Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life, a newsletter about navigating life's ups and downs. Every Monday we talk about Words4Life—popular sayings, mottos, buzzwords, table topics. Also, dad jokes! Every Thursday we focus on life transitions, how to turn this period of uncertainty and stress into one of growth and renewal.
I first met KJ Dell-Antonia when I was writing a column about contemporary families for the New York Times and she was editing the paper's popular Motherlode blog. From time to time, we used to debate various parenting topics on NYTimes.com. She's since gone on to write a bestselling novel, The Chicken Sisters, and has a new one coming next summer, In Her Boots. Well, something she posted recently left me shaking in my boots...
What a pleasure to get to correspond again on a matter that I know afflicts many people over the holidays: What topics are we allowed to discuss with our loved ones—and which should we avoid? The idea for this exchange came to me a few weeks again when I read a beautiful message you posted on your wonderful Instagram account. Children! Horses! Cooking! Book recommendations! You do it all.
Your headline: “A small request from some of your family members: think before you ask that question.” You went on to say:
Leaving aside whether my mother really wants to talk about TikTok, I thought your post was beautiful. Considering my extended family is battling a host of challenges these days, I read it with a lump in my throat.
Until, a few hours later, I realized I disagreed with you. If we can’t talk about challenging topics within our own families, how can we expect to do so as a country? In fact, shouldn’t we use our families as practice for having these conversations with others? Or, why not just train our children to say, “Thanks for asking; I appreciate your interest. We’re still trying to work out our thoughts, and we’ll update you when we have news.”
In that spirit of difficult conversations, rather than just writing these thoughts myself, I thought I would give you a chance to tell me I’m naïve, a fool, or something worse. Care to accept my bah-humbug challenge?
How wonderful to be back together and having a real conversation about something complex, interesting and fun to discuss–which, actually, is really what I was trying to get at with my “small request.”
Here’s my problem with the topics I threw out there as things the person in front of you—who you see once a year—might not want to plunge into immediately over the veggie platter: Most of the well-meaning friends and family who (probably unknowingly) toss down those potential gauntlets weren’t intending to have a real conversation. They’re making polite chitchat while secretly plotting how to get Cousin Marilyn in a corner to hear all about the motorcycle Uncle John bought before Great-Aunt Tilda was cold in her grave. It’s like a script: Young married couple? Ask about babies. Not married yet? Make a clever joke about that guaranteed to make them chuckle. High school senior? Show an interest by asking about college.
Those are generic questions. They don’t say anything about the person asking or the person being asked. They don’t start conversations, and they replace them–especially if the person responds, as you suggest, with a polite non-answer. Sure, that’s a skill our kids should learn. But it doesn’t do anything at all to spark the kind of exchange that a real question–like, say, “Do you think we should discuss politics at family gatherings or avoid it?”—can start.
Maybe instead of asking people to avoid some topics, I should have encouraged them to pick others—and apparently, you don’t think TikTok goes on that list!
Boy, this got interesting fast. But before I go there, did you really not respond to my horse reference? Your first novel starred chickens; your new one has a cowboy boot on the cover. I come expecting farm references. Please oblige.
I agree that Cousin Marilyn really doesn’t care about ACT scores and safety schools and that Uncle John certainly doesn’t want to hear your thoughts about IVF or what day in your cycle is best to try for your baby, certainly not with that Harley idling in the drive with his hot new girlfriend on it (sorry Great Aunt Tilda). But to me, that’s not really the point. What they want is a connection. It’s not their fault that they don’t follow you on Snapchat and therefore don’t know what you’re doing every minute of every day. All they know is you’re probably roughly in a certain time in your life, and you’re probably going through certain milestones. Remember, their lives were more linear than yours; in their day, everyone was expected to do what now seems quaint, even dangerous—get married at a certain age, have children at a certain age, have certain jobs, make certain salaries, get certain promotions. Those days are gone—you have more freedom.
AND YOU CAN USE THIS CONVERSATION TO GENTLY LET THEM KNOW THAT.
My children are at the age when they don’t want to answer any questions, so just getting them to view conversations of any kind as valuable is a chore. But my larger message to them is this: The question itself doesn’t matter. All the person is seeking is a connection. So rather than attacking the message or the messenger, just deflect the question and—here’s the key—move the conversation to a topic you ARE comfortable discussing. That, to me, is the big takeaway. Just keep the conversation going, say something interesting, and then Marilyn and John are happy and won’t run complaining to me.
Does that work for you? I’m happy to give you the last word—as long as it includes some #farmlife color.
Thanks for doing this,
As so often happens, we don’t really disagree about the goal. We’re just exploring different ways to get there. Yours is a solo cowboy riding out into the conversational prairie on a mission to bring the news to the people. Mine is more like a barn-raising. All of us, questioner, questioned, innocent bystander trying to scoot past to get to the cheese plate–working together to get the walls of that annual family gathering to hold up a roof. (Happy?)
Because we’re not all going to remember our mission or be able to carry it out in every conversation. Grandma will be happier if she sits down with Grandson with her conversational eggs in more than one basket. Uncle John is, hopefully, ready to gently steer the conversation toward how marvelous it is that neither goats nor neighbors care much anymore about whether you make it official, as long as you keep producing that excellent goat brie. And next time, maybe Grandson and Marilyn will come to the party a little more ready to lift a few conversational bales.
And here we are, once again having come to the same place by different paths. Not everyone’s going to see my suggestion that we search out fresh, engaging topics, and not everyone’s going to hear or heed your advice to be prepared to change the subject but stay right there talking instead of excusing yourself on the pretense of getting more gravy. But as long as some of us show up ready to hitch the horse to the wagon, we’re all going to get to where we want to go. (I am really reaching here, buddy. You better appreciate it.)
Love and wishes for glorious family gatherings,
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