Small Talk & Escape Plans: A Holiday Survival Guide

Good morning,

With the holidays coming up, there are lots of social gatherings, which means a lot of (annoying) small talk with family members who I do not see often. Fortunately, nothing requires an overnight stay at a relative’s house!

What’s some of your advice on best ways to cope? I’ve always labeled myself as not being really close to my family, but I think the bigger issue is that I hate small talk. I get anxious at the thought of multiple events week after week. (My dad’s birthday is a week after Thanksgiving so I don’t get much of a break!) What are some things I can do to make each dinner and/or celebration more bearable when all I want to do is go running back to my home to be in my solitude?

I’d appreciate any advice you could provide!

Best,

Not Very Merry

Dear Not Very Merry,

I think a lot of us are dreading the holidays, especially in the wake of the divisiveness of the 2016 election. And I feel your pain. After a lifetime of being put in similar situations, I’m actually taking a break this year and sitting the holidays out. You know, you’re allowed to do that too. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can say no. You don’t have to go to every event. You can give yourself permission to skip one. But on some level, I’m sure you feel compelled to go.

I have two important strategies I use when I’m heading into these types of events, and they both involved planning.

First, I plan an escape route. I set a finite amount of time that I can be at the event, and I set expectations in advance for when I need to leave. I make sure to call in advance and let the appropriate parties know that I’ve got to be on my way earlier than they may have anticipated.

Don’t have an excuse? Invent one! Your friends are having a later get-together to celebrate, you’re house-sitting for someone and need to walk their dog, you’ve suddenly come down with a slight fever. I’m not one to encourage lying per se, but if it’s in the name of keeping your sanity intact while trying not to hurt others’ feelings, and it’s only a teensy little white lie, you get a pass this time.

But I may also be a bit too cynical. Perhaps your family understands you’re an introvert. If so, that’s wonderful. Just talk to them beforehand, express that these large-scale events are difficult for you and it’s not personal (reiterate you prefer one-on-one time or small groups, etc.), and ask if they wouldn’t mind if you snuck out after dessert. An honest conversation can go a long way.

I also like to have a mini-escape route. Is there a back room where you can go and get a brief respite? One Christmas, I hid out in a bedroom and listened to a guided meditation that lasted 5 minutes or so. (Okay, so I may have done this on three separate occasions. In the same night.) It truly was helpful. Not to keep harping on the dog walking, but do your relatives have a pet that wants to go outside? Offer your services, and use this time to catch your breath. Maybe take the trash out. Gravitate towards an area where everyone is watching sports and focusing on the game. It may be loud, but you probably won’t be required to comment. You know your family dynamic better than me, so strategize a few ways to take a quick break that will allow you to make it until the end of the night.

Second, you also need to start drafting the question-and-answer portion of the evening. These are relatives, so we’re able to guesstimate at least a few of the inquires that are coming up:

“How are you?!”

“How’s work?”

“How’s your love life?”

BLAH.

Gather a few tidbits to share ahead of time so you don’t reply with the simple, “Oh, I’m fine,” that leads to long, awkward silences. Two or three little snippets/anecdotes about yourself that happened in the last 3-4 months should do it. Include at least one work story. Feel free to repeat this monologue with any relative who asks and hasn’t been in earshot. As soon as your love life comes up, keep the answers light and simple. (It doesn’t sound as if you were attending with a partner, but if so, please forgive my assumption.) I have an uncle who always says, “So, how’s your boyfriend?” When I was single, this was beyond annoying. So I would just say, “Which one?!” Brought the house down. He would laugh, we would move on, and I had successfully deflected the question. A simple, “I’m seeing someone, but it’s really new so I don’t want to jinx it,” is highly effective too. This might also be a good time to jump in and ask the very same question right back.

By and large, people love to talk about themselves, so they’ll probably be willing to chat away. Ask them all the questions I listed above, and that’ll probably be sufficient. Here’s a few follow-ups that also work:

“How are the kids?”

“What are you doing for New Year’s?”

“Get any traveling done this year?”

When it comes to small talk, I find that my capacity for listening is greater than my capacity for speaking. I deal with it much better when I can nod my head and chime in with the next question. (And seriously, never underestimate how much people want to talk about their kids.)

But here’s an important reminder: you can’t discount the fact that it is possible to have meaningful conversations with one’s relatives. It won’t happen with all of them, but there’s always a shot that you and a distant cousin will wind up deep in conversation about a shared mutual interest while the party continues in the next room. As much as I am encouraging you to plan, I’d also encourage you not to totally dread going to this event because that would shut down the possibility of you being able to connect to someone on a deeper level. Typically, introverts are able to sniff out these opportunities quite well, so be on the lookout.

If all else fails, just thank your lucky stars that it’s only for a short period of time and you don’t have to spend the night.

Happy Holidays!

Best,

The Social Introvert

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  • Levi Saville

    Great advice Lindsay. A lot of which I use. I have a one year old and she is my excuse. The whole family knows that she is a tough to fall asleep so I take it upon myself to put her down, and after she is down, I simply chill out with her and when someone approaches me I tell them to “sshhhh” it works everytime. Dunno what I’m gonna do when she grows out of it.

  • Yes. It took a while for my spouse and family to “get” my need to opt out of most family parties and to know that gatherings of four are so much more fun.

  • Carol R

    My problem with large social gatherings isn’t small talk per se; I can engage in it quite easily. My problem is that the talking never stops. It’s just talking that, for me anyway, seems to serve no purpose. When I hold gatherings at my place, after the meal we play board games. That keeps the small talk to a minimum. Lindsay, could you bring along a couple of board games?

  • I am lucky in that most of my relatives enjoy talking about themselves (introverts are a true minority in my family!) so it’s usually fairly easy to deflect their questions and turn the conversation right back to them. This Christmas, I’m spending the full day with my husband’s family for the first time (we were married just this past fall)…so I’m definitely a bit more apprehensive about the holiday this year. He’s much less awkward than I am in social settings, however he has the hardest time exiting conversations. We’ve spent previous holidays sticking around until midnight or so, because we both find it difficult to simply say goodbye and leave the party without feeling rude. It is mentally and physically exhausting for me! I will definitely work on devising an “excuse” and make sure he is on board with me so that we’re not forcing conversation at Christmas all night…thanks for the great tip! Now wish me luck on deflecting the “baby” question…

  • zz4j9m

    I can relate to all of this completely. The option I wish I thought of more often is the option to opt out, but I continue to assume every plan made for me is mandatory. Latching on to some group activity like movie-watching or sports TV is a good time-user. I find that sitting alone makes me start watching the clock and just makes me more depressed. And there’s usually one person who would love to chat for a long time about something meaningful (in my case, classical music and movies). It’s still draining but without the need for pretending I’m interested, because I am. Now if there were a way to opt out of gift giving/receiving, which has become a completely empty experience for me. If I had gobs of money, I’d give expensive gifts just to earn goodwill, but I don’t. So the gift-card exchange goes ahead.

  • Quiet Revolution

    What’s your strategy for navigating large social gatherings?