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Avoiding Family Conversation Killers

Good to be King
By King Harris

It never ceases to amaze me that every time the holiday season rolls around, all these therapists, counselors, or consultants come out of the woodwork with all sorts of tips on how to mingle melodiously at Thanksgiving or Christmas with either family members we haven’t seen in ages or those we might want to avoid.
These experts, who make millions from books, seminars, and TV and radio talk shows, have come to believe that all of us need some form of assistance in order to survive the stress and strain brought on by pressures that only family can provide.
Since I have four families with various offspring courtesy of four sets of parents, and since I find it odd for some to think that when you put disagreeable or obnoxious kinfolk in the same room together in the belief that just because it’s a time of peace, love, understanding, thanks and good tidings, that harmony will prevail and expectations will be realized, I thought I might seek out some of this seasonal advice.
So I did, and met one Debra Fine, a self-made authority whose forte is polishing the art of conversational skills with added hints on how to avoid being inadvertently rude or insensitive.
Not that knowing what to say and when to say it will necessarily lend itself to burying a hatchet or two with a relative who has an axe to grind, but at the very least you might avoid some embarrassment and awkwardness by not falling prey to what Fine calls “conversation killers.”
In talking with Fine, who naturally, has written a book called, “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” I was, given my situation with every one of my families, intent on learning a few tips about how to, and how not to, connect with those proverbial long lost relatives; all those estranged moms and dads, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, not to mention nieces, nephews, and cousins who you’ve come to know very little about.
“Most of us don’t know how to start a conversation and keep it going,” notes Fine. “And we often ask a question that can cause discomfort, even if we don’t intend to.”
So it’s not wise, she says, to ask a question like “Are those real?” which she says is her number one no-no (you fill in the blank, which I have more than once because I just happen to love the response I get after I ask it).
Fine says it’s also not a great idea to approach a nephew whom you haven’t seen in months, and ask, “Hey, how’s that beautiful girlfriend of yours, Nate?” when Nate has just been dumped and hard. Nor is it very keen to greet your Uncle Larry, who has been working for this mortgage company for 30 years, with “How’s the job going?” when he recently got canned.
According to Fine, “Most people don’t mean it, but many of us do make these faux pas.” Another killer to avoid, and one of my favorites, addressed to a brother and his new bride, “When are you two going to make me an uncle?” Along this same line might be, “Are you married?” or “Do you have any kids?”
Fine claims questions like these can stop a conversation cold. “What if they respond with a ‘No?’ Where do you go from there?” The idea, says Fine, is to advance the dialogue.
She favors instead something like, “What’s been going on in your life?” My problem with that is, with a few members of my family, I’m afraid to find out.
But with other members of my family, I could easily ask questions like those below and I guarantee you they all would lead to killer conversations:
“How’s life after rehab, Uncle Jack?”
“Bill, you failed the bar exam again?”
“You’re not one of those kinds of priests, are you Edwin?”
“Hey, Ronny, I heard you made all your money by swindling stocks. Is that really true?”
“Arnold, you’ve got to be kidding. You expect me to believe you’ve stopped drinking?”
“How did you get so round, Chuck?”
“Dena, are those real?”
“Kenny, you still with that same lousy band?”
“Anna, why is it everyone always has to do what you want to do?”
“You didn’t really cook the turkey, now did you Ellen?”
Expert advice may be fine for some this time of year, but I guess small talk just isn’t in my family genes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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