The Family Reunion Planner
It’s the season for gatherings: lots of food, maybe a road trip, seeing friends and relatives — and perhaps some anxiety over how you’ll engage in conversation.
Making small talk and guiding the conversation takes some skill and thought. If you’re at a party with friends or family, don’t expect the conversation to always be effortless. Awkward moments are inevitable when trying to break the ice with those you’ve just met, friends and relatives you haven’t seen in a while or even sometimes with people you know.
Planning can ease the tension. Draft some open-ended questions that can work with family members of any age, such as “How are you spending your summer?” or “What’s been keeping you busy?”
Some subjects are more likely to bring conflict. “You should always stay away from politics, religion and money,” says Diane Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas and a leading etiquette expert. (“But those are the most popular topics,” she adds with a laugh, because they’re what “many people enjoy discussing and debating.”)
Also skip negative family or social circle gossip. It’s impolite.
Whether you’re going to a family barbecue, a reunion that lasts the weekend or a friend’s party, here are several conversation starters to set you at ease and to get the most out of your interactions.
Find common ground
If you’re at a family gathering, ask people where they fit in the family tree, or about the neighborhood they live in, or their favorite hobbies.
“Most people love to talk about themselves,” says novelist Marie Bostwick, 60, a former event planner. She adds that you may discover common ground as you listen, which then can kick off another set of questions. Some sample openers:
1. What kind of music do you like to listen to?
2. Where was the last place you went on vacation?
3. What motivates you?
Every family or longtime friendship has favorite stories that go way back. If you’re meeting someone new, you may have fun tales of people you know in common. Throw out a “Remember when…” and see how many people chime in; they can help fill in details you didn’t know or may have forgotten. For older adults, a good place to start reminiscing may be to say, “Tell me about a time…”
4. What do you remember about the place where you grew up?
5. Do you have a favorite memory of the two of us?
6. What were you like at my age?
7. What was one of the best days of your life?
Pick up where you left off
Because of COVID-19, you may see some friends for the first time in quite a while. Try to remember what was going on in their lives the last time you saw them and follow up. Same goes for extended family: At the last family gathering or family reunion, did a niece tell you about a new relationship or did a cousin mention a challenge they were facing? If so, ask how things turned out. Is news of a job change or work promotion traveling through the familial or friend grapevine? Extend your congratulations and express interest in learning more about what’s going on in the lives of others.
“A very important part of being at a reunion is catching up with people and finding out what they’re doing,” says 84-year-old Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine.
8. Has anything big happened in your life since we last saw each other?
9. What do you like to do for fun?
10. What’s a delicious meal you’ve had recently?
11. Are you facing any challenges these days?
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Talking to children
Youngsters can be shy even at family get-togethers, especially around people they don’t know. And at their age, at least for most, a year is a mighty long time to remember an exchange they may have had with you at a previous gathering. Inviting them to do a craft can keep their hands busy — and give the adults something to ask them about, Wagner says. Once the ice melts, you can then ask about their favorite sport, teacher or movie, or what they like to do with their friends.
But don’t ask children what they want to be when they grow up. “It’s a silly question,” Bostwick says. “They don’t know, and they shouldn’t know.”
Ask teens about what subjects interest them. Stick to interests, such as what they do after school (band, robotics, sports). Or ask about trends on TikTok or Instagram. You’ll likely get a lot of bang for your buck with that one.
12. Do you have a favorite band or musical artist?
13. Whom do you follow on social media?
14. Have you had any interesting dreams lately?
15. How are you spending your summer?
16. What makes you laugh?
Talk about pets
Fido and Fluffy to the rescue!
People love their pets. In fact, a 2016 poll by Rover.com found that 61 percent of pet owners would end a relationship for their pet.
“Everybody kind of gets tired of hearing about the kids, but no one gets tired of hearing about pets,” Gottsman says. “There’s something about a pet that unites. My husband calls them a ‘force multiplier.’ Good conversation begets good conversation.”
If you’re a pet owner, give it a shot. Gottsman has found that talking about her 14-year-old poodle, Marty, tends to be a successful entry point into what might otherwise be a stiff or uncomfortable exchange.
17. Does your pet have any favorite toys?
18. Do you travel with your pet?
19. Does your pet have any personality quirks?
Take a break
Sometimes it’s not about starting a conversation but getting a break from one. Allowing yourself a time-out can be precisely what you need in order to recharge before going from one new conversation to another, especially if the gathering you’re attending is filled with your significant other’s relatives or people you don’t know well.
Sarah Dunn, 60, of Waterbury, Vermont, remembers going to a family reunion with her now-husband, Dave, and his family six years ago. They’d been dating a year at that point. Because the event took place at a park on Lake Ontario, she could excuse herself from time to time to visit the shoreline.
“I could kind of come in and out of both human relationships and geographical relationships,” she says. “When I felt like I needed a break, I could take a walk to the water.”
Just remember: If a conversation seems to be leading into delicate territory — or it’s simply run its course — you can always announce how thirsty you are and head for the lemonade.
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children’s book M Is for Mindful.