As well all know, holidays can be tricky for families. It's the time to make peace, not war, especially since family get-togethers don't happen every day. But a holiday gathering can sometimes be a minefield, what with off-the-wall family members, conversation pitfalls, gift-giving quandaries, and dietary restrictions. Here are some guidelines to help make your family holidays bright.
Q. What do I do if someone in the group makes an offensive comment to me or my partner?
A. Most families have an odd duck or two, someone who is either unknowingly or deliberately offensive. If one of your relatives (or one of your partner's relatives) is rude to you at the gathering (that is, insults your alma mater, makes racist remarks, puts down what you do for a living, and so on), it's important to know how to deal with him or her without making a scene. Your best bet is to simply ignore the comment and then change the subject. Whether the person is deliberately trying to cause trouble or is just insensitive, this reaction will let that person and the others in the group know that you consider the comment unworthy of responding to.
Q. What should I steer the conversation to if it takes a bad turn?
A. Most people know to avoid conversations that start with "Where do you think President Obama was born?" and "So, how about gay marriage?" But if someone in your group makes this kind of statement, try to change the subject to something safe like the weather, vacations, or hobbies. Avoid any discussion of religion, politics, sex, and money -- in other words, all topics that make others feel uncomfortable.
Q. What if I inadvertently fumble and end up lambasting offshore drilling in front of my partner's oil-money uncle, or something similar?
A. You are a guest and should not have to apologize for your personal views. Had you known the uncle was drilling off the shores of Alaska, you would have stayed away from this subject matter, right? You can simply say, "Oh, I didn't realize that was a sensitive subject. Let's talk about something else!"
Q. What is an appropriate gift or gifts for my partner's family members?
A. Find out what the family tradition is; hopefully, it involves picking names, with a limit on the amount of money, or buying small gifts only for the children. If you do have to buy for everyone, your partner is the best guide on what individual family members like and want. In any event, offer to bring a dish and help with the meal, and don't forget a host or hostess gift.
Q. What if someone in my partner's family gives me a gift that is much more expensive than I expected?
A. Simply say thank you and express how much you like the gift. Never say anything about how expensive it is or how much better it is than the gift you gave to that person. But do send a gracious handwritten thank-you note the next day.
Q. How do I decline to eat certain foods without hurting the feelings of the host or hostess?
A. Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free -- there are so many dietary restrictions these days. It's important to know how to act at the table if there are foods you can't or won't eat. A thoughtful host or hostess will ask if anyone has food allergies or dietary restrictions ahead of the meal. But if this hasn't happened, and if you're a vegan or vegetarian, or have religious objections to certain foods, simply eat the other foods instead, without saying anything. If the food is simply something you dislike, force yourself to eat a few bites anyway. If your host or hostess asks if you enjoyed the meal, simply say "Yes! But I want to save room for dessert." Don't announce at the table that you don't eat certain foods, whatever the reason may be. And it's never appropriate to bring your own food or drink. If your needs are that specific, eat before the party or stay home!
Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of "A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette." She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (www.AMLGroup.com), certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast "Traveler," "InStyle" magazine, and the "Los Angeles Times." To learn more about Lisa, follow her on Twitter and Facebook.