another silence gathering may be the sound of someone else’s formulating a comment.
- When in doubt, ask an open-ended question; a question that can’t be answered with “Yes,” “No,” or one word.
- Choose somebody. Don’t ask a question of the whole table; go ahead and put somebody (who can handle it) on the spot. If you’re not specific, there’s a chance that no one will want to be the first to answer.
- Don’t force somebody to answer a question that seems to bother them or pry into a subject that seems a little sensitive. Yes, it’s probably good for them to talk about it, but this is a meal, not your therapist’s office.
- If you have any members of The Greatest Generation with you this year, keep in mind that you won’t have them for long. It may take longer to have a conversation with someone who’s over eighty, but get them talking about World War II and the Great Depression—if not at the dinner table, then at some point during their stay. You’ll learn a little something, make them feel respected and wise, and their stories are likely to put our current woes in perspective.
- Shut up and eat. If you continue to dominate the conversation you start, you’re doing it wrong. Sit back and enjoy the repartee a little (and secretly pat yourself on the back).
And a few things not to say, no matter how much your black little heart is compelled:
- How’s your ex? (No need to show that you still care; that’s messed up.)
- Why do you think you lost your job/boyfriend? (They’ll tell you if they want to.)
- If you could be any animal, what would you be and why? (Just silly.)
Got more ideas? Tell us below!
Originally published on Tonic