For many people, the holidays often mean family gatherings. It’s also during these times that relatives may feel, shall we say, comfortable asking probing questions. But experts note that at holiday get-togethers, some comments are better left unsaid.
“Well-intentioned comments from family usually come from genuine concern for our well-being and future. They can span a full range from things that seem stuck in the past to the present and especially the future,” said David Strah, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles.
Simply put, some observations may seem totally OK, but in reality can be damaging. Below, experts share some questions that often come up at holiday gatherings that may unintentionally send the wrong message ― and more meaningful questions to ask instead:
“Why aren’t you in a relationship?”/“What happened to so-and-so?”
“People love to see other people happy. Our culture and society strive for that sometimes elusive romantic partnership, and because of this, people think it’s fair game to ask about someone’s relationship status,” explained Samantha Heuwagen, a marriage and family therapist in Atlanta.
The fact is that some relationships aren’t healthy or don’t work out for very serious and real reasons. So while this comment may be coming from a good place, by asking it you might be bringing up painful memories or trauma. Or, at the very least, you could be reinforcing the idea that a romantic partnership is one of the only keys to happiness. (Spoiler alert: It isn’t.)
Instead, “it’s a better idea to ask them what they’ve been up to and about their future plans, rather than focus on just one aspect of someone’s life,” Heuwagen said.
“When are you getting married?”
The thought of this question coming up at family gatherings can be awkward and uncomfortable, said Ginger Poag, a licensed clinical psychotherapist in Brentwood, Tennessee.
She noted that generally when someone asks this question, they may be trying to make conversation with you ― “trying to see where you are in life, and if you have set a date.”
She added, however, that it can be awkward for the person being asked this, especially if the relationship is not doing well at this time or if the partner has not been asked yet.
“This is a sensitive area and many people prefer to be private about their relationships, so proceed with caution,” she said. Instead, if someone is in a relationship, ask how that person is doing if they’re not at the holiday event.
If you find yourself being asked this question, don’t be afraid to ask to change the subject or politely set a boundary by saying “I prefer to talk about something else,” Poag added.
“Did you lose/gain weight?”
Praising or admonishing weight gain or loss can have lasting effects that most people ― including the person on the receiving end ― may not even realize.
When complimenting weight loss, specifically, it could demonstrate “that what people are noticing or valuing about them is their appearance, which can cause fear that if their weight increases, people will judge them or think they look ‘bad,’” said Chelsea Woodard, site director of The Renfrew Center of Nashville, which specializes in the treatment of eating disorders.
To pay forward a more genuine compliment, Woodard suggested telling a person they look happy and ask them what’s going on in their life.
And if you’re on the receiving end of a comment about your weight, share your thoughts point-blank. Or, if you’d like to defuse, you can redirect.
“A helpful response to demonstrate that you don’t measure your worth or value on the number on the scale is, ‘Thank you! I’m not sure [if I lost/gained weight] because I don’t put a lot of stock in what’s on the scale, but I sure am happy. How is life treating you?’” Woodard said.
“When are you going to have kids?”
The challenge with this is that it places societal norms and expectations on someone, according to Tracy Dalgleish, a clinical psychologist and couples therapist in Ontario. If you don’t know anything about their current situation aside from maybe their age or relationship status, asking someone about kids may possibly ignore their wishes, plans or even health status.
The truth is that some people simply don’t want kids. Others (many others) may be struggling to get pregnant. Some people may want to, but know they can’t afford it. Creating a family isn’t as simple as this question makes it appear.
Dalgleish added that a similar statement to avoid is the desire to ask a couple that has already had a child, “When are you going to have another?”
“Some people choose to have just one child, or just two or three. For others, the choice is made for them, or they are experiencing infertility,” she explained.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Immediate apprehension over a life-changing decision ― like quitting a job, freezing eggs, calling off a wedding, etc. ― can come off unsupportive, according to Kimberly Wilson, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist and wellness entrepreneur.
“Another way to ask is, ‘I’m sure you’ve thought about this, but what about health insurance, the side effects, your mortgage, etc.’” she suggested.
If you’re looking for a “thanks but no thanks” type of response to someone’s concern over your life choices, Wilson recommended saying something like, “Thanks for your concern but I’ve though this through and know I’m on the right path.”
“You’re voting for who?”
Political subjects are often divisive and can impact people very intimately, “so any misstep creates an opportunity for a very well-intentioned comment to be misinterpreted and really hurt,” said Craig Dike, a clinical psychologist from Doctor on Demand.
“There is a time and place for these discussions in various relationships, but a family gathering with others who might not know you as well, it can be something that makes or breaks a gathering,” Dike said.
If you’re asking, it had better be because you actually want to hear the other person out instead of just instigating an argument. If you’re dealing with someone pushing you on your beliefs, you can shut the conversation down or try one of these other expert-backed strategies.
“Are you sure you want another serving?”
The answer to this question can be summed up pretty simply: “Of course, they are or they wouldn’t have reached for it,” said Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist.
While this statement may come with good intentions, it’s actually causing some damage. Holiday food is meant to be delicious, not demonized.
“Science shows that shaming and judgmental comments are bad for a person’s psychological health,” Walfish said. “An extra helping of pie at holiday time isn’t going to make or break the deal. Butt out.”
“Why wouldn’t you eat _______?”
A person’s individual diet choices should be supported, especially if you don’t know the specific motive behind the decision, Wilson said. For example, some people may have allergies or a health condition that prevents them from eating something. Maybe others need to control their sugar intake.
If you are concerned or curious, try asking in a different way, like, “What led to your decision to cut out meat/bread/sugar and what have you noticed?”
If someone is probing you about your health choices, try responding simply with, “I’ve found it feels best for my body.” If you do want to elaborate, Wilson said you can then hop into educating the family member on the effects ― but really, you don’t owe anyone an explanation if you don’t want to give one.