The holidays often mean extended periods of family time. And if you’re a person who doesn’t see a lot of your family during the rest of the year, that enforced family time can mean a bombardment of interactions, feelings — and
invasive questions. Because nosy family members love to ask totally inappropriate questions. When are you going to get married? When are you two having kids? Why don’t you have a boyfriend/girlfriend/non-binary friend? The holidays, it seems, is the time when every mom, dad, sister, brother, auntie, and cousin’s wife who only sees you once a year thinks it’s appropriate to ask extremely personal questions about your romantic life or reproductive choices.
If you’re already practicing your calming breathing in anticipation of your visit home this holiday season, you’re not alone. Clinical psychologist and past President of the
Anxiety and Depression Association of America Dr. Karen Cassiday tells Bustle that it would be an “extraordinary family” who knew that “some questions don’t need to be asked.”
It’s a near universal thing, it seems:
Families are just nosy. Here are Dr. Cassiday’s suggestions for how to approach the visit — and how to respond to those questions that really just don’t need to be asked. MarijaRadovic/E+/Getty Images
Before you even head out for the holidays, Dr. Cassiday suggests creating a plan. Spend a little time thinking about the conversations that might come up and how you could respond them. Remind yourself that when a family member is asking probing questions, it’s really more about them than it is about you.
Dr. Cassiday says that part of the plan should be answering the question: “What is a reasonable amount of time for me to spend with these people for it to be successful?”
If three days at your parents' house makes you want "multiple therapy sessions," Dr. Cassiday says, “Stay with a friend or go stay with your family for a shorter amount of time.”
The goal is to make sure “you’re not all of a sudden being like a python trying to swallow a pig,” Dr. Cassiday says. In other words: Don’t bite off more time that you can chew. It’s important to see your family, but it’s also important to set the boundaries you need to take care of yourself.
Respond With Humor And Confidence
When those questions inevitably do come, Dr. Cassiday suggests responding with confidence — and a little bit of humor. This is once place where making a plan really comes in handy. If you’ve already anticipated the questions and come up with some cheeky responses, you’re more likely to respond confidently than if you’re blindsided.
“If you show a deer in the headlights response and start defending yourself, it’s so seductive to someone who wants to try to ‘improve’ or ‘help” you,” Dr. Cassiday says. So don’t give them an opening! A confident response like, “I feel like my life is good right now and I don’t need a partner to live a good life,” is a great way to keep the conversation from going in a direction you don’t want it to go.
One big piece of advice that Dr. Cassiday has for people is to not take the questions — and the implied criticism behind them — personally.
“Even if your family is directly implying disapproval or criticism, you don’t have to take it that way,” Dr. Cassiday says. “One way to think about is to realize they’re not living your life. They’re coming from a different set of experiences and social pressures in terms of how they evaluate someone being an adult or someone doing things that they think adults to do. Try to be compassionate and realize that it’s unfortunate for them that they’re not able to enjoy you the way you are.”
Dr. Cassiday also suggests that people remind themselves that their loved ones are getting “perfectionistic.” By that she means that they’re holding an overly-narrow vision of what the right thing is to do and are also over-emphasizing of consequences of mistakes. She warns that it’s easy to adopt that thinking about your own life if you’re around it, so it’s a good idea to remind yourself that “I know I’m a complete person and that my life is fine without having it be garnished the way they would like it to be garnished.”
One really concrete response to an invasive question? Agreeing! Dr. Cassiday says that basically agreeing with the premise of the question, without going into detail, can be a great way to stop an unwanted conversation in its tracks. So, for example, if your mom asks when you’re going to get married, you can respond by saying “I guess that would be fun if we got married, wouldn’t it?” And then change the topic.
The topic you switch to is also important. If you just make a comment about the weather, chances are Mom isn’t going to be distracted from her quest for information about wedding bells. But if you pick something she cares a lot about — or, as Dr. Cassiday says, the topic she finds “really delicious” — then your nosy relative is more likely to be redirected.
In addition to getting you out of an unwanted conversation, this method also makes your loved one feel like they’ve been heard. You’ll give them the impression that you agree with them that this is an important topic, but you don’t have to call them out in a negative way or get into the weeds about your personal choices.
Take Charge Of The Social Scene
Another way to head off those questions before they even start is to fill the space with
other questions. Dr. Cassiday suggests downloading a list of great questions to use as conversation starters. She also recommends Table Topics, which are cubes that have 100 great open-ended conversation starters on them. If the conversation starts to veer in a direction you don’t want to go, refer to those questions to get everyone back on a preferable track.
“If you can get everyone enjoying each other and learning about people’s opinions and experiences, then people are going to feel emotionally satisfied with interaction and feel less inclined to go into that nitpicky mode,” Dr. Cassiday says.
And while it might seem weird to have conversation starters with your own family, Dr. Cassiday wants people to remember that we all change — and so do our opinions. Even if you
think you know everything there is to know about your family, you don’t. Why not try to learn more?
One of the reasons these questions come up over the holidays is because people have too much time on their hands. Dr. Cassiday suggests
filling some of that time with games. She suggests ones that take little-to-no skill — like Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples — or even athletic games if your family is sporty.
The idea is the same as having a list of questions you can ask: You’re filling your family’s time and minds so they don’t feel inclined to be nosy. And, as a bonus, you’re also building bonds as you spend quality time together, having fun and learning about each other.
Accept That They’ll Talk When You Leave
And, finally, don’t fret about the fact that, no matter what you say or do, your family will talk about you when you leave.
“Get comfortable with the fact that — of course — they’re going to talk about you behind your back when you’re not there,” Dr. Cassiday says. But it doesn’t matter. You’re not there — you don’t have to deal with it.”
No matter how much you love your family, some part of the holidays are likely to be stressful. But with Dr. Cassiday’s tips — and a little bit of humor — you’ll make it through to the New Year. Just don’t let any aunties corner you in the kitchen.