Although touted as the merriest and brightest of seasons, winter holidays, for me, can also deliver a dread and terror that’s more synonymous with Halloween. More specifically, it's the obligatory festive gatherings with family that often places me in the line of conversational fire. No matter how mentally prepared I arrive, I always seem to find myself fielding awkward questions that almost always pertain to my age and perpetual singleness.
Yes, even in this modern day and age in which it’s more understood than ever that one is the ultimate authority on their body and private life, many of my beloved relatives haven’t gotten the memo. Perhaps it’s the seemingly familiar setting and warm holiday atmosphere that make people feel like they can dive freely into classified subject matter like dating, marriage, and pregnancy. Whatever the reasoning, these conversations make me want to hibernate until the first sign of spring.
According to Dr. Linda Humphreys, a relationship and spirituality expert, I’m not alone in this family holiday dilemma. “Not being married most of my adult life — and most certainly, if I did not bring a date to gatherings (family, holiday, and so on) — those inevitable ‘Why aren’t you married?’ and ‘Don’t you want to have children?’ questions were certain to arise,” says Humphreys in an email to The Zoe Report. “Those type of questions accentuated, and drew attention to (within a group setting), my singular state of living, whether I was single by choice or happenstance. Accentuating me being single is one thing. Having others view being single as a pathology of sorts plus viewing and treating me as someone who warrants their pity is quite another.”
And it's not just the singular set who’s targeted by unwelcome questions. Those in relationships could easily be asked when and if they plan on getting married, those who are married are often asked about plans to start a family, and those with children are asked if they plan on having more (or are currently expecting again). Again, these inquiries seem harmless enough. However, because one never knows what’s happening behind the scenes of someone else’s life and relationships, there’s no way to know if you might be triggering some negative emotions or trauma with your probing. So, what may seem like an innocent question by an unknowing relative can actually be painful to the receiver. Also, simply put, details about someone's private life are truly no one's business. Period.
Now, to be clear, conversations around my dating life (or lack thereof) are neither devastating or triggering to me. I’m very comfortable in my current single state. However, I become easily annoyed by these questions because I feel like there are so many other things in my life that are just as if not more interesting than my romantic escapades — my career, travels, etc. However, my personal life always becomes a point of focus at family gatherings, especially around the holidays, as relatives assume this time of year is particularly difficult for me because I’m unattached. As a result, I like to avoid said discussions at all costs to avoid the pity party.
Since the season of family-filled soirées is imminent, I’m preparing myself with some key tips on how to navigate all the awkward questions … straight from the experts. If you’re in my same dread-filled boat, I suggest you grab a notepad and follow along.
Consider The Reasons Behind The Probing
Before reacting to an uncomfortable question, try taking a second to consider the source and their intentions. "Chances are, your family is asking you these questions because they care about you and want to see you happy," says Lauren Cook, MMFT, author, and therapist in an email to The Zoe Report. "Remember that their questions come from a place of love and support. Of course, if you sense that these questions come from another place — like for gossip, competition, or to belittle you—that’s another concern that may need to be addressed."
If you know you are entering an "awkward question zone" arming yourself with ammunition in the form of rehearsed responses could prove useful. "Having a pre-planned response can stop this from going any further than you’re ready," says Taylor Martin, life coach, traveler, and writer in an email to The Zoe Report. "Tone is key. You get what you give. If you want it to be a gentle exchange, have a gentle voice and proper word choice. You could respond with, 'That’s a really good question, but I don’t know,' 'I can’t say,' or 'You know, let me think about it,' and then follow your statement with, another, pre-planned conversation changer."
Avoid The Conversation
At the end of the day, if you don't want to talk about something, don't. "It's always okay to not answer someone's question," says life coach Angelina Borak in an email to The Zoe Report. "It's your business. Smile nicely and say 'I love you, thanks so much for caring about me.'"
Lean Into The Conversation
If you feel safe and secure with your audience, diving into a personal conversation or question can prove therapeutic. "You may actually have a helpful discussion if you actually answer the question honestly," says Cook. "We’re often so concerned about how to 'dodge' these conversations that we may be missing fruitful opportunities to better understand one another. While the conversation may feel a little uncomfortable or difficult, you may come away with a closer connection with your family member as you’ve communicated authentically."
Turn Back The Talk
If a conversation is going in an uncomfortable direction, opt for the trusty diversion trick. "If you feel uncomfortable answering questions, you can always turn it back and ask your family member about how their work is going and what they’ve been up to," says Cook. "Many people love to talk about themselves so if you can always redirect the conversation by inquiring about their lives."
If you feel tense about a question, flipping the tone of the discussion can help lighten the mood. Humphreys says, over the years, she started answering questions about her single status with outlandish and exaggerated responses that made her family members giggle. "Laughter — both mine and others — broke the anticipated awkward tension I was feeling and anticipating prior to the gathering," she recalls. "I also learned this about myself: It always benefits me to see the humor in things — especially within myself and within my life’s situations and circumstances."
When In Doubt, Do The Dishes
Whenever you find yourself getting tense, bored, irritated, or uncomfortable, get up out of your chair and do some dishes, says Gwen Uss, advanced grief recovery method specialist, life coach, and founder of Hopeful Heart Solutions. "Actually, it can be any acts of service such as clearing the table, setting the table, bringing food out, asking if anyone needs a refill," she explains. "The point is, get out of yourself and your head and offer to help. The hostess will thank you and you can move some energy around within yourself that can give you some relief."