Talk Turkey: 10 Social Survival Tips for the Holiday Season

Illustration by Jamie Leo for GRACE

Are you, like so many people, less worried about the upcoming bingeing than you are nervous about the annual family mash-up, an unlikely and often uncomfortable pitting of world views face-to-face across the dinner table?  Here, ten ways to be yourself without starting a food fight.

1 Shop. Helping with the shopping is one of the best ways to gently impact holiday get-togethers. ”How 'bout we splurge for organic foods, they taste SO much better!” works wonders, especially on great aunts with vanity in their pantry. Offer to pitch in the modest difference in cost and save everyone money by discouraging meaningless factory-produced seasonal chemical-sugar products. Volunteer to make some spectacular dips, cookies, fruit-based desserts. If better choices are made available in the home, your family, even as they may overeat, will gobble down food less damaging to themselves and the world at large. If you're not able to be there for the shopping, point ‘em toward the Eat Well Guide to discover local shopping options they may not be aware of.

2 Converse. Inquire. Inspire. You may be very surprised at the conflicted opinions – and positive actions – of family members.  A simple question may expose a wide range of opinions within the participants. And since we all have contradictions, find ways to acknowledge, as Abraham Lincoln put so beautifully, the ‘better angels of our nature.‘ Everyone brings something to the table.

3 Don’t assume people can’t learn and grow. At a recent family visit, I heard an 83 year-old family matriarch say “I'm not giving up meat! I don’t want animals suffering in those awful prisons, but I live in a small town and there are NO options! What can I do??”  And without prompting, her 80 year-old cousin said, “Marian, you're JUST the kind of person who should talk to your supermarket manager.” This led to a lively discussion – of the legendary Raging Grannies and their unflappable activism.

4 Go easy on the preaching.  Talk instead about what you've done this year to lessen YOUR carbon footprint, water use, factory food dependencies; and what you hope to do better. And really listen to others. Empathy rocks.

5 Don’t buy the old argument “no talking of sex, politics and religion.” Nothing supports the status quo more than keeping silent. If there’s a religious prayer, don’t assume you should automatically bow your head in mime if you are an atheist. Children who are watching will later ask why Uncle James didn’t bow, and a useful and illuminating discussion may ensue, even if you're not present. Conversely, don’t be ashamed to share your beliefs during a round of ‘what we're thankful for' this year. Men should remember that kitchen duties don’t solely belong to the women of the family and stepping up to the plate will help dissolve gender inequity’s insidious segregation. As for politics, don’t ask questions to provoke hostility, but aim to better understand points of view—even when they may appear dogmatic or weakly considered. And don’t take the bait if someone is provocative – often you will be amazed that others at the table will have real insights.

6 Pack facts – light and wisely.  If you have an issue you anticipate will be discussed, come prepared. Is there proposed fracking where you'll be over the holidays?  How’s their water table? Are there new CSAs? (Has your family ever heard of a CSA??) Don’t overwhelm – dinner conversations shouldn’t call for Powerpoint presentations – but do bring along some handy facts. Even if you can’t ‘win' a discussion with your lovable “no climate change” cousin, you can be sure that other people at the table will take away your carefully chosen factoid(s).

7 Rally 'round the flag.  If things get heated, be sure to keep on hand that reliable old war-horse: “Isn’t this fantastic? How great is it that we live in such a tremendous country where we can all freely express our opinions without fear!”

8 Use YouTube.  When folks gather around to watch a cat fall into a toilet for the thousandth time, pull up a couple of your links. Bookmark or send yourself an email with a couple of your favorite links to informative AND entertaining videos. Think TED, HuffPo, The Meatrix.

9 Don’t miss obvious opportunities to infiltrate your affection. If hours of carbo-overloading in front of the plasma screen are unavoidable, be strategic. The Monday Campaigns has rounded up a terrific array of veggie chili recipes and encourages ‘Chili Monday Nights' to break the decidedly un-athletic bingeing habits associated with so many football get-togethers. You could also encourage the armchair athletes to join the family for a sunset stroll around the neighborhood or nearby park – a lovely activity that could quickly become a family tradition.

10 Celebrate the good, the new, the hopeful. Yes, things ARE perilous, but if some people dismiss environmental or health concerns with that tedious old line that “everything causes cancer,” know that many who appear to only get passionate about keeping their head in the proverbial sand have caught wind of many of the issues you care about.

So inspire the ostriches, negotiate with the hawks and go easy on the turkey.