TheGirlFromMarz has taken a stab at a glossary of Captain Awkward expressions and in-jokes. Admire it!
Hello Awkward Team:
Several months ago I severed contact with my immediate family (mother, father and brother). There was a lot of bullshit going on that I won’t go into, but everybody around me agrees that it was absolutely in my best interest to stop contacting them and ignore any contact from them. (Quick summary if it is relevant to your answer: destructive, stole or money from me many times, emotional abuse, drugs may or may not be involved). I am in therapy and working through it etc etc. Also possibly relevant is the fact that my immediate family lives several states away, they are in the Midwest and I am on the coast.
As the holidays approach, I am finding that a lot of people around me like to discuss their family situations, weird things their moms said, wacky aunts and uncles, that kind of thing. I am not sure how to talk about the situation in a way that neither invites further questions, nor brings down the tone of otherwise lighthearted conversation with work colleagues/casual acquaintances/whoever. I’m finding that being too vague about it leads people to ask more specific/direct questions (e.g. “what about your parents?” if I only mention my wife’s family). But even something simple like “My family is not a big part of my life, I don’t like to talk about them” or “I don’t speak to my family” brings conversation to a halt because, well, nobody likes knowing about someone else’s family drama. I thought about lying and saying my parents were dead but that seems like asking for trouble. I have tried getting away with just saying my family is far away, for example:
Me: We’re having xmas dinner with my wife’s family in X town.
Them: What about your family?
Me: Oh they’re far away.
But that seems to invite more questions also. I don’t like to talk about it for various reasons, chiefly the “nobody likes knowing about someone else’s family drama” from above. Is there any good way to say “you really, really don’t want to know” without being a drama queen or a total asshole?
First, good for you for taking care of yourself around your family. They sound awful, and while I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision, it definitely sounds like the right one.
Second, people need to get it through their fucking thick heads that not everyone’s family is a fucking Hallmark commercial, and that it is not other people’s job to perform whatever idealized picture of “But they’re your family!” or “But it’s Christmas!” they carry around with them in their heads.
Right now in this world, people are suffering from illness, death, depression, poverty, grief, and the aftermath of incredible violence. Some people will spend the holidays in hospitals. Some will spend them breaking up or getting divorced and fielding 5,000 uncomfortable questions about their estranged partner. This is a big time of year for lay-offs, so some people are reeling from having lost their jobs. Some people are having to do the math of “Do I go to Christmas dinner and possibly encounter my molester, or do I stay away and miss out on seeing my family?” Or, they want to see their family but can’t afford the trip, or they are worried about coming out to their family, or having to defend and justify all their life choices, or dealing with mean people and general wackness, or a million other anxieties. The Northern hemisphere may be “halfway out of the dark” but many people are very much in the dark and will be for a long time, and The Doctor is not coming in his blue box to make everyone’s taps run with pink lemonade and make these awkward family Christmas photos less weird. I’m glad for people who celebrate this time of year with genuine joy and affection and meaning, but we have to make room in our celebrations for people’s real pain. Their real experiences. Their real selves. If you’re using your idea of the holidays to bulldoze people’s real suffering or pressure them to perform a certain way for you, I can’t feel very merry about whatever you’ve got going on.
I think you are handling these interactions just fine, Letter Writer.
When people tell stories about wacky aunts and holiday antics, just listen and enjoy to the extent that you can. You can say stuff like “Wow, that’s hilarious!” and laugh along without sharing your own stories. You can also tell fun stories about celebrating with your wife’s family if you like. The pressure you’re feeling to share in kind might be pressure you are putting on yourself rather than the expectations of others. They aren’t talking about their families AT you, just like you’re not having a terrible family AT them.
I think your script, about your family being far away, or celebrating with your wife’s family is definitely the way to go. But “I’m not really close to my family and I don’t like to talk about them” or “That’s a painful subject just now, thanks for understanding. But tell me more about your celebration!” are also totally acceptable and correct things to say. You’re not trying to make it weird, or make anyone feel sorry for you. That’s not a faux pas or an overshare; that’s being brief and honest.
If there is an uncomfortable moment after you say something like that, that is not your discomfort to manage. As we said, you are not purposely having a terrible family in order to spoil people’s fun, and you’re not responsible for their feelings about it. If you do say something like that, people might be taken aback. They might flail and not know what to say, and they might blunder a bit.
Okay responses to ”I don’t like to talk about my family” are:
- “Understood, so sorry if I put you on the spot! Let’s talk about something else, shall we?“
- “I didn’t realize, sorry! If you ever do want to talk about it, let me know.“
- “Oh man, I forget sometimes that this isn’t always a great time of year for people.”
- “I’m sure you have your reasons. What does your wife’s family like to do for the holidays?“
If someone seems visibly uncomfortable by what you said, you can be the one to make it less weird by saying “You had no way of knowing! It’s okay, but I really don’t like to talk about it. Tell me more about this Uncle Zeb of yours, he sounds like a nightmare!”
If someone badgers you for details or asks you to justify things that you don’t want to justify, they are the ones who are out of line. Just repeat yourself. “You had no way of knowing, but I really don’t like to talk about it. Let’s change the subject.” Repeat as necessary until it sinks in or the conversation totally implodes and one of you walks away.
If it gets awkward, let it be awkward. That awkwardness is something they created. You don’t owe anyone a performance of being okay when you are not feeling okay so that they can feel better about themselves.