7 Ways to Squelch Holiday Squabbles

Etiquette expert Peggy Post shares tips for a harmonious holiday season

By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Do the holidays send you running for antacids, not because of too much food...but because of too much family? This year, try replacing the Tums with a peacekeeping plan. According to Peggy Post, author of the 17th edition of Emily Post's Etiquette, would-be holiday peacekeepers should arm themselves with the fundamentals of etiquette, "consideration, respect, and honesty." Post shared the following tips for promoting harmony at family gatherings.

1. Be Realistic

Post tells WebMD the first step toward enjoying the festivities is to set aside idealized images of how things should go. "Be realistic," she says. "Don't think anything is going to be perfect."

Psychologist Peter Wish, PhD, agrees that expectations are key. "Be prepared and know that people tend to get on each other's nerves and push buttons that can go all the way back to childhood," he tells WebMD. "People have these tapes in their head and tend to respond the way they did years ago. You don't need to respond the way you did before."

2. Anticipate Conflicts

"Plan ahead and try to be as calm as possible with other people," Post says. If you can anticipate the types of conflicts that are likely to come up, you can plan a response in advance. This can help avoid the knee-jerk reactions that tend to escalate tensions. For example, if you tend to have the same argument with Dad again and again, come up with a plan to break the cycle. One strategy is to signal your spouse to run interference.

Once you have a plan to keep yourself in line, decide how you will handle bickering among other family members. Wish suggests separating "the combatants" and asking them to call a truce for the common good.

3. Share the Work

Eda Lang, a retired teacher, has hosted her extended family and friends for many holidays over the years. She says one of the biggest sources of tension is trying to prepare a feast solo when you're working full time. "You want to do right by Mom and Dad and all your loved ones, and you don't want any of them to be alone on Thanksgiving, so you invite them all. But you are stressed out from work and you have no one to help."

Lang's solution is to ask relatives to help with the cooking instead of bringing gifts. "Then it does not fall on one person's shoulders economically or physically," she tells WebMD. "Get very specific when telling people what to bring."

Post agrees that sharing the workload is a good way to avoid short fuses. This goes for serving and clearing, as well as cooking. "Hopefully no one is just sitting there being waited on," she says, adding that football does not excuse men from pitching in. "At Thanksgiving, many women like to watch the football games, too." She suggests assigning tasks ahead of time so everyone will know when and how they are supposed to help.

4. Define 'On Time'

"Being on time is really respecting other people's time," Post says. "Communicate about what 'on time' means to you. It means different things to different people."

Post also advises to call if you're running late and check with the host first if you plan to arrive early. If you are the host, let family members know what time you would like them to arrive, rather than what time you plan to start the meal. Don't assume people will come early to help unless you ask them directly.

5. Avoid Re-Gifting

"You don't have to break the bank for a really nice gift," Post says. "The key is to find something the person will really like. Stay away from re-gifting, because people's feelings will be hurt" if the gift seems too generic (or if they recognize it from last year).

Post says some families have reined in holiday spending while improving the quality of gifts by drawing names. "You focus on one family member each year and really get something special for that person."

When receiving gifts, Post says to apply the principle of "benevolent honesty." If you don't like a present, find something nice to say about it without lying. "Always be appreciative and thank the person up front."

6. Avoid Awkward Surprises

It's a familiar dilemma for many families: What do you do if your parents (or in-laws or close friends) are divorced and don't get along, but you want to invite them both?

"Sometimes you have to have separate celebrations for the sake of family harmony," Post says. But if you're set on having everyone together, run it by the ex-spouses first. "Take your cue from the one you're closest to," Post advises. "Say, 'I'd love to invite John, too. Is that OK with you?'" Whatever you decide, inform both parties ahead of time so they don't show up and feel surprised.

A similar strategy can help in other awkward scenarios. For example, if your brother wants to bring his partner home for Christmas, and you're worried your grandparents will disapprove, give them advance notice. "Tell them to be on their best behavior and put aside their differences at holiday time," Wish says. "If they start to act up, pull them aside and tell them it's unacceptable."

7. Be Inclusive

If your family includes people of different religions or ethnicities, Post suggests including traditions that will make everyone feel welcome. "Some families have made it work out beautifully to celebrate all religions," she tells WebMD. This doesn't mean you must join in any rituals that make you uncomfortable. "If there is a prayer going on, you don't have to participate," she says. "You can just quietly sit there."

Wish agrees that honoring your relatives' traditions can promote harmony at holiday gatherings. "Don't let people feel left out," he says. "Have something there that celebrates for everyone."

SOURCES: Peggy Post, etiquette columnist, Good Housekeeping; author, Emily Post's Etiquette: 17th Edition. Peter A. Wish, PhD, clinical psychologist; author, Don't Stop at Green Lights. Eda Lang, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The Emily Post Institute.

© 2005 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.