Catherine Blyth: How to survive your relatives
Sunday 21 December 2008
As yet, conversation has no patron saint. When the beatification committee get around to it, however, I doubt Santa will reach the shortlist.
What makes Christmas good is also what makes it bad: déjà-vu. The Groundhog Day of family life, it reunites us with phantoms from childhood, then adds alcohol, cardiac assaults of grub and rollercoaster blood-sugar levels. If your role was "difficult daughter" or "oafish son", no matter that you're now a yogi: you'll soon morph into a panto version of yourself, aged 12-and-three-quarters. Rows with the rellies seem almost inevitable.
You could turn on the TV and tune out. But why not hone your conversational skills? Here's a list of potential pitfalls, and what to do about them.
Great-Aunt Ethel can't forgive you for growing up, or herself, for growing old. So, to winkle your way into an elderly relation's heart, relate to her. Seek her opinion, sift her memory bank (gold for future family disputes), admire the warp and woof of her heirloom tweeds.
As GK Chesterton wrote, there's "no such thing as an uninteresting subject; there are only uninterested people". So be nice. One day, the old dear will be you.
There are many varieties of bore. At one extreme, those experts (special subject: "Myself") who could talk a tape recorder to death. At the other, stealth bores who say nothing. Yet anyone seems tedious if you don't extend imaginative hospitality, since conversation thrives on common ground and enthusiasm. Heed Sir Walter Scott: "There are few persons from whom you cannot learn something and... everything is worth knowing." Find out what interests the other person, then make it interesting to you.
Interrogate a stealth bore and he'll clam up. Instead, strew topics in his path, with open questions and observations ("Isn't this delicious? Mum's always telling me to cook, but I've got enough hobbies, haven't you?"). When his face lights up, pounce.
However, if your cousin is an "expert" bore, deploy tactics you'd use to bamboozle a bullying brother-in-law. Flattering interruptions can redirect talk: "I so agree. That's why I do X..." Seek advice, offer praise. If the ranting continues, smile and, as China's hallowed Thirty-Six Stratagems advises: "Relax while the enemy exhausts himself."
Similarly, to neutralise a nosy uncle, meet question with question, or like a politician, preface responses with "That's a fascinating question." Then say whatever you like.
Other "expert" bores include patronising matrons and elder statesmen. These regard conversation as a party political broadcast, for boasting or denouncing the youth of today. Beware spouting endless "reallys?" while your mind roams. It feels easy, but you will be trapped for longer.
Minds worn shiny by prejudice offer few conversational footholds for those who don't mirror their opinions. Nonetheless, some sure-fire acts of provocation are, occasionally, just the thing to pep up talk. These include: generalisations, personal remarks, unsolicited advice, enquiries after health-wealth-creed, moans, boasts, bitching and teasing. Sensitivity is required, since Christmas is a munificent host to covert insults. One friend's annual treat is the moment when the family's wine snob pokes his nose into a proffered glass, sniffs and sets it down.
It's hard to be gracious in the face of incomprehensible gifts – so often, forms of passive-aggressive criticism. I'm talking about the gizzard-gusseting pants, size XL; the scented notelets with "Thank you" printed in bubble script ("I know you mean to write..."). Just keep it simple: "A lovely thought."
Don't assume they're arrogant: they probably lack conversational experience. So focus on them, be positive, and you may be surprised what lies beneath that concrete coat of a personality. With whingers, however, venture a silencing platitude ("Life isn't a bed of/bowl of..."). Or one of these sympathy shutters, which appear to hold out comfort but, like a cross brandished at a vampire, drive others' woes away: "Poor you!" (Subtext: Victim again – do we detect a pattern?) "You are in the wars!" (Why pick fights?). "The same thing happened to Y..." (You're not the only one with problems.) "I understand." (And have for 20 minutes.) "Why would he say that?" (Look in the mirror, honey.) "That must have been hard." (Note my use of the past tense: move on.) Stroppy sisters
Feuds are cherished sibling keepsakes, due to competition for parental resources, and many of us ding-dong merrily. Still, sniping may injure bystanders, and, fuelled by booze, teeter into war. You can absorb insults (hypnotist Paul McKenna disarmed a critic by taking "pretty much everything I said as a compliment"). Alternatively, talk on, as if deaf, or deflect the attack with creative interpretation. When a courtier told Elizabeth I she must go to bed, she replied, "Little man, little man. The word 'must' is not used to princes."
If sis has a serious beef, listen artfully, respecting the 10 commandments for emotional ventilation:
1. Explore, don't ignore, feeling ("I see you're upset.")
2. Acknowledge the problem must be addressed (even if .........it's not a problem to you)
3. Don't react emotionally or judgementally.
4. Don't finish the other's person's sentences
5. Offer opinions only if sought
6. Neither agree nor disagree until you must
7. Limit interruptions to supportive statements
8. Repeat key words to re-route rambling
9. Display listening: face them, maintain eye contact and an open posture
10. Question, summarise, ask how to proceed.
How many Yuletide kitchens resound with the matriarch's curse: "He. Does. Nothing. What is he for?"
To mollify your mum, recall that each year she is revisited by hopes that have long since cindered, like the overspill at the bottom of her oven. So coax her to another view with words that hostage negotiators use to imply: "We're in this together." As in, "we" not "I"; "our" not "my"; "here" not "there"; "these" not "those".
Making a dignified exit from family lock-ins is challenging. If you've no neighbours or imaginary friends to see, there's always that re-run of The Great Escape...
'The Art of Conversation', by Catherine Blyth, is published by John Murray
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