For many of us, this season of stress will culminate in a shared meal—a gathering with family and friends who may be ‘nice enough,’ yet hold opinions vastly different from our own. Things become strained when one or more family member passes judgment, and does so in a way that only family can: by situating differences in entrenched power-dynamics (a successful lawyer returns to a table where her opinions are dismissed as her “still” looking for attention; a college administrator married to a Muslim is all-too-aware of the silences and eye-rolls). Because every glance or comment potentially references old patterns of authority and control, tensions can readily erupt-- chairs are scraped back, a contingent retreats to the kitchen, coats are hastily retrieved.
(STAGE DIRECTION: Insert a “freeze frame” in the action, and a late-nite TV voice-over: “Don’t Let This Happen to Your Family!)
As we prepare to gather around a familial table (especially this year, when the country is overtly divided around election results) it will be helpful to begin strategizing ways to interrupt the bullying that recurs around your holiday table. Even as you steel yourself for the anticipated comments (recalling what so antagonized you last year—and the year before that), identify what makes intervening difficult for you. Once you have pinpointed your particular roadblocks, consider ways to get around them. (What exit ramps and "Detour" signs are automatically bypassed on this emotional straightaway?) What will prevent you—or sister Sue—from walking away, swearing “this is absolutely the last year we will put up with this %^$#!” (Only to do an encore of this dramatic exit next year, because you “come back for mom,” “want the kids to know their cousins / grandparents,” or because the train-wreck routinely occurs at your in-laws).
This year, bring increased awareness to other dynamics around your table. Are you the scapegoat, or is everyone bullied in small, passive-aggressive ways? Who might you gently support? Whose silence signals distress? Compliance? How do others see you and what is your role in sustaining these dynamics?
’Awareness’ is only the first of 5 steps identified by Latané and Darley in 1970, in their groundbreaking work on bystanders. The subsequent steps include
2) Interpreting the event as requiring intervention;
3) Assuming responsibility;
4) Deciding how to help;
5) Confidence in capacity to help
Often, we are quite good with steps 1 and 2, and are willing to take step 3. But when it comes to family, the next two steps bedevil us. We are not sure how to help, nor do we have confidence that our overtures will make a difference.
This is often because of the (entrenched) response of the victim—whether it be you, your mother, or a sibling. There is a ‘here we go again…’ quality to much holiday-table bullying, which allows it to tap into emotions that have been stockpiled for years. Realize this. Know that nothing you do will succeed if your objective is to to redress the disrespect of the present, as well as the slights of Holidays past. If you instead allow the ghost of holidays present/future to show you the situation as though you were a bystander to your own dynamic, you will be able to focus on ways to interrupt the cycle.
So—try ‘deciding how to help’ on the basis of doing nothing more than interrupting the expected course of things.
article continues after advertisement1) Take a deep breath. And another. Excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.
2) Determine which of the 3 D’s best fits the situation: Distract, Delegate, Delay
It is well-known that the most tried-and-true way to successfully intervene is to change the topic—but do so in a deliberate way. Preface it with something like “y’know, saying that to Jo isn’t really in the spirit of the holiday—so let’s talk about what’s for dessert, or Tom’s new job, or how grateful I am for all the work that went into preparing this meal and the efforts everyone made to be here.”
Even as you deflect, you take an overt, yet gentle stand against the dynamics about to shift into gear. Tensions may quietly simmer for a few moments, but they have not boiled over. The conversation moves on.
Who else around the table looks uncomfortable? S/he may not be willing to align themselves with you publicly, but they may be an ally in interrupting the too-familiar dynamic that is sliding into place. Look for ways to connect with these relatives—over children, job frustrations, anything that encourages their voice. You not only divert the conversation, but delegate some of the responsibility (for interrupting the cycle) to others, co-opting them into alliances and partnerships.
Remember that intervening doesn’t always translate to championing the target of someone else’s aggressions. If you can anticipate the emotional course before you arrive, think of new ways to delay it. What (other than the game on TV) can sidetrack antagonists before the dynamic kicks in? Sure you’ve tried this before, and everyone at the table knows the 3 topics that ‘always work,’ so come prepared with a fourth—something you’re passionate about. A book you read / movie you saw, the intrigue at the office, someone new or funny or interesting that you’ve met. Aim to engage the family member who initiates toxic relating. Put your (proverbial) arm around her or his shoulder and steer them in a different direction.
As you sit around the table, wanting nothing but to relax because gifts have been given, food has been cooked, and you have duly ‘counted your blessings,’ take one further step, and consciously champion connection—even with folks who voted differently than you. Family tables are where we first learn that our silence keeps us out of the line of fire. Around them sit the people we first bonded with, the ‘tribe’ of people to whom we somehow belong. So smile, shrug your shoulders, refuse to engage, use body languageto signal connection to a relative when tensions surge around them. Offer your own narrative, solicit others, praise the food, and realize that this is where tolerance of diversity begins.
And remember, when they go low, you go high.