Next weekend is my family’s yearly reunion. It’s across the country, so I’m not going, but my father is currently contemplating the trip. When we talked about the event this week, he talked about how he wanted to go and see everyone, but he also wanted to avoid a number of different conversation topics. Like all families, we have things we’d rather not talk about and he was worried he was going to get caught in a bunch of awkward conversations where people asked him about things he didn’t want to discuss and he was forced to answer. My advice: Go in with a plan.
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I started coming up with a plan for conversations roughly 20 years ago when my mum was fighting cancer for the first time. My home life was rough at the time and I desperately didn’t want to talk about it every time I left the house, but everywhere I went people would always hit me with the standard “How’s your mum?” For a while I would answer honestly, recounting how she was having trouble eating or had spent a few days in the hospital earlier in the week. That detailed answer would evolve into a much longer conversation than I wanted to have. Then one day I made an amazing discovery: No one cared.
To say no one cared is a bit extreme, I think on some level they did want my mum to be OK. The answer they were looking for when they asked about her though was “Great!” No one really wanted to hear about all the horrible things that had happened in the weeks and months since they had last asked. They were asking out of politeness and I was answering also to be polite, but the conversation didn’t really need to happen at all.
So, I came up with a standard response for each church trip/party/event that answered the question, but never went into much detail. Turns out, responding “She’s still fighting!” or “She’s back at home now, I’m sure she’d love to hear from you!” had same effect as going into a ton of detail about chemo and hospital visits. Truth be told, all these people knew my mum and knew her phone number and where we lived. If they really wanted to know how she was doing they would have asked her themselves, not brought it up casually when they bumped into me at the grocery store.
Planned conversations certainly aren’t foolproof, but as someone who hates small talk, they can be a lifesaver in situations, such as family reunions, where there are a handful of topics you don’t want to talk about.
My advice to my dad was just to respond to questions he didn’t want to answer with a very short nondescript answer, and then immediately change the subject to something slightly related he did want to talk about.
The original question asker likely won’t notice the transition, and if they do, going back to the original question will be awkward after the topic shift, so they’re not likely to do it.
Here are a few examples of how to do it:
Q: How’s selling your mum’s house going? [It’s a dumpster fire]
A: It’s going! I had lunch at that BBQ restaurant near her house last week when I was there. Have you had the pulled pork there? It’s delicious. I’ve been thinking about buying my own smoker…
Q: Why didn’t your brother come? [You haven’t spoken in years]
A: He’s been keeping to himself lately. I’m sure he’d love to hear from you. You should call him! How’s X doing?
Q: How’s work? [You were recently fired]
A: I’m looking into [random field]. I’m really excited about it. Bobby just got a promotion at work. Have you talked to him about it? It sounds great!
The key to success with this is to have a prepared answer that to some extent answers the question, as well as a planned conversation pivot. With my mum, I always had one simple story to share with everyone. She eventually moved into a nursing home and was in charge of the library. Everyone I know knew about that library because it was a safe, moderately-personal story I could tell people. The personal story was enough for people to feel like the question had been answered, and they moved on.
You certainly can’t make it through an entire family reunion deflecting conversations (or maybe you can), but if there are a few difficult topics you definitely want to avoid, a little forward planning can ensure you don’t have to deal with them.