The Family Reunion Planner
7 Ways to Ruin a Family Gathering
Find out how to avoid the friction and enjoy being with loved ones
Summer seems to be awash with family gatherings. Backyard barbecues, beachfront bashes, parties at the park.
Sounds idyllic—as long as everyone behaves.
That’s not always the case, however.
If this rings true for you and your clan, it may be wise to head off trouble by deciding on acceptable conversation topics and behaviors ahead of time.
“The whole goal of these gatherings is to be creating good memories with loved ones,” says Danielle Androff, a licensed clinical social worker in St. Louis.
“So anything that doesn’t serve that goal isn’t necessary in that setting.”
Here are some ways to ruin an otherwise perfectly good gathering — as well as tips to avoid doing so.
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1. Being judgmental
Remember the adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”?
Noticing (out loud) that someone’s weight has changed (in either direction) or making it known to a tattoo-covered relative that you don't care for body art is a no-no.
“Unless you are telling someone that they look wonderful, there’s nothing you need to say to comment on somebody else's appearance,” Androff says.
If you catch yourself after the fact, apologize as quickly as you can. If you’re the one being addressed, be courageous and direct about changing the subject, recommends Jeffrey Kraft, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Chicago.
“In a very assertive manner, tell the person that you're just not interested in that conversation,” he advises. “It’s perfectly appropriate to say, ‘I didn't really appreciate that comment’ or ‘Why is this important to you?’ ”
If you tend to deflect awkward situations with humor, go for it. If, however, things in your family usually get swept under the rug, be prepared to stand your ground about how you deserve to be treated.
Then flip things around by asking questions. These could be general (“How have you been doing?”) or specific (“How are you spending your retirement?”).
“It’s a way of not rejecting them as a person,” Kraft says, “and a way of turning the tables to a conversation that you genuinely might be interested in.”
2. Drinking too much
Think about your family’s patterns and culture around alcohol ahead of time. Does everybody grab a drink directly upon arrival? Does the imbibing intensify over spirited debates? If so, maybe plan an estimated departure time before you even get there, especially if verbal blows are prone to break out after a couple of hours together.
“It would probably be wise to limit your own alcohol consumption, because the goal here is to continually be aware of what your boundaries are,” Kraft says. “And from what we know about substances, by definition they create some distance between ourselves and our own boundaries [and] ourselves and others.”
If you want to stay at the gathering but do not want to get caught up in any turmoil, turn to an ally — a family member who’s on the same page as you. Try as a team to deflect negative conversations to more positive ones. If that doesn't work, simply excuse yourselves and move to another room.
“We reinforce the conversations and topics we continue to show up for,” Kraft adds. “As an adult, we have more capacity to leave, in ways we weren’t able to do as a child in those situations.”
3. Pontificating about politics
Politics has always been a fraught and divisive topic, but Americans are becoming less tolerant. In 2021, 59 percent of U.S. adults said they found such conversations stressful — up from 50 percent in May 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.
Even subjects that don’t seem inherently political — gender identity, guns, religion — can quickly become political, Androff warns.
One technique for dealing with argumentative people who seem unable to avoid a hot topic is to lower and soften your own voice, says Karen Hickman, an etiquette consultant and founder of Professional Courtesy in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Meanwhile, avoid stirring the pot with those who like to monopolize conversations.
“If you’ve got one person in the family who’s particularly outspoken and feels their opinion is always right, don't ask for their opinion,” Hickman says.
If all else fails, she adds, politely agree to disagree.
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4. Getting too personal
You know what curiosity did to the cat. At a family gathering, however, a prying personality intent on delving into private matters can leave loved ones heartbroken. This is particularly true with questions such as “When are you getting married?” or “When are you going to give me grandchildren?”
In either case, if there were something to share, guests at the gathering would already know.
More importantly, either question could have painful ramifications. Maybe someone has been waiting for what feels like an eternity for a significant other to propose and is second-guessing the relationship. Maybe a couple has been wrestling with infertility but hasn’t yet opened up about their struggle.
Stick to more neutral topics. Or steer someone else in that direction by pivoting to a subject matter of your choosing.
5. Acting competitive
One-upping a sibling or showboating at family events is not a good look and should be avoided.
But that doesn’t always mean the urge goes away.
When fighting the temptation to outshine other family members, it’s helpful to remember where that desire comes from.
“Oftentimes, it is because we care about our family and what they think so much that we feel compelled to impress them,” Androff says. “Instead, when you recognize that urge to be competitive, reframe your thoughts.”
Think about how much you love your family and the reasons you don’t want to make anyone feel bad. “If that doesn’t work, lean into that competitive mindset but shift the focus to being the most well-behaved person at the event,” she suggests. “You’ll still get to feel like you’re winning the competition, but you reap the benefit of keeping the peace. In either case, it is important to remember that just because you think something doesn’t mean you have to say it.”
Scott Seifritz, 56, remembers the Thanksgiving his former sister-in-law disparaged his mother’s famous cabbage salad, which was basically coleslaw and served at every large family function, “by pointing out that even the dog wouldn’t eat it.”
Seifritz, who lives in Perinton, New York, recounts: “My brother and sisters all came to my mother’s defense, and things got briefly heated.”
A month later, at Christmas, his “defiant sister-in-law” brought her own cabbage salad. Things could’ve taken a nasty turn but, thankfully, this story has a happy ending.
The sister-in-law “smartly marketed [her recipe] as ‘coleslaw’ so as not to offend my mother,” and everyone took heaping helpings of each version, he says. “In the end, both dishes were enjoyed, at least publicly, and even the dog seem to like my sister-in-law’s version. Though, to be fair, I once watched him eat a dead squirrel.”
6. Delving into health-related topics
What used to be a relatively safe topic has been catapulted into more delicate territory.
"Health opinions, in general right now, are a hot-button issue,” Androff says. “So opinions on masks, vaccines or whether your grandchild actually has a milk allergy are never going to go well.”
Concerns about masks and vaccines, in particular, should be discussed and resolved before, not during, the gathering.
7. Showing up with COVID-19
Outside gatherings are safer than indoor gatherings, but if you have COVID-19 — or suspect you have the virus — send your regrets.
The last thing you’d want to do is infect people you love, especially those who might be older or have underlying health conditions likely to make them more susceptible to serious symptoms of the coronavirus.
Attending an event with COVID — or with symptoms — would be more than “inconsiderate,” says Hickman, who adds that maintaining the recommended 6-foot distance throughout the gathering would be difficult.
When all is said and done …Be both kind to others — these are people you have an attachment to, after all — and mindful of when you may need to exit.
“Life is too short to surround yourself with those who do not add value to your life,” Kraft says. “Everybody deserves to be comfortable in their own skin in these types of situations.”
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human interest stories for several national publications. Flanigan is a former reporter for several daily newspapers, and 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.