Thanksgiving: Time for family to gather, eat food, watch football, go shopping. And maybe, if we’re lucky, tell a story or two.
Stories interest me the most. But growing up, I rarely had great Thanksgiving dinner conversation. My family all gathered around a long table, pausing for a moment before we ate all the fixings of a splendid meal. (Of course, for years, I was at the kids table, being the youngest in my family.) Sometimes my father would make an awkward toast. Then we’d dig in, the sound of forks and knives and chewing filling the room. We ate food but missed nourishing the soul with dialogue.
As time passed, the TV was left on, football filled the gaps, along with chitchat about health concerns and some silly gossip about the lonely uncle or a cousin’s marriage.
This year needs to be different. Across the nation, we need conversations more than ever. People are not talking with each other and are more often silent or yelling at each other. Many seem to be harboring an anger, fueled by news of scandal, disaster, shootings, politics. We live in a polarized world.
Yet for a single meal or holiday weekend, perhaps we can think about having at least one conversation with family. It may take us outside our comfort zones. We may trade words with folks we normally don’t talk with – individuals bonded simply by blood and marriage. It used to be you stayed away from politics and religion at the Thanksgiving dinner table. But that convention long ago shifted. Ask an innocent question about the weather? Then you must acknowledge the hurricanes and wildfires and climate change. Safe to talk about sports? Mention the national anthem and football.
Instead, let’s use this opportunity to engage. It begins with simply asking questions. Our daily discourse is filled with declarations; we have forgotten the power of listening.
A simple opening line, “Tell me about …” can initiate a rich exchange as we take interest in each other. It’s not about challenging someone nor seeking their opinion – I’m tired of the constant flow of attitude dominating our news cycles. Asking shows I care and leads to the content I want to know: Tell me something that’s meaningful to you. About family. About experiences. About the time …
Make it personal
I want it to be personal – not about something you read or repeating a media pundit’s rhetoric. Tell me about your life. Here’s a trick from oral historians: It’s not the first question that gets the great story, it’s the second and third follow-up inquiries that matter. Think of a typical question: “Mom, tell me about your childhood.” The rich exchange happens moments later when I ask: “What food did you eat? What was Thanksgiving like then?”
Food and everyday life can gently open the door to dialogue about who we are and the saga of family history. My mom tried her best to make the classic Thanksgiving dinner yet my dad always wanted white rice with his turkey. We got confused with the cranberries, they seemed like dessert so we ate them after the meal, a proper ending treat for a Japanese American peach-growing farm family.
I value the generational exchanges the most. Asking a question about the past seems to grant a license to share stories. I ask for specifics, not just what work someone did but the details – what were you paid, how was someone hired or fired, were you happy? I want to dig deep. Certainly some opinions and attitudes will be shared – and it’s fine to express yourself. I’m not interested in judgment; rather, I seek verbal communion.
Of course I’ll keep thinking about something someone may have said and it will turn over and over in my mind as I try to decipher the real meaning and begin to form my own impressions – sometimes that one uncle is a jerk and that in-law is a self-centered, narcissistic idiot, but at least now I know. The real question is how to accept the fact: “They’re still family.”
Stories, not sound bites. Great exchanges are like a performance, filled with intonation and body language. In my family, often what’s not said – the pauses – are as telling as the tale itself. Silence speaks volumes about emotions. The magic occurs when we listen.
I can pull in a younger generation by asking for help with technology. Younger folks may not find interest in tales about shopping before Black Friday or childhood Christmas gifts, but I can ask them to help make a brief audio recording or a short video of a conversation. Even a 20-second clip becomes priceless later on – and who knows, the millennial may be tricked into listening and voilà, an intergenerational exchange is captured.
This Thanksgiving holiday we have an opportunity to witness a powerful discourse on the essence of family. Real discussions are often not at the grand long table – that image is more of a myth. I have discovered the one-on-one or small group visits work the best. There is no better time for this. Just open the door to the world of family stories. Ask and listen and enjoy.