#409: Guess what? Not everyone’s family is awesome and not everyone loves “the holidays.”

A little girl sits on Santa's lap, screaming.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.

129 thoughts on “#409: Guess what? Not everyone’s family is awesome and not everyone loves “the holidays.”

  1. Great response. You’re already doing exactly the right thing, LW. It’s other people’s expectations of perfection and happiness that are creating the awkwardness, and you can’t really do anything about that. If someone is invested in that, there isn’t any perfect response you can give them that conveys that you don’t want to talk about your family, because their desires for a picture perfect Christmas aren’t compatible with that reality. Hopefully that awkward moment is them readjusting their perspective!

  2. LW- I stopped speaking to my mother for a while, so I understand to a degree. The Captain give excellent advice, as always.

    Speaking of which….

    Oh preach it Captain. Preach it.

    Since last Christmas I have had a cousin attack me on facebook over politics by saying I was shaming the family, my mother has gotten remarried to the man she left my father for, I have lost the ability to bear children in a Catholic family where you must have teh babies, I have gained 20 pounds due to stress, and I just quit my hellhole of a job without another concrete one lined up. I am already tense from the judgement I expect to be heaped upon me.

    I am so dreading Christmas dinner. Especially when the wine comes out….

    So no, not everyone loves being with family during the holidays.

    1. Your politics honor the Awkward Family!

      Your mother is not your responsibility!

      Neither is your father!

      If appropriate, I am so sorry you can’t have babies. Also I am so angry at your family for giving you shit for not having them! They do not belong up in your uterus, whatever state it is in.

      None of us noticed that you gained any weight! But maybe you could check in with some of your friends to see if they have any jeans that fit you right now, it sucks so much when your clothes don’t fit. I like that gravatar icon on you, though, it really brings out the diva in you.

      You got out of a shit job! Damn straight! I hope you find something better right quick, it’ll probably be easier when you’re not carefully defending that last nerve!

      I have no idea what’s wrong with your family, because I want to give you a hug and listen to how this year has gone for you.

      *These sentiments not reserved for the goat diva.

    2. Fun times! Congratulations on quitting your hellhole job, though. No matter what your relations say about the wisdom of that move, Swami Alphakitty predicts you will never look back on that decision with regret.

      1. Agreed.
        Very scary step when you don’t have a safety net, but I too doubt you will regret it once you’re out the other side of the stressy-find-a-new-job stage.

    3. I hope everything goes as well as it possibly can, goatdiva, and that you’ll be able to carve out some peace-and-care time for yourself.

    4. Hello! That’s a lot to deal with.

      Good for you for getting out of that job.

      You know that you are allowed to only eat Christmas dinner with cool people who like you if you want, right? You don’t HAVE to go. You can cancel today. You an cancel tomorrow. You can cancel the day of.

      But if you choose to go, find the people you want to see and sit next to them and talk to them. And bring your cell phone and take breaks to call nice people you like.

      And I swear, I’m coming down on the side of full disclosure to the question “So when are you having teh babies?” in a situation like yours. “Wow, that’s a really painful subject, because I want babies and I actually CAN’T have them. ‘Can we talk about anything else please? And maybe everyone can stop asking everyone else that question? It’s such a personal decision and you never know when you’re going to accidentally hit on something very painful to someone without realizing it.

      Of course, that opens the door to people encouraging you to adopt (like that’s in any way easier and less gutwrenching and expensive and fraught than having a biological kid or wrestling with one’s infertility), or wanting to get into the medical details and stuff and recommendations for cures/remedies/steps in which case a) ASSHOLES! Because guess what, their desire to be a grandma or whatever is not your responsibility and you don’t have to take care of their feelings about that and b) “Wow, this so not a conversation I want to have. Why don’t you take some time to process whatever feelings you have about that, but I can’t really deal with this conversation or listen to recommendations now. Let’s change the subject!”

      1. If you have any awesome people at that dinner table with you, this might be a good opportunity to employ them as you emergency subject changer, so that if you start feeling overwhelmed by combating this loaded line of questioning, there’s someone who can help you out.
        My best friend in uni had an elective hystorectomy at age 18, as a very last resort to treat a hugely aggressive disease similar to extremely severe endometriosis, I can distinctly remember one tactless, inept (but fully aware of my friend’s medical history) individual posing a hypothetical “when you have babies…” kind of question to the group and then focusing in on said friend.
        My friend politely deflected the question with “I’m not actually able to have children, so I’m not the best person to ask” and was rewarding with variations of “but like if you adopt, or just like imagine that you do”
        Cue me jumping in with some obnoxious, outrageous statement that distracted Ms Inept Individual long enough for friend to get her nerves back together and put Ms Inept onto a different line of questioning.

        I’ve also found that rehearsing my answers to questions when I know I’m going to be answering icky questions makes me feel more in control. Your family’s awful interrogation is probably going to be very easy for you to predict, so maybe some time spent (just a little, don’t dwell on it or let it make you more anxious) rehearsing your response will hopefully mean you don’t get caught off guard with the grossness, and has the added bonus of detatching the emotion from the words you’re saying. After a few repetitions “my father passed away. It was many years ago now, but thank you for asking, that’s really kind” is just words now, rather than actually feeling emotionally loaded anymore. It means I can get it to roll off my tongue and keep on with the conversation if I need to.

        1. I… actually really needed that script. And the suggestion of practising it until it’s just words. I’m so tired of either stuffing my ‘no, I don’t want to talk about your undoubtedly lovely mother OR mine because I miss her yet despite it being two years, just ixnay on the mothers’ feels back down into the guilty little hollow they’ve made for themselves or feeling like I’m deploying some sort of nuclear option by saying tersely, ‘She died. Can we not do this right now. Or ever.’

          Thank you.

    5. Thank you everyone, I didn’t mean to hijack the comments section.

      I appreciate all the script, and can actually say with all honesty my parents have never been pushy about the babies. My MIL….well, we wont go there. I had a pseudo elective tubal this year. It was either that, or struggle with awful woman issues that all the birth controls made worse.

      You guys are all awesome. Awesomely Awkward 😀

  3. I am really excited to go visit my family. Thank you for scripts that I can use to support my friends and (chosen) family who don’t feel the same way.

    1. I co-sign. I’m lucky to have a relatively functional family that I, for the most part, enjoy being around. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that others aren’t that lucky.

    2. I am…mostly excited…to go visit my family this year. The past few months have been stressful for us (my grandmother, clan matriarch died a few weeks ago) and this trip will be a mix of fun and sadness.

      One thing I’ve tried to do in my day-to-day life and conversations is identify which friends find (birth) family a painful or difficult topic and which friends feel that their (birth) family is a safe and loving place. I don’t make lists of “good family”/”bad family” friends (for want of better adjectives), but try to keep this knowledge in the back of my mind. If I want to talk about family holidays and my family’s relatively minor grievances, I seek out the appropriate people. This can lead to some awesome exchanges–“You think finding enough place settings for 20 people is difficult [a problem in my family]? I don’t even know the names of all 70 of my cousins!”–that are fun for us, but not fun for everyone.

  4. I understand your pain LW. I tried to explain to a potential romantic partner once that my mom’s side of the family hadn’t gotten together for Christmas because there was a lot of anger and unhappiness going around about my mentally ill and drug addicted uncle moving back in with my grandmother. Severely awkward. I too have a hard time deciding how much to share when I explain that that side of the family often does not get together for holidays because, due to drama throughout the year, everyone is tired of each other by the time Christmas rolls around.

  5. I have minor family drama (a aunt and uncle we don’t talk to who are incredibly toxic), so even though I don’t have to justify myself to people as they aren’t IMMEDIATE family, I do get the “not everyone’s family’s are from a Norman Rockwell Painting” deal.

    Generally, if a person says their family lives far away/family drama, I go “Oh man that sucks,” and then move on with a question like “so what do you normally do on the Holidays?” with a normalizer “I remember the couple of Christmases I spent without my whole family were kinda a blast- you could do whatever you wanted AND make all that wonderful food for yourself without having a 5 person pile up in the kitchen.” Basically, trying to make it not awkward for them because the few times I have had to explain not being with family on the holidays, there usually is this moment of awkwardness as you wonder if the person is pitying you/judging you/etc.

    Kinda like how when my dad had cancer by the end of it I learned the best thing anyone could say was “Oh man, that’s awful/that sucks/I’m sorry” and then MOVE THE FUCK ON. Platitudes suck, “comforting” lines suck, and so on. Shared experiences and empathy were always welcome though, but sympathy typically chaffed. Unless they were a close friend I didn’t even like the “if you ever want to talk about it”.

    Basically OP- You are not alone in having family drama, and I’m sure most people DO have it. Giving a quick script like the ones above by Captain Awkward works, just don’t let people who don’t get it (or are putting their own pressures of being a “good child” onto you, as challenging that idea of suffering to win some prize as a good person makes some people crazy) rule the convo. I would also suggest that after the lines to bring it back on topic. Maybe go right from “my extended family isn’t close” to “but we (you and your wife, in this instance) are planning x y and z and are really looking forward to it!” even if x y and z is a blissful day off of sleeping in. That way the awkward moment is minimized for those who mean well and won’t pry, but don’t know how to deal with the sudden guilt of realizing not everyone has a happy huge family. Though it’s something they shouldn’t feel guilty of, they might believe that they were making YOU uncomfortable by talking about all this stuff, and by sharing your own excitement it makes them realize you really don’t care.

  6. I also like the all-purpose “that is pretty much my LEAST favorite thing to talk about!” Let’s stick to talking about YOUR ________, shall we?”

    Also, I’m a great believer in defining “family” for yourself, to encompass only people it is healthy for you to have a relationship with (e.g., who don’t undermine you, criticize all your choices, or steal from you). If your blood/adoptive relations don’t fit that definition and your in-laws do, when people ask about your family’s plans I think you can in good conscience answer regarding your in laws without feeling obligated to clarify that you are actually not referring to the nest of vipers amongst whom you were raised.

    1. Yes! alphakitty, I rather like you. 🙂

      LW, the Captain gave you some great scripts to supplement what you’re doing/saying, and I am sending you Jedi hugs if you want them.

      More generally, those scripts are great for anyone dealing with awkwardness – trust me, they’ve worked for me when I find myself needing to explain why my 29-year-old sister watches “Sesame Street” or has staff (supported living staff), or why I as a Jew don’t celebrate Christmas, or why I don’t know my estranged cousins, etc.

      For those reading who know of someone going through a tough time, I have heard from friends missing loved ones or struggling that sometimes it’s nice to acknowledge their grief. PLEASE use your judgment, but those abovementioned friends tell me that they often appreciate it when we substitute a card that says “I know you’re missing [deceased parent/loved one] at this time of year when everyone’s talking about families, and I’m thinking about you!” for a card or Facebook post saying “Happy [insert holiday/observance here]!”

      1. Word on the last paragraph. At least, this is something that I would be very appreciative of personally. My church is having a Blue Christmas service in early Jan. for those who are grieving and I’m really “looking forward” to it. I find it comforting to know that other people are sensitive to my grief.

      2. LW I’m so sorry that you have to deal with this. As it stands, my family is generally awesome (bar an aunt with personal space/question issues who wants to control the world) so family gatherings are normally pretty cool.

        Except I hate Christmas. 3 years ago my daddy died on Christmas day and quite frankly the whole of December reminds me of watching him slowly fade away. People ask me what we’re doing and my plans for Christmas day and my true answer is that I would skip the day altogether if I could. Go from Dec 24th to Dec 26th and just NOT be in that day (denial and me are old friends).

        People are so happy this time of year, it’s presents and lunches and beaches and warm weather (for those in the Northern hemisphere, summer at Christmas is great!) and I’m just…not.

        Elysia is right – it is thoughtful when a friend gives me an extra squeeze at this time or asks about Christmas and then realises that this is a painful time of year for me. It means that they care enough to remember my grief and understand my reluctance to jump on the happy wagon.

        The circumstances may be different, but the pain is still felt by all those people with unhappy family memories – this time of year is difficult for us all and a little empathy and understanding goes a long way. Thanks Awkward Army for sharing that.

  7. If you really want to keep things simple for people and not answer too many questions you could try sticking with the distance thing and use the phrase “not this year.” Let your casual acquaintances think that it’s mostly a matter of money and travel time and don’t clarify that you don’t intend to see them in future years either.

  8. 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.

    THAT. SO MUCH THAT. ALL OF THAT. My family has periodic fits of awfulness, and though among close friends they have become kind of a running joke, I do not want to share this with every random well-meaning person who asks questions I can’t deflect easily. When that person starts pumping me for information at the first sign of “I’d really rather not discuss it,” I know they are really for really real not someone I want to confide in, and it’s okay to reiterate that and let things be awkward because of them. You were just going along, minding your own business — and they weren’t.

  9. Oh, sympathies. I cut off contact with my family many, many years ago, and have lived with this particular discomfort for a long time.

    You’re already doing everything exactly right, and the Captain’s advice on how to expand on/follow up what you’re already doing is fantastic. Your responses – I don’t speak to my family, my family is not a big part of my life, my family is far away – are vague yet decisive enough to firmly disinvite further inquiry, and if people are too rude or clueless to pick that up, it’s not your fault or your job to manage their discomfort.

    BUT that said, if you want (you should not feel obligated!) to mitigate a little of the conversational awkwardness, re-drawing the boundary with a “positive” – something about in-laws or family of choice – can help smooth over the jagged edge and move the conversation back toward the other person’s (and your!) comfort zone.


    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 and I really enjoy my in-laws’ company.

    This is new – the first holiday season since you cut contact? – and it will get better over time as the people around you internalize the idea that your family is Not In The Picture, Thankyouverymuch. I think it’s hardest with people like those very casual acquaintances you mention – friends know the backstory, strangers are just making smalltalk, but acquaintances feel entitled to a little in on your personal life, and have to be taught otherwise. Sometimes over and over and OVER again. Just forge on, maintain your boundaries, and enjoy the loved ones you have.

    1. I love this strategy. If it’s appropriate for you, I also like “Uh… they *are* my family.” But I also hate it when people try to define my family relationships for me to tell me what gets to count as “real” family and what doesn’t.

    2. “This is new – the first holiday season since you cut contact? – and it will get better over time as the people around you internalize the idea that your family is Not In The Picture”

      Yes! This is a great message. Because it really does get better.

      I cut off all ties to my father years ago – he was extremely abusive, and there were some very bad and scary times – my mom has also cut off ties with him. Basically while I don’t have nice childhood memories or big albums full of holiday snaps from 1985, or whatever, I have a great adulthood and tons of cool adulthood memories. So it’s not a big deal for me anymore. In my real life only my partner knows about what happened.

      At first, like the LW I didn’t know what to say when people were swapping family anecdotes and asked me… so what about your childhood holiday memories/ plans for this year?

      I had several times when people would say “but he’s your FATHER that is a SACRED BOND you must FORGIVE HIM you only get ONE FATHER” when I said I don’t talk to him anymore.

      Others even said “Why what did you do to upset him?”

      Now I just say that my father is dead. He is. To me.

      Then like the Captain advises I just change the subject back to happy talk like “but tell me more about your Aunty Jemima and her ice cream sculpture” or whatever.

      1. “you only get ONE FATHER”

        “And thank fuck for that – couldn’t cope with TWO of the fuckers”

    3. This is a great idea! My mother died when I was young and I haven’t spoken to my father in years. When people ask about my family, I talk about my brother and two godmothers, because they are my family! Mostly, I don’t even tell them that is who I am talking about, I just say “Oh, yes, I will be visiting my family.” When I am becoming friends with someone and I have told a few stories about my godmothers like other people tell stories about their parents, I throw in a “they’re like second mothers to me, and there are two of them to clarify” (that part can get a bit confusing!).

  10. LW, I like your responses so far – I think they’re perfectly adequate.

    I realise this is on a totally different scale to what you’re dealing with and I don’t want to compare the two, but I tend to get a lot of comments about how I spend Christmas. My dad died almost eight years ago and I’m an only child, so I spend Christmas with my mother. Period. Spending Christmas away from your partner and with just one other person is unusual in my country and a lot of people say things like ‘Oh, how *sad* and lonely*’ when they find out, or comment on how spending Christmas away from my partner must feel.

    Conversations go like this:
    Person: What are you doing for Christmas?
    Me: Spending it at home with my mother.
    Person: . . . Really? That’s weird.
    Me: My dad passed away 8 years ago and I’m an only child, so I don’t want to leave my mother alone.
    Person: . . . oh. That sucks. Perhaps you would like some further questions on how much it must suck?
    Me: Not really, thanks. I enjoy it, due to the fact that both attendees are AWESOME.

    I have found that sounding positive about my plans can help to derail people because they’re getting a sufficient fix of the happy-Hallmarky response they crave so much and it gives them a new topic to latch on to. I’ve started saying ‘I spend Christmas with my mother because [death] and [only-child-status]. It’s nice and chilled out.’

    I’m not suggesting lying or pretending to feel good about things that you don’t feel good about. I’m also not suggesting that you prop up their bullshit vision of what everyone’s holiday season must be like – I’m more suggesting something of the ‘It’s OK, I’ve got this’ variety. Maybe something like ‘They’re far away/They’re not a part of my life anymore. I enjoy spending time with my wife’s family, though.’

    However, that is more of a short-term solution, and I wholeheartedly endorse the Captain’s comment about saying what you feel comfortable with and then letting things be awkward. I feel that is more likely to teach them a long-term lesson about not being arses about people’s family/holiday/personal stuff and butting the hell out.

    I hope the nosy folk in your life hurry up and butt out and let you continue with your clearly excellent self-care, LW.

    1. My teenage daughter’s dad died when she was quite young, and I’ve heard many of those same comments about how it’s sad to have Christmas with just the two of us, and we should go over to X relative or friend’s house instead. But like you and your mom, we enjoy each other’s company and a calm, stress-free day of hanging out in our pajamas, eating snacks, and playing with/watching new stuff – nothing sad or lonely about it at all. Here’s to celebrating the way YOU want to!

      1. Second this – me and my son spend xmas together and we get ‘oh just the two of you? awww’ remarks all the time. But we love it – we laze around, watch TV, eat, go to the pub for an hour, more lazing around etc etc. The extended family is a bit of a nightmare – too much underlying drama to cope with, but like the LW, I don’t want to go into the whys and wherefores. For me it is about other people not accepting that we can all have the xmas we want thanks, and that is good enough.

        1. “For me it is about other people not accepting that we can all have the xmas we want thanks, and that is good enough.”

          Definitely. I wish every member of the Awkward Army the holidays they want.

  11. I think the real problem lies with the invasive questions, with feeling entitled to other people’s private information. Can’t we simply *stop asking* about others’ holiday plans? The question pries open two private areas: family relations and religion. I don’t know why personal questions are considered socially acceptable by so many in this culture, and it would be a great relief to me never again to be asked “What do you do?” or “What are your plans for the holidays?” or “Do you plan to have children?” or any of the follow-up questions which get more aggressive as I attempt to dodge politely. (I remember particularly an exchange in which the person who has asked what I “did” finally said that what he really wanted to know was how much money my partner and I had.)

    1. I wish asking about people’s job wasn’t such a fraught topic. :-/ There’s so much judgement around being unemployed for whatever reason (like recessions or health problems) or working a job that doesn’t meet people’s standards (even though a lot of those jobs are actually really important) that it can just be so awful and awkward, which sucks, because it can be a question that does actually lead to learning a lot about a new acquaintance and kickstarting a bunch of awful conversations. But I get both sides of that, because in my family we do a Christmas letter every year that we have to contribute a paragraph to, and it gets really old coming up with new ways to say “I did nothing this year because I’m too emotionally unstable.” Luckily I’m moving on from that now but it’s one of the reasons I dislike Christmas, all these family traditions that I either don’t give a crap about or are actively terrible.

      1. The topic will always be fraught because of all the judgments you mention. It’s really asking “What is your social status? Do I have to take you seriously?” In Europe it’s considered a vey rude question. As with your family letter–how much kinder and more polite not to ask invasive questions.

        1. Oh no! I live in Europe and had no idea it was a rude question. I like to ask it because I like to find out how people spend their time and what interesting stuff they’re working on (I’d be equally happy hearing an answer that focussed on their hobbies for instance), but I can totally see how it could sound like I’m prying into their financial status. Hmmm. Will have to think of different ways of wording that one.

          1. I like, “What keeps you busy these days?” That opens it up for whatever they’re passionate about without restricting it to work. I also prefer answering this variation because I don’t like talking about my job in most social situations.

          2. @sometimeswhy OH YEAH. That’s an awesome way to ask that! Way more likely to get interesting conversation answers than a terse job title.

        2. I think it’s Lifehacker that suggests that a much better question than “What do you do for a living?” is “What’s keeping you busy these days?” It’s much more open-ended and allows the other person to talk about anything–their family, their flying lessons, a neat project they’ve started, etc. And since hopefully they’ll talk about something they’re interested in and excited about, you can continue on a vein of conversation that’s comfortable for them.

        3. *In Europe it’s considered a very rude question.*

          Just want to point out that Europe is a BIG place, holding MANY different cultures. It’s not monolithic.

    2. I disagree. Making casual conversation is not inherently “feeling entitled to someone’s person information.” Yes, not everyone has happy holiday plans or situations, but as I see it, it isn’t inherently rude to attempt to have a conversation with a friend or acquaintance or coworker about a common upcoming social event. It is not rude to ask what someone does or what their holiday plans are, just as it is not rude to politely decline to answer, give a non-answer, or sidestep the question. This part is innocuous human interaction that is sometimes accidentally awkward.

      What IS rude is the continued persistence on a line of question that the other conversee clearly doesn’t want to have or asking invasive personal questions about WHY don’t you want to see your family.

      I think conflating the line between “any question that could potentially end up awkward is rude” and “continued badgering and/or super invasiveness” muddles the waters.

      1. I agree with this. Otherwise the rule for human interactions would be ‘Only ever talk about serious things that need saying’ and there would be no more small talk, EVER. Small talk is an important grease of human interaction, as long as it’s ‘small’ for everybody. When it looks like your Small Talk is someone else’s Big Talk, you back off the subject and find something else to be chitchatting about while you wait for your bus or whatever. Simple.

        People who don’t get deserve a social clip round the ear, but people who do get it shouldn’t be penalised simply for engaging in innoccuous small talk.

    3. “What are you doing for the holidays?” is an innocuous small-talk phrase for most people, though. Like when you ask someone “How are you?” you generally don’t want to hear the results of their last physical, most people who ask aren’t really interested. Just saying “Not much” will cover it for a lot of people if you don’t want to talk about it. Of course, some people are just nosy.

      If you were to ask me what I was doing you would get an answer something like “Well, we WERE going to my parents’, but one of my dogs is dying of cancer all of a sudden” followed by me sobbing for half an hour. Also not what anyone wants to hear….so yeah, maybe let’s cut it out with the questions.

      1. The first paragraph is exactly my point. It is an innocuous small-talk for most people and awkward for some. But *I* don’t make it awkward by the act of asking the bland question. If the person I asked side-steps, they don’t make it awkward. It’s made awkward if I ignore the sidestep and get nosy (bad) OR if they turn my casual question into “HOW COULD YOU EVEN ASK SOMETHING SO HURTFUL?” (also bad.)

        As a considerate person operating in a social world, it’s my responsibility to a) pay attention to whether my conversation partner wants to talk at all, b) whether they want to talk about the particular subject at hand, and c) gracefully end the conversation or change the subject if I’m getting a no vibe for either of those. My responsibility is *not* “Be a mind-reader who automatically knows a subject that is small talk to most is awkward for this person before I even ask” or “don’t ever talk about anything that actually involves the person’s life.”

        I’m not going to stop asking broad and bland questions for fear that for a small percentage of people, the small talk is Big Talk. Just because you’re going through something tough, the world does not owe you mind-reading and tiptoeing when they have no idea. (They do owe you backing the fuck off the moment you indicate that you don’t want to talk about it, though.)

        And for the record, I generally ask not just because I am making light talk, but also because I care about people. So if the answer is Big, Bad Talk, and they want to talk about it, I would be supportive (either something comforting + subject change or “Do you want to talk about it?” + longer convo if they do). So please don’t assume it’s all a facade and negative answers aren’t “what anyone wants to hear.” I wouldn’t respond with, “How dare you make my small talk awkward by having actual life problems?!”

        1. I agree. I was thinking myself that I didn’t like the presumption that all conversations (and inquiries) about the significant things going on in other people’s lives (like jobs and relationships) are obnoxious and intrusive. Being human is about making connections, and making connections is about knowing the REAL things going on in one another’s lives. Not just making small talk. I personally have little use for small talk.

          Where things go awry is when people are insensitive about things they should know are sore spots for a particular person, or ignore signs that a normally benign topic is fraught with pain for that person, or when they think “conversation” consists of disparaging, judgemental commentary on other people’s lives and choices. Which happens all too often, I know. So I understand why people with an issue they REALLY DON’T want to talk about can be a little fiercely self-protective. But yeah, some people are asking because they care, and they’ll respect an “I’d rather not talk about that.”

          I’ve got stuff I don’t want to talk about this Christmas, not because I don’t want my family to know but because talking about it stresses me out. So I’m thinking of sending a preemptive email that actually answers the predictable but not so fun questions, so people know not to (and have no occasion to) ask certain otherwise-standard questions. (Like “how’s the book coming?” “How’s [Husband’s] job?”)

    4. Well, it is a personal question. But conversations would, in my opinion, be weird and shallow if you couldn’t ask anything personal. Maybe not with strangers, but anyone I consider friends or family we run out of neutral topics pretty quick. Plus they care about me and want to know how my life is going (and vice versa). So when they ask something it’s in all innocence, they know it’s important to me and want to be a part of my life. And that’s okay.

      What’s not okay is using “innocent” questions to passive-agressively get on someone’s case about something. There’s a big difference between “have you found a new job?” asked by someone who knows it’s important to you, versus asked by someone who is disappointed by you being unemployed. Also not okay is being too nosy – if they ask once and you avoid answering, it’s time to take the hint. Once someone knows something makes you uncomfortable and they keep doing it, they’re just being a jerkbutt.

      Of course all this is just my opinion, and what is/isn’t polite is such a variable cultural thing. So extra super saying that it can be both rude and polite at the same time depending on where the asker and askee are coming from!

  12. I love this script-type thing from the Captain:

    “That’s a painful subject just now, thanks for understanding. But tell me more about your celebration!”

    …because it contains an automatic transition. A lot of the time people hit the Awkward Gap not because they want to make you uncomfortable but because they don’t know what to say. Would it be insensitive to continue talking about their hilarious Uncle Zeb? Do you want them to change the subject? Do you want them to inquire further? (You don’t, but some people do get hurt if they mention that a subject is sensitive and don’t get a solicitous inquiry back.) Etc., etc. Some people are nosy or insensitive jerks, but a lot of people who genuinely care and mean well hit a stumbling block and have trouble getting out of it, and that can be painful for both parties.

    But if you follow “We’re not close” or “That’s a painful/sensitive subject” or “My family history is complicated” with “But tell me more about X!” or “But I’d love to hear more about Y!” or “But I’m really looking forward to doing Z with my in-laws!”, then there’s an easy way to continue the conversation without focusing more on your stuff, which seems like might be a good thing. And the people who push after that, are definitely being jerkish, and you can shut them down more firmly.

  13. 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.

    I wanted to second this. My extended family is incredibly toxic, but I have a fairly awesome selected family, and when people ask how my holiday went/what I’m planning on doing I specifically say “I went over to BFF’s mom’s house and we had spaghetti and watched Poirot!” or “We’re going down to Mom’s Cousin’s in Small Town Several Hours to the South!”

    1. Yeah, that. In the past when I have Not Felt Like Talking About Family, even to explain that I don’t want to talk about family, I’ve found that most people don’t even notice if you match their ‘funny family holiday story’ with a ‘funny friends holiday story’ or a ‘funny office Christmas party story’ or whatever. Sometimes, sounding really excited and happy about what you are doing and volunteering info about that is a great way to keep people from asking about what you aren’t doing.

      It’s kind of like the not-paleontologically-correct-but-still-entertaining moment in Jurassic Park where they distract the T-Rex with one moving thing when everything else holds still. Your excitement and/or funny non-family holiday story is the equivalent of Dr. Grant throwing a flare. The conversational attention lumbers off in the direction of the funny story and leaves your sore spot behind.

      It doesn’t always work, of course (especially if the people you’re talking to are pushy/nosy/judgmental)–and it’s not an option if you are not happy/excited about what you’re doing–and you’re not obligated to distract people, at all–but it does work a lot of the time, so if you just want to avoid the awkward conversation entirely, that’s a possible way to do it.

      1. I agree that “throwing a conversational flare” can really work, and most people won’t even notice that you’ve changed the subject away from family. (Plus this advice includes a dinosaur analogy, which means it must be awesome.)

      2. “It’s kind of like the not-paleontologically-correct-but-still-entertaining moment in Jurassic Park where they distract the T-Rex with one moving thing when everything else holds still. Your excitement and/or funny non-family holiday story is the equivalent of Dr. Grant throwing a flare. The conversational attention lumbers off in the direction of the funny story and leaves your sore spot behind.”

        I like that image! “Throwing a flare” will be my new metaphor for gracefully changing the topic to move a conversation past an awkward point. IME most people are grateful for the distraction.

    2. Definitely. I like getting specific about the stuff that I want to talk about. For example: “What are your holiday plans?” “Well, we’re heading to [wherever] this year. Of course we’re doing the traditional pre-Christmas Belgian waffle fest with cutthroat bridge, and we’re thinking about going to the concert at Such-and-Such.” “Oh, so are you seeing family?” “Yup! How about you? Anything cool you’re planning?”

  14. This year is the first year I’m not going to go stay with my family for the Christmas break (for similar reasons as the LW – I simply don’t feel safe in my parents house). A couple of scenarios I’ve run into:
    – relatives guilt-tripping me – ‘Are you sure this is the right thing to do? Can you not even go for a couple of days? Your Mum will be sooo sad.’ – To which I’ve replied that yes, I am indeed sure that this is right (said in a final tone, so as to end the conversation right there – in some situations, I added the offer to go into the How and Why of my decision (everybody knows what’s going on at my house, but it’s Not Spoken About). That offer shuts down the conversation for sure.
    -colleagues or acquaintances saying, ‘Oh, I feel sorry for you.’ To which I reply, ‘This is actually my preference.’
    -the ‘But it is Chriiiiistmas’ – this one annoys me most, that people are unhappy because my situation does not fit in with their worldview – to which I mostly just say something about not being close to my family, or that I’m not that into Christmas (I am a member of a non-Christian religion). It’s happened to me at a party, that people kept badgering me about it, and then I excused myself to get another drink / go to the bathroom, etc.

  15. Thank you for this right now. The holidays have only gotten bearable recently because it’s near my anniversary with the Guy. It was difficult before with folks tut-tutting and looking sad at me when I saw I don’t spend holidays with family. Now I know it’s not my job to manage their issues with me not having a Coca Cola/Hallmark Grinchmas.

  16. I don’t know whether this helps or not, but — some of those people who are telling the funny stories probably have awful family stuff, too, and the funny stories are one way they deal. For many years, I was an absolute library of hilarious yarns about my (toxic) father. Why? Because it was easier to make him funny than to explain how awful it was, to casual acquaintances or coworkers or whoever else’s business it wasn’t.

    Now that I don’t speak to him any longer, I have adopted “cheerfully blunt” as my manner. “Blah blah your father?” “Oh, I don’t talk to him anymore.” “Oh, isn’t that sad?” “Nope, not at all!”

    1. “Now that I don’t speak to him any longer, I have adopted “cheerfully blunt” as my manner. “Blah blah your father?” “Oh, I don’t talk to him anymore.” “Oh, isn’t that sad?” “Nope, not at all!”

      I heartily endorse this strategy. I use it all the time when people pester me about my relationship status: “Are you dating/do you have a boyfriend?” “Nope!” “Are you looking for one?” “Nope!” “But don’t you want to get married again?” “Not really.” “What about someday?” “Who knows? But right now I’m good. Next topic!”

      1. I have actually said “Bored now” and walked away when someone pressed me too hard about my family. I am irredeemably rude and the aged aunt who taught me manners probably turned over in her grave when I said it, but it got me out of the conversation and that person has never raised the subject with me since, so I consider it a victory 🙂

        1. I am going to have to put that one in my arsenal. It never occurred to me to use it in these situations before. Ahahaha.

  17. It’s [beat] complicated often seems to work to get across that no, you really don’t want to talk about, and I love the suggestions for ‘and I’m spending the time with awesome people’.

    I’m having my own attack of grinchness at the moment. I’m a freelancer, and the world (ast least in publishing) seems to be shut down for Christmas – nobody is hiring new people, nobody is lining up new projects, and I’m pretty much left on my own until the new year. A rent-paying invoice hasn’t been paid thanks to $adminsnarlup (of the two people who should have followed it one has left the company and the other has been promoted into a different department) and it looks like nothing will be done until January, because everybody will be on holiday until then.

    This is treble-plus ungood. It would be horrible at any time of year, but the rest of the time I could be contacting recruiters and previous clients and talking to potential new clients… right now, I’m kept in stasis because of everybody else’s holidays. I’ve been hearing ‘contact us in January for two bleeping WEEKS now.

    While I’m happy for everybody who has awesome people to do Christmas with – or even to not-do Christmas with I so would appreciate being able to get on with my life instead of having it put on hold on other people’s schedule.

    I’m glad you’re going to have a great holiday! Please enjoy it! But please allow the rest of us to get on with our lives. (Will have Christmas Dinner with awesome friend. That’s all the Christmas I need, not four weeks of it.)

    1. I offer you a Fistbump of Solidarity, as the Brom and I are in the exact same sitch: contract wraps on 31 December, and the offices at the current contract shut down today and don’t reopen until the 2nd January.

  18. I am estranged from my birth family as well, and I hate this time of year (for several reasons, not just because of the intrusive questions, but the intrusive questions are definitely up there). I just wanted to second the great advice here, and add:

    Seriously, if people are rude enough to ask why you are spending the holidays with your in-laws? You should TOTALLY feel free to tell them you are an orphan. It is none of their business why you are not in contact with your family and I can tell you, it does stop the questions. Like the Captain says, let them feel the awkwardness.

    And I don’t know about you, but I really am a social orphan (disowned for being gay; I disowned them for a number of reasons). It’s not like it’s not true on some level.

    For serious awkwardness, you can tell people you are a “self-made orphan” (a phrase I used briefly right after I ran away). No, on second thought, don’t. 🙂 That one is a little too prone to misinterpretation!

    1. On, perhaps, third hand, claiming “self-made orphan” while practicing one’s “crazy eyes” would seem to be a great way to change the subject or get the nosy to go away…

  19. I say things like “I don’t get along with my family, and I don’t want to talk about it” or “I spend Christmas with my husband, that’s family enough.”. I add “Well, that’s not really any of your business” if I’m pressed for reasons. People are intrusive sometimes. Just because they’ve shared with you doesn’t put you under any obligation to share with them.

    I mean, if you’re married and especially if you have children, isn’t that a family? Isn’t that the important family to spend your holiday with, when it all comes down to it?

  20. Poor Lw. I feel for you. I, also, have no contact with any family but my husband and daughter. The details of why I’m not in contact with my parents, siblings, and extended family are horrendous and I can’t talk to people about my childhood without suddenly changing into an alien in front of them. So, mostly, I just don’t.

    When the subject of holidays comes up, I usually say, “I don’t have contact with my family. What are you doing? Are you visiting them, or are they coming here?” or something that re-directs the conversation, just as the Captain suggested. If the person keeps prying, I’ll say something like, “This is not a subject I like to talk about in detail, ever, but if you must know, let’s make a date sometime after the holidays when I can tell you what I think you’re entitled to know, in private and without all the holiday bustle to interfere.” It’s a little bit snippy and rude, but pushing somebody when they already said, No, I Don’t Want To Talk About It, is insufferable. Stick to your guns.

    A big comfort to me is to be around other people who either have no families or have no contact with them. We sit around drinking eggnog and practicing dark humor. My husband and some of my friends will sit around and tell jokes and stories about horrible holidays of the past. We laugh and laugh.

    That’s what works for me. I hope you can find something positive to do with this. The first Christmas after I severed contact with my family, I cried all day, but I wasn’t tempted to reopen the lines of communication because I had a small child to protect from them at the time.

  21. LW, it may seem to be like a huge elephant in the room for you, because this is the first Christmas since you’ve broken contact. This is kind of new ground and you’re still learning how to negotiate it. That’s okay! You don’t have to be good at this right off the bat.

    Most people will not find you saying, “I don’t really see my family, and I’d rather not talk about it” to be a total downer. (honestly, some people will think, “excellent! I get to talk about meeeeee!”) The Good Captain is right, in that no one is having a family relationship (good, bad, or off the wall dramariffic) AT you, and most people will not think that you’re not talking about your family AT them.

    Yes, there might be a few that do think that. So what? It’s not your job to make them comfortable all the time.

  22. I’m chiming in to say that, OP, you are far from alone in your family drama and desire not to talk about it with others. Personally, it was hard to explain to my peers in school that I was dreading the holidays because of the inevitable flare ups that would occur after the big event (or during) for any number of reasons. So holidays have rarely equaled peace and rest and joyous family time.

    This year I can’t explain the utter dread I’m experiencing at the prospect of joining my sister in her rural abode with her two small children and my parents and her soon to be ex husband who is a manipulative shit (to wit: he is telling her that he will have to put down their dogs, rather than find a place to rent that would take dogs) and who lies about everything. Never mind that I have to work Christmas Eve and Boxing Day so I will have to come back to my city Christmas Day anyway. I’m trying to come up with a good reason not to have to sit through dinner with him – even though I want to see my sister and my lovely little nieces.

    TL;DR – Many families have some Revolutionary Road bullshit going on behind the patina of “happy family”. For every funny story they tell, there are probably twice the number of darker stories they aren’t sharing. So don’t feel you owe them an explanation for anything 🙂

  23. This was actually really helpful to me – I will not be holidaying with my in-laws this year, period, and have been wondering what to tell the folks who will inevitably ask. Thank you.

  24. Thanks for sharing the link, Captain! (And I think I have finally sorted out comments so that people can post without mod approval – although will keep an eye on that!)

    LW – I think you might be worrying too much about other people’s feelings in this. As the Captain says, it’s not your discomfort to manage. Yes, there might be a temporary blip in the conversation, but if you give things a nudge by redirecting the conversation or asking a question, most people will be glad to move on. If you just want to move things on ASAP and don’t care if people still think that you’re in contact with your family, then the suggestion above that you say “I’m not seeing them this year” sounds like a good one. Any further nosy questions can be either deflected (“They live a long way away. We’re spending the day with my awesome in-laws, though – can’t wait!”) or shut down (“I’m not really close to my family for good reasons, but I don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, what are your plans for New Year?”). If it’s something you’re comfortable with, you can also deflect with humour/exaggeration (“Oh, I decided last year I’m never spending Christmas with them again. It’s like going to spend the holidays with Hannibal Lecter, the Kardashians, and a pack of ravening velociraptors. Luckily my wife’s family are awesome, so we’ll be having Christmas with them. What about you?”

    You don’t owe anyone else an explanation of your relationship with your family, and anyone who acts like you do is just plain wrong. You’re doing everything right.

    And thank you for the reminder that not everyone is looking forward to seeing their family at Christmas – I will make sure I am sensitive to that when talking about holiday plans.

  25. I have The Bad Family and I don’t often visit them or like to talk about them. However, my BF’s family is awesome! I’ve been with him for a while and I’ve told his mom many of the things that happened to me when I was a kid. Nowadays, when I’m at a large (his) family gathering and people I only casually know ask me why I’m not at my “own” family’s holiday celebration, I tell them that we don’t get along and everyone is happier with the separation. If they press and I can’t walk away, BF and BF’s mom swoops in and runs interference. Hooray for having a Team Me around at these things. 🙂

    For work-type situations, when people press about my family I tell them in a light tone of voice that we just don’t get along. If they press, I repeat that we just don’t get along. They’ll say stuff like “but family is forever!” or some dumbass shit like that and I shake my head and repeat “we just don’t get along.” If they persist, I walk away. Because I walk away before I start swearing, screaming, and yelling, I usually manage to stay on civil terms with people who won’t leave well enough alone. I treat them normally the rest of the time, so they come to the conclusion that I’m ok, and talking to or being around me is ok, but asking me about my family is not ok.

    I came to this way of being after several years of trying to justify my decision to others by telling them about all the terrible things my family did to me when I was growing up, and hearing dismissive things like “I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” or “but consider their point of view!” It’s less stressful to me to simply repeat something short and simple and/or walk away. Oh, and around Mother’s Day, when complete strangers ask me what I’m getting my mom, I just tell them that she died. Shuts that right down.

  26. I second the person who said you can define family as meaning the people you want it to mean. So if you want your family to mean you and your wife and kids (if you have them) then you should. So you can talk about spending christmas with your family – it doesn’t matter if they don’t realise exactly who you mean.

    But, if you phrased it as “I’m having christmas dinner in X town” and not mention who with, would people really press for more details? I’m not used to people being that nosey, though maybe I am just not remembering them.

    And I know I normally ask what people are doing for the holidays not christmas, since that is likely to be more interesting anyway. So if you get the chance to frame the conversation instead of them, you could make it about your time off instead.

    1. And I know I normally ask what people are doing for the holidays not christmas, since that is likely to be more interesting anyway.

      Same here! What I actually ask is usually something like, “Are you traveling during the break, or sticking around here, or…?” (My workplace is very international, so there’re a lot of people going abroad for any given vacation.) And then they can say “Oh yes, I’m going to my parents’ house for Christmas and it’s going to be awesome!” or “Nah, I’m just staying around here, not doing anything big,” or whatever, and I can chat about their plans or mine or how it’s nice to have a low-key vacation sometimes or whatever. I like shading the conversation more towards travel than towards holiday-specific stuff, because I think it gives more wiggle room for the person to frame their answer for what they consider good small talk.

  27. Ooh, thanks for this! Very timely for me.

    One of the things that made growing up in my family suck was the sense of guilt/fear around “airing dirty laundry” (which I gather is pretty common in dysfunctional families.) No matter how much I might fight and rage *at* them, or complain to my friends, speaking up to their peers or authority figures was the ultimate taboo. There was a conspiracy to keep it all under wraps.

    And even when I moved to the other coast and started my own life and had very little contact with them, I still had this guilt and sense of taboo, reinforced by cultural messages of “family=wonderful.” Until I realized: why am I letting them still guilt-trip me from 2000 miles and 10 years away? So I started saying very calmly and matter of factly, when the topic came up, that my family and I aren’t close, or don’t talk much – with no fanfare or sense of awful revelation, just a simple truth.

    No bolt of lightning came down from the sky to strike me dead, no one rushed to a phone to tell my mother of my transgression. It was a very liberating feeling.

  28. This rings so true for me! I’ve even had people come back with, “well all daughters fight with their mothers,” or “everyone’s family is crazy” or “you should work on that! Mend the wound!” That can make me seriously angry, and like I’m being blamed for the rift. Usually I just agree with them and laugh uncomfortably, but it always hurts a little. I’m glad you took a step away! Good for you! That takes guts and mental maturity.

    1. Blech, what terrible things to say. I’m so glad I’ve never gotten that reaction. It kinda almost sounds like they have their own family dysfunction that they’re not dealing with honestly. At the very least, they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about and should be ignored. Sorry you’ve had to deal with such ignorance. 😦

  29. I’m in the same boat. I cut ties with my very freaking abusive family close to a decade ago. I find it astounding how people will pry when they find out you don’t do the family thing. Lately, I have adopted “I don’t have any family” as a response. It’s technically true, my family totally disowned me after I cut off ties, and it tends to shut down any and all discussion about my family.

    I don’t feel bad for leaving an awkward silence with folks who pry, because they are usually the exact same folks that don’t get that not all families are safe, loving, or functional. They are the exact same folks that usually say, “But it’s your famileeeeeeee!” As if that is going to magically wipe away decades of abuse, and the PTSD I deal with now.

    If they keep pushing after that, I just look at them blankly until they change the subject. I’ve only had to do that with one, pushy person that was digging for personal information like it was her job or something. Everyone else I tell I don’t have family too, usually take my smile, and statement, and change the subject to one I don’t mind talking about.

    1. I’ve found it’s a minority of people who “pry like it’s their job,” but boy those are the ones I remember, and it is not with fondness.

      I am going to adopt the “Bored now” response I found above, I think it’s delightful. It’s certainly better than signaling that I found the person intrusive and rude, since people who pry are apparently completely insensitive to all social signals, including ones which attempt to turn the conversation or signals that I find the topic upsetting.

      Normal people take hints like “I don’t have family but I am staying with in-laws/visiting a friend.” or “Oh, you know, the usual, what are you doing this season?” just fine. But there are always nosy people, unfortunately.

      “But it’s famileeeeeeeee” drives me absolutely batshit insane. I once bit down a reply of “Yes, that’s why it was incest” because the person interrogating me was a dear friend’s mother, and I kind of wish I hadn’t.

      1. As one incest survivor to another, I think your answer there in the last paragraph was great … And I can see why you might wish you hadn’t.

  30. I don’t like to talk about it for various reasons, chiefly the “nobody likes knowing about someone else’s family drama” from above.

    Any reason you have for not wanting to talk about it is 100% legitimate, but if it makes you feel any better, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that “nobody likes knowing about someone else’s family drama.” (Plenty of people love to hear about any drama!) Awkward silences may indicate someone doesn’t know how to respond or feels uncomfortable, but it’s pretty unlikely that they’re thinking anything like, “Ugh, this person is such a downer for bringing this up” or anything judgmental like that. They’ll get over the discomfort within a few minutes, and they’re probably not thinking any less of you for it.

    I usually get through similar conversations by being like, “Yep, that’s my terrible family!” and rolling my eyes about it, but I feel fine talking about that kind of stuff, so I’m sure my method won’t apply to everyone.

    I don’t know, whenever people mention seeing family during the holidays in casual conversation, I usually say something like, “Oh, are you looking forward to that, or is seeing family stressful for you?” And then they usually answer one way or the other, and elaborate if they feel comfortable, and it’s pretty easy to gauge where to go from there.

  31. Part of an issue I’ve run into is a feeling of hogging the conversation. Sure I may have a horde of funny/awkward/entertaining stories of my family at the holiday, but it can feel weird if I’m the only one doing the talking. Makes me feel like I’m being a narcissist & my conversation buddy might be a bit slow on the uptick if they don’t contribute at least something.

    Naturally holidays involve a mix of the best and worst of family interactions, and most people expect some combination of the two. You wouldn’t be out of bounds to say that you’re not close with family. It may be awkward for a second or two, but you’d probably be surprised to find plenty of people willing to commiserate over family-interaction-anxiety. Nothing wrong with being vague, and nothing wrong with being honest either.

  32. So, I get that this is a really fraught topic… but it didn’t really seem like the people in the LW’s life were really doing anything that wrong. Yes, people are often pro family to the point of being intrusive and pro-abuser… but here no one even seems to be doing that. The LW didn’t mention any social pressure to connect with family or even any negativity. Asking people what they are doing for the holidays is a social reflex at this time of the year. My guess is that people are trying to be respectful when they detect that you don’t want to talk about it. If you say “my family live far away”, they might feel guilty that they were talking about going home. They’re not sure what to say next. My guess is that they have NO IDEA that there is family drama and your slight defensiveness about it is giving signals people don’t know how to read.

    My advice is that I totally agree that there’s nothing wrong you are doing. But I would differ with the advice in that I don’t think you have to make the conversation MORE defensive and MORE awkward unless you really feel like it’s important that they acknowledge and validate this issue. If this was your partner or friends and they were pushing and pushing you to meet your family, then Take A Stand by all means. But it sounds more like social chit chat and it sounds like you are fine having these conversations but you want to get through them without it getting awkward. If so, telling them you want to “Let’s change the subject. I don’t want to talk about it” is not going to do that. Just redirect the conversation to something else they were saying. Talk about present shopping, talk about the weather, talk about that christmas in college when you went to NZ and it was awesome but you really missed the snow and now you are really excited to do christmas in Boston or whatever. My point is that you can keep the tone light and have a different conversation that “families at Christmas”. This conversation can be “general Christmas stuff”, “Christmas in cities v small towns, “what do I get my partner for Christmas?” “What am I looking forward to this Christmas?” “Price of gas etc etc”. I just think that if this is someone you barely know and they ask “What are you doing this year and you reply I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT. PLEASE STOP ASKING ABOUT IT. LET’S TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE. HOW BOUT THOSE [INSERT SPORTS TEAM], it’s just needlessly hostile.

    Again, huge caveat: none of these people your post seem to have violated any boundaries or seem inclined too. If they are, then strongly set boundaries and enforce them. But one of the roles of conversation and social norms is to be able to gracefully set boundaries without having to always say so openly. Sometimes this is Bad (Nice Guys who refuse to read signals) but a lot of the time, it’s a good thing (I’m yawning and it’s Monday morning before my coffee. DISTURB ME AND DIE). I don’t think that rejecting the former means never having small talk again.

    1. Maybe it would be useful to distinguish between conversational tactics to deal with crossed boundaries versus touching exposed nerves? “Exposed nerves” is a term Sweet Machine and I use to talk about things that hurt Because. A very very bad analogy is to think of someone bumping into you on a crowded street – it’s okay to feel hurt if they just happened to bump into your newly-vaccinated or newly-bruised or sunburned arm, even if they didn’t mean to awaken a searing wave of pain. It’s very different then feeling hurt if they deliberately banged into you, whether you had this vulnerable spot or not, of course, but it hurts.

      I know for me, people asking the same damned questions over and over about something that I don’t want to talk about in the first place gets wearing FAST, even when it’s something I *have* to talk about (medical history with doctors etc.). I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of us responding to the LW or the Captain’s scripts are coming from a place where there *is* boundary crossing. And sometimes the scripts for people who are crossing boundaries can help with people who hit exposed nerves. It sounded to me like the LW was trying to get help responding to people who hit exposed nerves and didn’t seem to pick up on that, to do something to make it harder for those people to cross boundaries as they persisted in their questioning, oblivious to the LW’s being in pain.

      1. YES. Again, this is what I have been trying to say, again, much more articulately. It’s not your casual-conversation-partner’s responsibility to know all of your exposed nerves; it’s their responsibility to back off and apologize/comfort/change subject as appropriate when they see they’ve hit one. What’s bothered me by this discussion is conflating the line between “They asked, I set a conversational boundary, they kept pushing, and now I am upset” (bad situation, their fault) and “They asked, they accidentally hit a nerve, and now I am upset.” (situation that just happens, no one’s fault)

        To me, this is a pretty big line in most situations.

        My point is that unless you know the person well and already know it’s a sore spot from previous conversations and you’re picking at it (and this is not generally the case with co-workers or strangers at a cocktail party) just asking the question is not inherently rude or nosy or boundary-pushing. It’s just casual conversation. (See up for the “Even asking, ‘What are you doing for the holidays?’ in the first place is totally invasive and rude and we should just stop asking each other questions because sometimes people are upset.” thread.) If this kind of casual conversation crosses your individual boundaries…communicate that. Don’t just assume everyone everywhere should have the same boundaries or can magically see yours.

        1. just asking the question is not inherently rude or nosy or boundary-pushing This hits *my* exposed nerves. 😉 I’ve sat and thought about this for awhile. It’s hard to unpack why I find “just asking” to be rude/boundary-pushing. Let me try: See up for the “Even asking, ‘What are you doing for the holidays?’ in the first place is totally invasive and rude and we should just stop asking each other questions because sometimes people are upset.” thread. I see a distinction to make: questions that are “casual but personal” vs. “intrusively personal.” I like a lot of the alternatives presented for less-loaded December small talk phrasing in this thread. It’s not what’s being asked as much as how it’s being asked. (Which is HARD – I’ve screwed up in this way this week, myself, and I apologized and moved on.)

          It feels to me like the “smile, baby!” phenomenon. Most of us agree that it’s common and people think their intent is to make the recipient of the request/demand happier, but that shit is Not Okay. It Is Okay to acknowledge that someone else is unhappy, and okay to want them to be less unhappy, and just looking serious on the street is not enough to infer unhappiness. Acting as though because it’s extremely common it is “normal” (with an implied moral/social hierarchy – which I see as one of Cassandra7’s points) as opposed to “typical” (high in frequency; a majority; you used “common upcoming social event” above) – to me is privileging a particular kind of December experience over all others. (Privileging = treating as normal, not typical) I KNOW that in the US “What are you doing for the holidays?” is a social shorthand for “How are you celebrating Christmas?”. I mostly know it because I don’t celebrate Christmas.

          I get that as we move through short, dark days in the Northern Hemisphere, people want something bright to focus on. I do. But when I am not smiles and gingerbread and gifts under a tree I am Other. (Yes: exposed nerves.) Also Othered: the LW, who is in transition and isn’t spending Christmas with biological family for the first time, commenters who are estranged from relatives or mourning lost loved ones, and so many others. When we fail to be happy about Christmas, we are, in effect, pressured to “smile, baby.” Does that make sense?

          The LW is having a hard time responding to people who are setting up a mini social contract saying “Let us exchange Christmas stories and plans! Here, I’ll go first!” before getting a “Yes, let’s do that!” from the LW and are thus forcing that mini social contract on the LW. Again, as Cassandra7 said: the first person feels entitled to information, because they perceive an operational mini social contract and offered their information. And as Elle pointed out, you don’t always have to ramp up the awkward in order to get out of this kind of situation – although sometimes you do.

          In general, I think we’re agreed: small talk happens, and it’s okay for those of us who are (accidentally or deliberately) triggered to use our words to move the small talk into safer territory and to shut down boundary crossers – and I very much hope the LW feels better equipped to do this – and I am glad to have a space in which we can unpack this stuff. (P.S. OOF so long – Captain, tell me if this is a derail and I’ll take things over to my blog.)

          1. I know what you’re saying about questions with a built-in expectation of a certain answer, that make you feel like a loser/outcast if you can’t provide one of the approved answers. My mom in well-meaning fashion asks me *every* birthday and mother’s day what my husband and kids have done/given me/did we go out for dinner?

            And the answer is typically ‘husband bought a box of chocolate, and no,’ and I always feel like I’m confessing to a lout of a husband and self-centered kids who can’t be be bothered or don’t love me and I didn’t raise right. When until she asks, I’ve come to accept that they all totally suck at that stuff (partly because shopping locally is very limited)(though happily the local chocolate *is* really good!), and I’d rather have a family that is kind and respectful and loving and makes me feel valued 365 days a year than one that treated me poorly 363 days a year but did whiz-bang birthday/mother’s day funfests with lots of presents. But still — I feel like a failure with a shitty family when she asks. At least for a moment, ’til I remind myself “wait a minute, I’ve decided I’m ok with this!”

            And yet… if we can’t ask each other questions, I picture us all standing around awkwardly with nothing to say because there’s only so much generic “public domain” conversation that’s remotely worth having, and we’re all petrified that if we ask a question about one another’s lives they’ll feel battered by it.

            So, yeah. I can’t sign on to a complete ban on questions about people’s lives. That’s how we show interest and concern, which are *good* things as long as they aren’t excuses for meddling and judgmental commentary. I think you just have to be sensitive about *which* people you are close enough to to ask *which* questions, and be prepared to back off if the person you’re talking to stiffens or otherwise indicates that topic isn’t a good one.

            (And yeah — some topics, like “when are you guys going to have a baby?” should never be on the table at all, while others like “how’s the job/job hunt /dissertation/book going?” should be understood as inherently fraught).

            Meanwhile, I’m sorry the dominance of Christmas makes you feel “othered.” As an agnostic who does the gift-giving part of Christmas, who is unpleasantly pulled between my mother/siblings’ and my husband’s ideas of what makes Christmas special, it ain’t all that idyllic from where I’m standing…(ok, to be blunt I’d give the whole thing a miss if I could) and as the thread makes clear, even for Believers Christmas often isn’t all that It’s a Wonderful Life. So maybe instead of feeling othered you could look at yourself as being one of the favored elite who are exempted from the bullshit and baggage? (Not being glib, though I know it comes from a place of “privileged sort-of-insider who theoretically could be un-other if she chose”).

          2. Hey, Elysia. Having your comments and blog post, I feel the need to clarify that when I said “just asking the question isn’t rude” the question(s) being referenced were broad, bland every day small talk questions (What are you doing for the holidays? How was your weekend? What do you do? What keeps you busy these days?) that may be triggery for some but are overwhelming broad enough to be easily deflected, make very few assumptions*, and are generally considered appropriate to ask casual acquaintances and strangers without really prying. I agree that the follow-up to a response can be rude, but I agree with alphakitty that meaningful human interaction would be stiffled if we could have banal conversations about anything that involved the surface levels of other people’s lives.

            That said, there are a MULTITUDE of rude/prying/invasive questions out there, which seem to be the kind you reference in your blog post, and “just asking” those is indeed rude. They do not pass my easily deflected/few assumptions/not prying test. For casual conversation, basically any question about kids (other than “Oh, how many kids do you have?” once someone has already mentioned their kids), pregnancy, death, disability/disease, or follow-up “whys” for information not given, as well as any continued line of questioning when it is clear the person is uncomfortable.

            *I don’t think asking what someone is doing “for the holidays” is making the assumption that anyone is Christian. I’m not, and I use “holidays” precisely because it captures the diversity of things my social circle celebrate this time of year. It also encompasses New Years, which basically everyone in my culture celebrates. Also, it leaves the door open for, “Oh, I don’t really celebrate, so I’ll enjoy my chill day off work.” which with appropriate follow-up is not at all awkward or strange. It’s all in the follow-up.

          3. ReanaZ and alpha kitty, thanks for your responses! I may not agree 100% with everything you’ve said, but I respect it and can see where you’re coming from, and agree that the follow-up and context and consideration we show each other is way more important to a conversation than any single question. Cheers!

          4. I KNOW that in the US “What are you doing for the holidays?” is a social shorthand for “How are you celebrating Christmas?”. I mostly know it because I don’t celebrate Christmas.

            I disagree with this, because you’ve made it such an absolute statement. I am willing to to accept that for many people, that shorthand does exist — but it’s not true for me! Nor for a lot of the people I know. Maybe that’s a regional thing (I live in a major metropolitan area on the West Coast) or a not-being-raised-religiously thing — I don’t know, but it’s still a true thing.

        2. Yeah, I agree–there has to be a middle ground.

          Obviously there are some questions that you just should not ask. “Are you pregnant?” (assuming you are not their current medical provider actively providing care, etc.) and “So have you found work yet?”, for instance, I just can’t see going anywhere good.

          But I once caused a co-worker to dissolve into tears by asking her how her weekend had been as over-the-coffee-pot conversation. The question quite clearly hurt her badly (she’d had a death in the family), and she had every right to feel awful and to cry. And yeah, I felt really bad about that, and backed off immediately (after expressing condolences).

          But a solution of, “Do not ask anyone anything about themselves, including ‘Hey, Mary! How was your weekend?'” is a) not really feasible, and b) also hurtful to some people, because it can appear to reveal a lack of interest in them as people. Not asking about people’s lives can hurt people, too.

          And since we’re not mind-readers, the solution is not “never hurt someone by asking a question (or not asking a question), even accidentally.” It has to be more complicated than that, and other smart people have posted suggestions for how to handle the fallout from a nerve-touching question on both sides. It’s just that that’s a lot less easy than just making a master list of Questions That Might Hurt Someone and not ever asking them, but I think it’s unavoidable.

          1. I’m not sure my point got across.

            alphakitty’s saying even for Believers Christmas often isn’t all that It’s a Wonderful Life …was EXACTLY one thing I was trying to say. Really: I DO NOT reject “asking questions” – I just think that we can all be a bit more thoughtful about what is on the table and what isn’t. You think “how’s the job hunt?” is something people should recognize as inherently fraught – I’m saying that “what are you doing for Christmas?” is, too. Badger Rose, your point is well taken that a master list isn’t feasible, and that’s something I need to think about more fully.

            And of course we can’t prevent all accidental hurts. Given that the LW wasn’t getting accidental hurts, but straight-up continued questioning, though…that’s not what I wanted to focus on.

            I do have more thoughts, but they don’t belong here – I put them on my own blog.

          2. I’m cool with adding that to the list — and frankly I think there’s a pretty long list of topics in the “Proceed with Extreme Caution” section of the list. Far too many for a quick post.

            I’m not sure I was ever disagreeing with you so much as the idea that any questions at all about other people’s personal lives are obnoxious and intrusive. If you don’t think that, we don’t disagree.

          3. Replying to myself because we’ve hit the end of nesting–

            I think part of the problem, too, is that the “this question is inherently painful and no one should ever ask it” thing is so personal. I have a friend who believes that the suggestion on this blog of “So what’s been keeping you busy?” or “What have you been up to? is ableist because she has depression and various physical disabilities and the question assumes that everyone is capable of ‘keeping busy’ or being ‘up to’ anything.

            Knowing her feelings, I do not ask her that. But I disagree with her, and I will ask people, “Hey, what’ve you been up to?” or etc., if they have not indicated to me that I should not.

            But if she created a list of “questions that no one should ever ask,” it would be on it. For her it is not an inherently positive alternative to “what do you do?” For me, and other people on this post, it is firmly in the realm of neutral questions.

            This is hard stuff, I guess, is my point. And we’re all at different levels of dealing with it.

          4. (Er, and by ‘on this blog’ I mean, ‘in the comments of this blog,’ not ‘by the Captain.’)

    2. Yes, this! That’s how I, too, read the LW’s comments like “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.” and wanting a script to avoid opening the door for further questions. Shutting down prying is absolutely a thing worth doing, but there’s a difference between prying and small talk that happens to hit an exposed nerve, as Elysia put it.

      I agree with you that the very best way I’ve ever found to avoid awkwardness or prying questions is to redirect the conversation. People making casual chatty conversation want light things to talk about, and they want everyone to be having the same casual lightheartedness about the conversation. If you redirect to something that is a neutral subject you can chat freely about, most people will seize upon that subject happily. It’s the ones who refuse to be redirected that might need to be shut down bluntly.

  33. I’ve done very well with simply saying, “I don’t always get along with my family, so I spend the holidays with (boyfriend)’s family…” and immediately jumping into how amazing and lovely his family is. If anyone has the idea to ask questions, they get distracted by the wonderful heartwarming stories I have up my sleeve about boyfriend’s fam.

  34. LW, I am also not seeing my family for Christmas this year, and having to field some awkward explanations. I’m sure it will get easier as I develop scripts that I’m used to. Yesterday I even caught myself deliberately bringing the subject up, to try and provoke nosy questions so I could practice dealing with intrusiveness. Sadly/luckily the colleague I was talking to is sensitive to an awkward subject (or just likes to hear herself talk?) and responded with stories about her own Christmas plans, without asking further about mine. Not really advice here, just empathy from someone who’s figuring out the same stuff. Thanks for writing in, this was really useful to me!

  35. I like the idea of being ‘cheerfully blunt’, as given above. I only have one set of grandparents (maternal), and whenever I reference my extended family, it’s always my mother’s side because my father is estranged from his family. A few times I’ve had to have a conversation which goes like: ‘Wait, which side are your grandparents…?’ ‘Both Maman’s parents; Papa’s died before I was born.’ ‘Oh, that’s sad.’ ‘Eh, not really – apparently they were total wankers and Papa wasn’t in contact with them anyway, so it’s not a great loss.’ Very casual, never had any awkwardness: occasionally someone has said ‘Yeah, got an uncle like that’, but mainly the responses have been ‘Fair ‘nough’ and the conversation continued smoothly.

    On a different note, I just asked Papa if he’d ever got that question, since he broke with his family as soon as he was able, and he said that he didn’t recall ever being asked it. So this may be less of a problem than you fear! He also said that if anyone had asked him if he was spending the holidays with his family, he’d have cheerfully gone ‘No, not this year!’ and changed the subject.

    So, a script might go: ‘Aren’t you spending Christmas with your family?’ ‘Nope, not this year!’ ‘Oh…how come?’ ‘We just don’t get along, and alas not even the Christmas spirit can make us. [Change subject, ideally by asking something about their holiday plans]’ And if they keep prying, it’s time for either vagueness (‘Ah, we’d been building up to it for a while. I’m just glad it’s over with and I can have a nice Christmas without their drama.’ [change subject]) or the blunter ‘It’s such a mess, I don’t even want to talk about it.’ [change subject] If they can’t take the hint then, there’s no hope for them and you may as well do as someone above once did and say ‘Bored now’ and just walk away. Shockingly rude, but I should imagine very satisfying.

  36. Honestly, I wasn’t even aware that anyone did like the holidays much less wanted to talk about family. I try to say something positive, “New years will be great, yay!” and then talk about something else because the gist of the sentence after ‘yay’ is often, “To be fair, I’m mostly concerned about how to keep conversations somewhat short with my…since I never really forgave them for that…blah some stuff blah…verbally abusive…and wonder if Uncle ______ is coming…wonder if he still hits his wife…alcoholic who owns a bar…”

    The point is, anyone who doesn’t know that many, many, many people (see basically every comment before mine) are not cool with this whole holidays-family thing can be treated as a social moron. “Bored now, goodbye” and “I swear, I will end you. Now, let’s talk about the great new years party we’re gonna have.” are perfectly acceptable responses to anyone who shows anything more than polite interest in holiday drama.

  37. Wow, this is timely – I’m not spending any of the holiday with my family this year, because of our relationship basically unraveling in the past few months and me being unable to handle having a conversation with them right now without crying and/or rage.

    If someone asks me what I’m doing for the holidays, I just answer with “Oh, my mom’s family is all in this state” and leave it at that. They assume it means that I’ll be seeing them (won’t).

  38. I moved to the other end of the country a couple years ago, without bothering to tell any of my relatives where I was going, or even that I was leaving. No one who has met or even heard about my family thought this was in any way a bad idea.

    When people ask, I say, “My family lives thousands of miles away. I can’t really afford to travel. I spend a lot of time doing email and chats over the holidays.” All of those are true, and it’s not my fault if people erroneously assume they’re all logically connected up. Then I begin sharing hilarious pet stories, of which I have many.

    Anyone who gets nosy after that will in fact hear exactly what they did to make me decide it wasn’t in my best interest to keep talking to them. If they feel awkward about that, it’s their own damn fault.

  39. I feel like this question and the interview question at 410 are, to same extent, the same thing. Other people can’t mind read and normally mean the best by asking general questions. As long as (generic) you are okay with who you are and what your life is, it doesn’t have to be a big deal to answer them. You don’t have to justify your life choices to anyone. And you don’t have to explode your insecurities all over someone’s polite question. At the same time, your reasons for interacting with your family are your own, and it’s extremely rude and presumptive of the other party if they question you about it or tell you that you are wrong. And just like any interviewer who can’t respect your life choices probably isn’t the best match for a job, any conversationalist who can’t respect your wishes and choices for the holiday season probably isn’t your best bet for a friend.

    Furthermore, there is no magical point where the trauma has been so great where everyone will automatically understand that you never want to be with your family again. Everyone brings their own baggage to the table, and sadly, some people just can’t be empathetic. But that’s okay – everyone gets to make their own decisions about family. And your decisions are good, because they are yours.

    My husband and I don’t speak to his family. Were they abusive to him? Marginally. Were they good parents? Well, I’m sure they loved him, but they didn’t do a good job. Does he hate the sight of them and is unable to be civil to them? Not at all. Does he ever want to see them again? No. And a lot of people don’t understand that because he doesn’t have stories about how “crazy” they are or how they scarred him for life. But he has no desire to be emotionally close to them, and why does the word “family” trump that?

    We even had difficulties with it, because my family is extremely important to me, and I couldn’t understand his point of view for a long time. But that’s okay – I don’t have to understand it, I just have to respect it.

    1. “My husband and I don’t speak to his family. Were they abusive to him? Marginally. Were they good parents? Well, I’m sure they loved him, but they didn’t do a good job. Does he hate the sight of them and is unable to be civil to them? Not at all. Does he ever want to see them again? No. And a lot of people don’t understand that because he doesn’t have stories about how “crazy” they are or how they scarred him for life. But he has no desire to be emotionally close to them, and why does the word “family” trump that?”

      This is something that I see becoming a major theme in my life sometime in the next few years. In theory my family is close. Only two of five siblings live somewhere else and both are within the city; one is only a few kilometres away and comes over at least once a week for dinner. My parents weren’t really abusive, unless you count extremely minor emotional stuff. But there is a high level of fucked up in me and my siblings that I don’t think they helped with and I would be perfectly happy to move away and not talk to them anymore, particularly if I decide to go through sex reassignment (considering that fifteen years later they still think my sister’s sexuality is a phase I have really no desire to tell them about my gender stuff). But I have no idea how to actually handle that, both the going through with it and the explanations. Realistically I probably have to finish school first anyway, and my parents are both in their 60s now so I don’t even know how long they’ll be around for, but it’s definitely been on my mind and there really is very little narrative in our society for dealing with it.

  40. Is there a threshold for how bad your family has to be before it’s OK to sever ties with them? My parents aren’t abusive or racist or anything, but they can say really obnoxious things and being with them is stressful and not fun. Is that a good enough reason not to visit them?

    1. The thing is, it’s entirely up to you. You get to choose what kind of adult relationship you want to have with other adults.

      And it doesn’t have to be any kind of final decision. Relationships change. I feel much closer to my parents now than I did for a while in my 20s.

      1. But at some point aren’t I just being petty and going to end up with no friends because I alienate them all over small stuff? How do I know?

        1. Obviously I don’t know you personally, so take this with all required salt, but maybe the solution for you is to distance yourself slowly and gradually? If people are bad to you, even Just A Little Bad, you don’t need to spend time with them. You can set your boundaries and say “I will see you once a year and call you once a month” (or whatever), and that’s okay. There can be shades of grey in this distancing thing — it’s not only black and white.

        2. I think part of this is figuring out for yourself what counts as “small stuff.” On a meta-level, a lot of what the Captain and the Awkward Army are about is defining and protecting your boundaries.

          For example, “how’s the job hunt?” isn’t necessarily an intrusive question, but refusing to back off if someone says “not great, and how are you doing?” would be. You get to decide whether to keep spending time with someone who you have to tell to back off every time you see them.

          1. I have to disagree that “How’s the job hunt?” isn’t necessarily intrusive, unless you actually have a job lead to offer. Pretty much by definition, if the job hunt was going well, it would be over. Except in certain special cases (someone has super-highly-employable skills and can take their pick of offers) job hunting means stress, angst, self-doubt, rejection, frustration, and usually financial worry. Have you ever met anyone who said “Oh, I just *love* looking for work”? It sucks for pretty much everyone, and is thus not a good topic for lighthearted chitchat.

          2. I’m with Hummingbear. If they’ve gotten a job, you’ll hear. If they’ve gotten something maybe in progress, they’re half scared to jinx it, if nothing is going on, that’s the sickest shamefest of all (even if it shouldn’t be). Job hunts are, in my opinion, a topic where you TOTALLY follow the job-hunter’s lead.

          3. [replying to myself because we’re out of nesting levels]

            You folks are right. Thinking back, what Mark actually said was “Have you found a job?” and it was after a conversation that basically went “Hello, I’d like a quarter pound of those raspberry jellies.” “Would you like them gift-wrapped?” “Yes, please.”

            So less of the “talking about the job hunting thing,” but you’re also right that the topic could have been problematic.

            The other thing that occurs to me—and I realize this is Vicki-specific—-is that my reaction to being asked that by someone I’m not especially close to, and in a conversation that isn’t likely to go on long because of the context, is going to be different than at a party or if I’m talking to my mother. There’s less expected of me there. Which isn’t about it being necessarily okay for small talk, but that offering there is lower risk than at the family reunion.

    2. I haven’t burnt any bridges, but I never visit family for the holidays and they have stopped expecting it. They’re nice enough people but we have very little in common. (When coworkers ask, I say very cheerfully that Boyfriend & I are going to see “The Hobbit” and get sushi on Xmas, as is our tradition.)

    3. The threshold for me was when I realized that not only did I not like them — if any friend/boyfriend/classmate/coworker had done half the things they pulled, I would have cut off communication years ago — but that I also didn’t like me when I was around them. The stress of dealing with them wrecked my sleep schedule and made me miserable when I was awake, and I was uncomfortable with the amount of drinking/hiding in my room I did in order to escape.

      The hardest part for me is not the staying-away part, it’s the keeping-keeping-myself-occupied part. I used to live in an area of the country that was extremely Christian, mostly Mormon and Baptist with a few Catholics thrown in for color. There was almost literally nothing to do but stay inside with the pets and watch TV. It’s much easier to deal with now that I live in a large city, where everything is open on account of there are 400,000 Jewish people in the immediate area who are also bored stupid on Christmas Day, and want to go out for dinner and a movie. 🙂

    4. I found this post over at Making Light to be exceedingly helpful in sorting through that particular question.


      There’s a great deal of catharsis there (and pretty much every trigger warning in the book needs to be stated), but they also strongly make the point (emphasized more in the followup threads) that You Must Be This Unhappy To Ride is *not* ever an appropriate limitation to draw.

      Everyone has to figure this out for themselves. Do what you can live with, or what you *need* to do to live with yourself.

  41. I am here to tell you it gets way easier with practice! I have been dealing with the family/holiday questions since I was an adolescent, and somewhere around, oh, 24 or so, I stopped feeling the awkward. The awkward is still there, for the other person, but like the Captain said, it’s not my awkward — they can hold that.

    Not saying it’ll take you eight years to get comfy with this — a lot of that time was spent second-guessing myself and feeling like it was really important that I let other people judge me all the time, and I think I would’ve broken out of the family/holiday discussion trap a lot earlier without that. But just saying, it will get easier, and the total awkwardness now is by no means an indication of how this conversation will be a year from now.

    I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of, “My family, we’re not the type to visit a lot, we just do our own things. It’s nice, low-pressure.” And then everybody starts talking about how nice low-pressure holidays would be, boom, conversation averted. And it’s totally true! We aren’t the type to visit a lot, because we’re a hot mess and a half and none of us want to look at each other. But that part stays silent.

    I’ve also come to view the awkwardness as a teaching moment (depending on the person, context, how I’m feeling, etc.). If I’m talking to somebody that, I suspect, has never had to stop and consider that a lot of people have crap families, letting them drop that awkwardbomb (and not trying to catch it or shield them with your body) is how they’re gonna learn. It’s also how you find out that some people already knew, but forgot to be sensitive! I’ve started this conversation expecting the awkward before, and ended instead with, “Oh, right, I should’ve thought before I asked, I know not everybody has a happy family. Sorry!”

    The teachable moment thing, it takes a shift of perception in your own head — I consider things to be teachable moments that, years ago, I would’ve considered to be moments where I was being judged. But instead of thinking, “Oh my god, look at their wide eyes, they think I’m weird, they think I’m awful,” I think, “Oh my god, look at their wide eyes, they didn’t even know a person like me existed. Well, now they do, I hope this makes the world a bit bigger for them.”

    1. >> But instead of thinking, “Oh my god, look at their wide eyes, they think I’m weird, they think I’m awful,” I think, “Oh my god, look at their wide eyes, they didn’t even know a person like me existed. Well, now they do, I hope this makes the world a bit bigger for them.”

      Oh YES, that is it exactly! I come at it openly from an angle of “Aren’t people diverse; I’m an atheist and don’t do Xmas at all, but am interested in what YOU do,” and they have no room to critique.

    2. Exactly this. My mom died when I was 11 and I moved to a new city to live with my dad and for a long time I didn’t like telling people (especially other kids, who had no experience dealing with this) that my mom had died. Even in college and even as an adult I still struggle with this. Not because it makes me uncomfortable, but because it makes the other person uncomfortable. Then often they ask the inevitable “How did she die?” like that’s a sensitive or caring question (it’s not). I’ve finally learned that this is not my problem. This is part of my life and who I am and it’s not my job to shield other people from that because it makes them sad or uncomfortable to think about it.

  42. The most charming and tactful character in “The West Wing” begins social conversations with “What’s goin’ on?,” a completely open-ended question that allows the other person to direct the conversation into whatever channel seems best. I think that’s great. Why take the risk of triggering someone’s discomfort?

    I was right on the verge of snarling at the next person who asked me “What are you doing for the holidays?” “I don’t have a family and I don’t have a religion, and that question points out how Other I am.” Instead I said, “Not much,” and we talked about the odd weather, as good a set of social noises as he seemed to need.

    The questions themselves can be painful. That the questioner didn’t know that doesn’t do much for the pain.

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