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It’s like Groundhog Day every holiday: Your mom or a friend of the family opens his or her mouth and asks you a highly personal, probing question (“When are you finally getting married?”) and you’re left fuming and causing a holiday-halting shouting match or else embarrassed and sullen. Now if that doesn’t say “the holidays,” we don’t know what does.
So why do people launch into these off-putting inquisitions year after year? “Sometimes people feel obligated to say something and they are not always sure how to say it,” explains Larry Kubiak, Ph.D., director of psychological services at the Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center in Florida. “You feel like you should say something, but rather than thinking it through, you regret it as soon as you say it.”
Other people know exactly what they're doing when they ask you a rude question. Adds YouBeauty Relationship Expert David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., “Families often say mean things couched in a nice way.”
Unless you plan on hiding out at home, there’s no escaping these nagging questions that relatives or family friends feel compelled or even entitled to ask within five minutes of walking through the front door. While it’s hard not to bristle and then throw out a sarcastic remark, there are better ways to handle these aggravating moments.
Whether your man hasn’t popped the question yet or you’re in between jobs, here’s how to cope with those annoying questions we’re all faced with when we head home for the holidays:
“When are you finally getting married?”
There’s nothing quite like being asked this question in front of the entire holiday gathering or worse, right in front of your boyfriend. Can you say awkward? This question really hits a nerve if you yourself are wondering when the heck your guy is going to propose (grrr).
So why does nearly every parent on the planet ask their adult children this question? “Part of it is a parent’s role to see their children through to a good, satisfying, happy relationship,” says Sbarra. “You almost think it’s the end of your parenting work.” Parents may fear that their adult child won’t find someone who will take care of their son or daughter after they’re no longer alive. In other words, they ask because they care. Adds Sbarra, “adult parents know the value of finding a good partner whether they themselves are married or divorced.”
How to handle it: It’s all-too-easy to blow up at the nosy person asking you about your marital plans. Take the high road rather than tossing out a sarcastic comment that will make the next six hours go by painfully slowly. “I would start with the assumption that it could be an innocent question where they weren’t trying to demean you or make you feel like an old maid,” says Kubiak.
If you’ve only been dating for six months and your family is bugging you about whether this is “the one,” be honest. “Say, ‘I don’t know,’” suggests Sbarra. “‘It’s too early for me to say. I’m just seeing where this goes right now, but I really like him or her.’ The important thing is to not respond by saying, ‘Why are you always doing this to me?’’’
If you’re not yet ready to get married, try saying, “Marriage is a very important decision and many people I know did not think it through well enough and regretted it later on,’” suggests Kubiak. “’While I would like to be married, I want to make sure it’s the kind of relationship that’s going to last. I want to make the right decision and be in the right place.’” That should shut them up since it’s hard to argue with taking your time with making a huge life decision.
“When are you giving us grandkids?”
When you got married, you probably thought you’d be off the hook when it came to those irritating questions you faced at holiday gatherings, but nope—almost immediately after you say, “I do,” parents and other family members start to hint and then harp about when you’re having children.
How to handle it: If you’re trying to conceive (whether or not you and your partner have been struggling with infertility) and feel like sharing, you can just say, “We’re trying” with a smile and leave it at that. It’s really no one else’s business but yours. “Your answer could be, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘you’ll be the first to know’ and then change the subject,” suggests psychologist and life coach Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. “You don’t want to get into ‘why are you always asking that?’ which will make everyone around you uncomfortable.”
Not yet ready to be a parent? Kubiak recommends saying: “We need some time together as a couple. Once we have children, we will be parents for the rest of our lives, so we want to make sure we’re ready to do that.”
Or you may have financial issues or life goals you want to reach before becoming a parent. In that case, you can explain that you want to hold off until your partner finishes school or you get a promotion so you’re in a better position financially, suggests Kubiak. Both are situations that are hard to argue with.
But not everyone has “kids” penciled into their agenda. If you and your partner want to keep your relationship a cozy twosome, Sbarra suggests being honest with your family. “If you’re not planning on having kids at all, you should tell your parents instead of giving them false hope,” he says.
“When are you getting a real job/promoted?”
Anyone who has ever pursued a less-than-stable career (actors, musicians, tightrope-walkers) much to the chagrin of their family has been hit with the “get a real job” jab—and if they’re not saying it out loud, they’re probably thinking it. Even though the question is incredibly poorly worded, it usually comes from a place of concern.
How to handle it: If you’re being badgered about a promotion that hasn’t come yet or a lackluster job, focus on the positives. “A lot of people are unemployed now,” says Kubiak. “I’d say, ‘As you know, this is a very challenging job situation, and I’m just very thankful that I do have a job. It’s not an ideal one, but it’s always easier to look for a job when you’re in one. I’m trying to do the best job I can and am keeping my eyes open.’”
Pursuing a career you love that’s less than lucrative? Share your game plan. “Provide them with a concrete plan, such as ‘I’m going to try this for two years and if I can’t show that I have some leads in that time, such as landing a commercial, then I’ll start doing other things,’” suggests Sbarra.
Or try turning the conversation around so it’s about the pleasure you get from your job. Kubiak recommends saying: “‘It would be wonderful if every job that people were passionate about was well paid. What’s most important to me is having something I’m really passionate about, that makes me excited to wake up for the in morning. I know so many people who go to the same job and are miserable. I really enjoy what I’m doing and feel good about it.”
Take that, Uncle Joe!
“Why don’t you eat meat?”
This question can come from two distinctly different places—either they’re truly curious as to what led you to become a vegetarian or else it’s a passive-aggressive verbal jab from the cook, aka “I slaved in the kitchen for two solid days and you’re not going to eat my delicious turkey from my beloved grandmother’s recipe?”
How to handle it: Try to judge the hidden meaning. If the person isn’t close to you, they may just want to get to know you better. In that case, you can simply respond: “’It’s a personal choice I made,’” suggests Wallin. If they ask you to elaborate, feel free to briefly share your reasoning. “My response is, ‘I don’t eat tortured animals,’” says Sbarra. “But you could say there are a lot of really good reasons not to eat meat and if you want me to email you some information I’d be happy to do so.”
If the meat question is being asked by an ego-wounded cook, try thinking about where the person is coming from. “If someone’s self-worth is tied to her cooking ability and you don’t eat her turkey, then that’s a slap in the face because it’s important to her,” says Kubiak. But by no means should you abandon your no-meat policy for her. “If she’s looking for validation that she’s a great cook, you can say, ‘I can’t participate in the meat dishes, but I’m going to load up on this and that and it all looks delicious,’” he says. “Hopefully, you can stroke her ego by commenting on the other foods.”
Adds Sbarra, “It’s important to not make it a power struggle and instead express appreciation.”
“Did you gain some weight?”
It doesn’t get much ruder than this. The close cousin (and passive-aggressive version) of this question is: “Are you sure you should eat that?” This is, of course, asked just as you’re about to dig into your second helping of apple pie a la mode and within earshot of everyone at the party. Ugh.
How to handle it: Your first instinct may be to deck the person instead of decking the halls or say a cutting remark in return (“Why don’t you have another cocktail, Aunt Sarah—or is the Betty Ford Center picking you up soon?”). But do you really want to create a scene that only makes matters worse and incredibly uncomfortable? We don’t think so. Instead, if you have a healthy dose of self-confidence, laugh it off. “Humor is always a good way to diffuse the situation, such as ‘Ah, that explains why I was having trouble fitting into my dress!’” says Kubiak. And then walk away with your tasty slice of pie. Adds Wallin: “When you deflect with humor you are taking control of the situation and cooling it down. It means you don’t have to feel backed into a corner.”
But it’s hard to laugh it off after being hit with a question that’s a weapon of self-esteem destruction, especially if it was said in front of others. “You can say, ‘That’s not a very nice thing to say,’” says Sbarra. “On one level it’s important not to let anyone get away with treating us poorly or putting us down, but those discussions have to happen offline.” In other words, later on, take the person aside and talk about it in private. “Come back and say, ‘Mom, I want to talk to you. Here’s the issue: I’m struggling with my weight, but today is my day off. I appreciate your concern about me, but you need to lay off.”
Navigating these questions with grace—the verbal equivalent to walking across a field laden with landmines—isn’t easy, but by coming prepared, taking a deep breath before you answer and knowing when to just walk away, you can get through the holidays in one piece—and in peace.
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