Catherine Blyth: How to survive your relatives

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.

Grumpy great-aunts

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.

Boring cousins

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.

Awful presents

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."

Rude guests

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.

Maddened mothers

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

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy