Ah, the Thanksgiving holiday. For young professionals, it is a time to return home, sleep lots, eat more, and be mercilessly interrogated by relatives you rarely see.
First and foremost, since you are now a grownup, you need not wait for a relative to ask you questions. Begin the conversation with something you would prefer to talk about, but stay away from the typical sports, weather, traffic trifecta. You could speak to a stranger about these topics. Instead, try launching with something you’ve seen, done, or read. “Uncle Joe, great to see you! Did you hear I was in Hong Kong last week?” Or, “We were so lucky to score half-price, day-of tickets for Hamilton!” This allows you to establish the topic and them to ask follow-up questions. You can also take it up a notch by deflecting. Instead of waiting for them to ask you, you start by inquiring about their lives. “Aunt Tilly, how are you enjoying volunteering at the library?”
But for the moments you’re still backed into a conversation corner and asked one of the dreaded, prying questions, have your answers at the ready:
Are you seeing anyone?
It is truly amazing what questions some people feel they can ask others, family or not. “When are you getting married?” “Why don’t you have kids yet?” “Are you straight or gay?” But just because you’re asked does not mean you are obligated to respond directly to the question. Sometimes a, “You are so sweet to be worried about me,” and then a quick topic change is fine. Other appropriate answers include, “I am still searching for the perfect person,” or, “Well, you are already taken!” If this is a close confident and you want to tell them the sordid details of your personal life, go right ahead. If not, move right along to less personal topics.
How’s your job?
If you love your job, great, feel free to wax poetic about your amazing boss, fabulous perks, or intriguing new assignment. If you are not overjoyed about your job, have a quick comment and then move the conversation along. “My boss has been out of the country and I have been tied to my computer for days now. It is so nice to be away from work. Tell me, what was your first real job?” Feel free to be vague and change the subject.
Really, now you’re a vegan?
Whether you have a food allergy, medical restrictions, religious beliefs, philosophical reasons, dietary guidelines, or an aversion to certain foods, at the dinner table is no time to dissect why you are not eating something others are enjoying. You are allowed to keep your reasoning to yourself. Something like, “These green beans are just delicious,” or a simple, “No thank you” will suffice.
How do you like your roommates? How do you like where you’re living now?
Pointing out the obvious—that most people prefer not to live with strangers in a cramped apartment—is not the best way to keep the conversation rolling along, especially since any relative bold enough to ask probably has highly selective and very fond memories of their salad days. Instead, share a quick, funny, slightly self-deprecating story to keep the mood light, and then transition to a topic you would rather discuss. For instance: “You wouldn’t believe what happened on Tuesday. I bought all of the ingredients for my pumpkin cheesecake. But when I went to make it, the graham crust was gone. Who eats a tin pie pan of graham cracker crust?!? I guess one of my roommates had the munchies. What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dessert?”
Can you believe what Trump did last week?
This is where you need to know how to read the room. If you are with lots of likeminded folks, feel free to expound on why you are thrilled/horrified at what is happening in D.C. If you’re from the contrarian camp, understand that Thanksgiving is not the time to get into a great debate or to have the gathering devolve into fisticuffs.
A skilled conversationalist knows that even in unstructured chats, the participants bounce rapidly from one topic to the next. The difference between a skilled conversationalist and a novice is the ease in which the skilled talker can redirect the topic. Here is a suggestion to help you when you do not want to answer a question, or when you find yourself wishing you were talking about something else: “That is an interesting question, but what I find fascinating is…” A last resort: “Oh, excuse me, I am going to see if they need help in the kitchen.”
What are you thankful for?
You may feel like you are back in elementary school when the host insists everyone share in the thanks. But expressing gratitude is so much a part of this holiday it is in the name. You need to be prepared with something for which you are thankful. If nothing else, you can be thankful for those you love enough to visit even when they make you crazy asking personal questions. “I am grateful for those who love me, near and far, and thankful to be included in this Thanksgiving celebration.”
Remember, just because someone asks you a question does not mean that you are obligated to reveal your private affairs. You are allowed to respond without actually answering the question. How you frame your answer can be the difference between a conversation stopper and gently moving the conversation forward.
Jodi RR Smith is the president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.