Thanksgiving Conversation Survival Guide

Updated on December 3, 2017
Carolyn M Fields profile image

Lifelong learner, musician, author, world traveler, truth enthusiast, and all around bon vivant.



I learned at an early age that there were two taboo topics when talking with strangers, co-workers, and/or long lost family members: religion and politics. In today’s divisive political scene, this could not be truer, or more important. I would add that there are several other related topics that might also get you into a shouting match, e.g., professional football and the national anthem, tax cuts, health care, immigration, and the “wall,” to name just a few.

So, what are the alternatives? How do you have a nice, civil dinner conversation? Here are some techniques to help you survive the holidays.

Agree to Disagree

It may sound simplistic, but one of the very first things you need to do when friends and family gather is to set some ground rules. Before anyone has finished their first cocktail, you need to declare your home (or other gathering location) an official satellite nation of Switzerland. If your geopolitical knowledge is a bit fuzzy, let me remind you why that’s significant. Switzerland is the oldest neutral country in the world. Since the Treaty of Paris in 1815, it has not fought in a single foreign war.

As a neutral location, your guests are prohibited from attacking anyone, about anything. They may disagree all they like, but personal attacks are strictly prohibited. You may have to enforce this rule once or twice, typically by calling out the offender for violating the terms of the treaty. Usually people will want to voluntarily participate in this rule. Trust me; pretty much everybody is sick and tired of all the strife in today’s news cycle.

Have Alternative Topics Ready

So you’ve decided not to “talk politics.” Now what? Usually people will take a few minutes to discuss holiday traffic (e.g., golly the airports are packed) and the weather (e.g., it sure got cold early this year). But that’s only going to fill up five minutes. You need to have more ideas in mind before that first awkward silence.

  • Fond Memories: This one can fill up hours if you have the right people at your table. Share favorite vacation spots, happy graduations, and the like. The only trick here is to keep it from becoming a competition. Try to keep it light and friendly. Encourage people to remember the “good old times.”
  • Story Game: This one is fun because it doesn’t involve reality. You will need at least three or more people involved to pull this one off, but it’s worth the effort. It’s a round robin technique, where you create a story “on the fly.” Begin with, “Once upon a time,” or “It was a dark a stormy night.” Then add one outrageous idea to get the ball rolling. For example, “Once upon a time, there was a young girl who found a magical talking rabbit in the forest. The first thing the rabbit said was . . .” Then turn to the next person to continue the narrative. Try for a happy ending, and specify a number of minimum “rounds” to complete. It’s a game for the whole family. And it can be played multiple times.
  • Craziest Thing You’ve Ever Done: You can make this topic rated “G” for the family, or rated “R” if it’s just the adults. It can range from a crazy diet (e.g., I ate only grapefruit and bacon for a week) to travel (e.g., I traveled across Europe with nothing but my backpack and a rail pass), and beyond.

More Approved Topics

Here are some more generally approved topics:

  • Movies – newest, fondest, worst, etc.
  • Books – recent, classic, required reading, etc.
  • Wellness Trends – fitness topics, alternative treatments, etc.
  • Upcoming Recreation – travel, staycations, concerts, etc.

More Taboo Topics

More topics to avoid include:

  • Gossip about people who are NOT there
  • Office or work stories (there are exceptions to this one, but office politics are generally to be avoided)
  • Serious Illnesses in the family (these should be private conversations)
  • Bad grades, incomplete homework, poor school performance

Gratitude and Family

The most important tip I can provide is to remember that Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time to remember our blessings, and share time with family and friends. If you are the host, it is important to lead your gathering in the right direction. Hopefully some of these suggestions will help. If you have more ideas, please share them in the comments below.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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  • Carolyn M Fields profile image

    Carolyn Fields 3 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    Thanks for reading, Larry!

  • Larry Rankin profile image

    Larry Rankin 3 months ago from Oklahoma

    Great tips!

  • Carolyn M Fields profile image

    Carolyn Fields 3 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    Finn Liam, I have a slightly different world view. I think that the topics we keep coming back to, are the ones where we have unresolved emotions, not necessarily the topics we wish to avoid. Some conversation is healthy to get these feelings out, especially with a trusted audience. When it becomes a shouting match, then it is no longer healthy. This is your back-up plan for that event. Enjoy your day!

  • wpcooper profile image

    Finn Liam Cooper 3 months ago from Los Angeles

    yes some nice tips and you manage to retain a good moral sense (avoiding gossip about people who are NOT there e.g.).

    but talk will always eventually center in on the topics people want to avoid.

    Happy day

  • Carolyn M Fields profile image

    Carolyn Fields 3 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    Denise, thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • denise.w.anderson profile image

    Denise W Anderson 3 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

    Thanks for the tips! We will take this to heart and hopefully, have a much more happy Thanksgiving!

  • Carolyn M Fields profile image

    Carolyn Fields 3 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    Thank you, Stella. I'm glad I could help.

  • stelaligizaki profile image

    Stella Aligizaki 3 months ago from Greece

    Nice article. We do not have Thanksgiving dinner in Greece but I will follow your tips on other holiday occasions. Thank you.

  • Carolyn M Fields profile image

    Carolyn Fields 3 months ago from South Dakota, USA

    Thanks for reading, breakfastpop!

  • breakfastpop profile image

    breakfastpop 3 months ago

    I will hope for the best, but steel myself for the worst!!!!!