Talking turkey

Plan ahead to encourage meaningful conversations - and avoid minefields - at the Thanksgiving table

Special to Newsday

November 20, 2006
Along with the turkey, serving up conversations that are more meaningful than tedious or volatile can be the most nourishing gift you offer relatives and friends this Thanksgiving. Doing so can save the day - not to mention numerous gatherings to come during the six-week holiday season - while providing lasting memories.

Focusing on conversation is an ideal way to unwind and connect to family, says Debbie Mandel, a Lawrence-based fitness and stress management expert.

**Debbie Mandel Qoute**"So many people enter this time of year stressed about meals and gifts and who will sit with whom at the table that they forget to interact with their family," says Mandel, author of "Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul" (Busy Bee Group). "And yet the conversation should be the focal point. If you keep in mind that the goal is to have fun and create a warm, loving environment that connects your past and present, it won't even matter if the food isn't perfect because that's not what people will remember; they'll remember the conversation."

In order to make that happen, though, whether you're hosting or a guest, you'll have to do some pre-meal planning.

Come armed with topics

Often the guests will be people you haven't seen in a while, which can make conversation awkward and lead to small talk about the weather, says Debra Fine, author of "The Fine Art of Small Talk" (Hyperion). And when the gathering is intergenerational, she says, kids often get left out after the obligatory questions from adults about school and sports.

To help stimulate a discussion that every generation can engage in, Fine suggests preparing a few ice breakers so you're not struggling to think of a topic at the table.

Talk-inducing topics include trips, home repair work, new babies, or books, movies and entertainers everyone is talking about, says Susan Newman, a social pychologist at Rutgers University and author of "The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It - and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever" (McGraw-Hill).

Another appropriate seasonal conversation starter is sharing what you're thankful for. Fine suggests setting aside time at the beginning of the meal or in between courses to let everyone speak.

A sure-fire way to keep the dialogue flowing is to take advantage of the generational mix by asking older family members to share traditions they experienced as children, adds Newman. Funny and poignant stories of past holidays are likely to be remembered and appreciated by guests of all ages.

Steering the dialogue

Or think of an entertaining question to engage everyone. Elisabeth Elman Feldman, senior vice president of TBC, a public relations and advertising firm in Manhattan, says each year at her family's Thanksgiving celebration - which includes 16 family members and six friends - they pose a thoughtful query to each person at the table.

"One year, the question was, 'If you could have lunch with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why?' Last year, I came up with 10 or so different questions and put one under each person's plate," says Feldman. "We went around and answered questions like, 'Tell us something about the person next to you that no one else at this table knows,' or 'Use five words to describe yourself.'"

Feldman says that at first people complained about the game, but now they look forward to it each year. But she has rules: If someone doesn't want to answer their question, they can sing a song instead. Some guests just excuse themselves to the bathroom.

"It sounds a little corny, but we have all different ages at our Thanksgiving table, so it's a fun way to get everyone involved. It keeps us at the table longer, the kids are as involved as the adults, and I always learn something new about the others," she says.

Topics to avoid

Along with the planning, families should have some rules. For instance, Fine warns about of hot-button issues like politics and personal topics, that can lead to controversy. "People do it all the time: 'When are you getting married?' 'When are you going to make me a grandma?' This puts pressure on people in front of the group," Fine says. "Sometimes it's a matter of how you phrase things. Asking someone about their job is an innocent question. But if you haven't spoken in a year, they could have been fired since then. A better approach is to ask them to bring you up to date. Ask, 'What has been happening since the last time I saw you?'"

Of course, here, too, groundwork can help, says Newman. "By far the best way to ensure a topic will not come up is to tell your mother, for example, in advance that you will not discuss your weight during a holiday meal or any time; the same goes for your social life or your job if these are areas that are bound to lead to confrontation and argument in your family. And if Uncle Charlie or Aunt Sarah unknowingly brings up something you don't care to talk about in front of everyone, say politely and with a smile, 'That subject is off limits today.' If someone persists, be firm; 'Seriously, no, I simply can't discuss it.'"

Defusing problems

This approach can work well with topics like religion and politics, says Don Gabor, a communications consultant in Brooklyn and author of "Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations" (Conversation Arts Media). For several years Gabor says he served as the referee between his parents' and brother-in-law's "extreme arguments and verbal barrages about politics."


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