From Thanksgiving to Hanukah to Christmas and beyond, the holiday season—in spite of all the good will—can also be a breeding ground for family disputes and drama. To reduce your holiday stress and anxiety, we asked Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies and president of Etiquette Survival to share her wisdom and words of advice on handling holiday gatherings. 

Q: What’s your best advice or tips for managing a holiday get-together? 

A: Being a calm and gracious host or hostess is the best tip. Your guests will take their cues from you: If you’re relaxed and having a good time, chances are that your guests will be, too.

To avoid ratcheting up your stress level or anxiety, prepare and plan in advance to ensure that you’ll be able to roll the punches and handle the inevitable, unexpected glitches with grace.  For example:

  • If you know a member of the family tends to over imbibe, arrange for someone with influence over him or her—spouse, parent or other friend—to help you handle that person in a discreet way should the need to arise.
  • If you’re having a sit-down dinner, think through the seating arrangement. The goal as host is to make sure all your guests are comfortable and enjoying themselves. If there are shy invitees or someone just being introduced to the family you can sit them near the people they came with or by one of the more outgoing and social guests. If you happen to have guests that don’t get along or people with radically opposing views, seat them away from one another to avoid any potential heated debates.
  • If it’s an all-day gathering, keep your guests occupied. Have some fun activities available, board or video games. If possible, set up a TV rooms for sports fans to watch the game and another for non-football fans and kids to watch a holiday movie or play video games.

Q: When you’re hosting a holiday gathering, is it appropriate to set ground rules of conduct or conversation beforehand? For example, should you tell guests in advance that your gathering is a politics-free zone?  

A: Etiquette during the holidays is all about taking the high road, avoiding unnecessary conflict, and sharing good times. Behaving like a polite adult all the time isn’t easy, and unfortunately, as time passes, familiarity with family and close friends often leads to shortcuts in considerate communication.

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As host, it is your responsibility to maintain control. Yes, it is appropriate to set the ground rules ahead of time. The easiest way to maintain peace during the holidays is to make clear to everyone—family and friends—what you expect of them and ask them for support. It’s OK to say that hot button topics such as religion or politics are off the table (especially during a sit down meal). Whether you tell people in advance or gently remind them when everyone is seated at the table, always use a use a light-hearted, humorous approach and tone. Say something like, “Please, no political discussions during the meal … that is unless you want to move to the children’s table, or do all the dishes!”

Q: Regardless of ground rules, guests may venture into dicey territory so what are some diplomatic ways to de-escalate personality clashes or potentially volatile conversations?

While you can’t control the actions of your friends and relatives, you can at least control your own reactions. As the host or a guest, remember to always try to take the higher ground. No one ever changes their minds, or comes to understand another by being interrupted, insulted or belittled. The secret is to keep your composure. If a conversation begins to go off the rails, interrupt by asking a question or otherwise redirecting the conversation to another ‘safe’ topic. For example, start talking about a subject or a person that everyone can agree on:  “I was just thinking about Amy’s wedding day or John’s graduation or Sue’s first day of kindergarten.”   If a more dramatic intervention is needed, simply turn the music up loud or start singing or do something else to force a de-escalation.

If you’re at the dinner table and need to de-escalate the situation, say something along the lines of “oh we had a strict rule today not to discuss politics, remember?”

Q: Friends have fallen out but you want both at your party.  Do you inform them that both are invited and let them deal with it? 

Yes, it’s best to contact them both ahead of time and explain to them how you feel, let the guest decide if they want to attend or not. As the host, explain to both parties that you’d like for them to attend, but, do mention that you’d hope they’d enjoy themselves and not cause anyone to be uncomfortable.  Be certain to ask them how they feel about the situation and give them the time and an opportunity to decline the invitation, say something like, “I understand that you may want to think about it. Whatever your decision is, I’m fine.”

Bottom line: When extended family gets together, a bit of squabbling is to be expected. By staying calm and using the techniques described you can maintain control.  And remember to enjoy yourself: Don’t get caught up in making sure every person is entertained every minute.  The success of your party depends on lots of laughter, good conversation, delicious food, and everyone feeling welcomed and comfortable.

Above all else, maintain your sense of humor no matter what happens. The most important things are your attitude, friendliness, and genuine pleasure in your guests’ presence.





Last Updated: Nov 19, 2018