Ah, the holidays. Roaring fires, decadent spreads, the warmth of loved ones all around -- and the occasional, crazy-making question from a smug relative.
Holiday meals with family, especially extended family you may not see very often, can be a delicate dance that involves remembering the last thing you heard about them, trying to find points of common interest between generations, and exploring new topics of conversation.
But sometimes, the same old questions start creeping in. You know those questions. They’re not necessarily trying to be rude, but the level of implied intimacy in the queries, or the slightly mocking or knowing tone in them, can have you privately reeling for hours afterward -- especially if they’re coming not from your most beloved aunt, but from that slightly superior second cousin.
"Whether you are fielding a question from a nosy relative who is trying to bully you or someone asking in earnest, a light tone and gracious attitude go a long way,” said psychologist Gail Gross, a family and child development expert. "Using humor or sarcasm is a great way to lighten the mood, deflect the question, and close down the conversation, but you also want to reassert your boundaries and gently remind the other person that they have overstepped their boundaries by asking such an impolite question."
Of course, sometimes holiday cocktails aren’t strong enough, or you want to shut down this person’s annoying annual question once and for all. That’s when confrontation comes in.
Below, we’ve asked Gross and three other psychologists who specialize in family relationships to suggest potential responses to five common holiday questions that could make you feel stuck, but shouldn't. How you respond depends on whether you want to deflect questions, explore them or confront them head on.
"I like the three choices format because rather than feeling trapped or cornered by the invasive questions, it gives the person a chance to center and respond from a healthy place," added psychologist Leonard Felder, author of the books When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People and Fitting In Is Overrated: The Survival Guide For Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like An Outsider.
The Tired Question: "Still single, huh?"
The expert: Psychologist Seth Meyers, author of the book Dr. Seth's Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.
"Most of my responses do two things: they attempt to answer the question, but they also attempt to point out the inappropriateness in asking the question in the first place," Meyers explained.
Deflect: "Why? Are you interested in me?"
Confront: "When I am seeing someone I want to talk to you about, you will be the first to know. But I have to be honest and tell you that being asked about my dating life actually makes me more anxious. Can you appreciate that or do you want me to explain why that is?"
Explore: Tell the truth about your last break up, the interesting people you dated this year, or why you’re not interested in looking right now.
The Tired Question: “Have you gained some weight?"
The expert: Psychologist Leonard Felder
Deflect: "What a nice thing to say! You're looking well yourself."
Confront: Felder's suggestion conveys how hurtful the question is, in a gentle way: "That's a question I would not want to ask anyone I cared about, because it invariably causes someone to feel self-conscious or judged."
Explore: If you feel up to it, share how tough it is to keep the weight off as you grow older and ask if they can relate or share any tips.
The Tired Question: "Oh, you're still in that same old job?"
The Expert: Felder
Deflect: "You didn't hear? I won the lottery and now live a life of leisure and travel. How's it going over where you are?"
Confront: Felder advises people to state their position without shame and in fact point out the positives: "Yep, I'm in the same old job. In fact, one of my friends told me that I am possibly the only person in my generation who can hang in there and not have to apply for other jobs from the unattractive place of being unemployed. That's a plus."
Explore: Sure, they may be shooting the breeze by re-treading a topic they know irks you. But maybe they want to help; ask them if they have solid leads on new opportunities you could contact, or ideas on how to break out into the industry of you choice.
The Tired Question: "So, when are you two going to start having kids?"
The Expert: Psychologist Gail Gross
Deflect: "Nope, we're still using condoms. How's your sex life going?"
Confront: Gross advises people to gently reply, "That's an interesting question. Sadly, I don't have an answer for you," and then leave the conversation to rest there. She also added that when someone is asking "busybody questions" like this, what they're really doing is throwing you off balance. By responding in this way, Gross concludes, you are reasserting your boundary and reestablishing an equal playing field.
Explore: If you feel safe with this person, perhaps consider letting them in on your plans or struggles. Some who have experienced miscarriages may feel relief in sharing about it. Or if you are trying and it’s taking a while, share your frustration.
The Tired Question: "When can we expect wedding invitations from you two?"
The Expert: Meyers
Deflect: "We're waiting for a reality show to pick up our story, so we may have to wait until pilot season."
Confront: Meyers' suggestion is short and to the point: This stuff is private, and there's no news: “There are few things as private as setting an engagement. I will let you know as soon as there is any news to share."
Explore: Let them know you’re enjoying your time together without making a more permanent commitment. Alternately, you may not actually believe in marriage as an institution -- that’s ok too. Whatever feels most genuine, feel free to let your relatives know.
Hopefully you'll be quick at the draw with a gentle and witty remark, as opposed to sputtering in the moment and thinking up amazing responses as you lay in bed hours later.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Seth Meyers' last name.