How to Survive Family Parties
Created | Updated Jan 7, 2012
After bereavement, changing jobs and moving house, attending a family party might well be one of the most stressful things we subject ourselves to. It's bad enough that every aunt and uncle has to exclaim 'Ooh, haven't you grown!' when they see you (especially if you're past 25 and the only growth you're experiencing is around your waist), but some relatives seem unable to accept that you're not the six-year-old they once knew and persist in addressing you as if you were still in short trousers.
We asked you to help create the ultimate survival guide to family parties. And this is what you came up with:
Assess the Style of Family Party
Your family might be brilliant and you may all get on as famously as the Brady Bunch, all cheery smiles and back slapping. In which case take all the advantage you can of the good company and have a great time. For others it's just like going to the dentist; you don't really like it, but it has to be suffered at regular intervals. Why not just get it over with as quickly as possible? Still others have intolerant and downright unpleasant relatives to deal with, in which case you may have to develop an acute ability to grin and bear it. Overall, your level of enjoyment at family parties largely depends on your family, and more importantly your ability to find things in common with them and somehow see their point of view.
For many, family parties seems to run to the same script every time they get together. Here's one example:
First a quick run round the relations reminding everyone who you are and making the usual banal comments, (and listening to the same!) - then the men retire to the bar and start talking about football or similar while the women huddle together and talk about the men and complain that they never pay enough attention to them. Sometime later the first drunk collapses, or tries to start a fight, and has to be dragged away by his immediate family. This signals the breaking up of the get-together and time for everyone sober enough to say their good-byes and carry their partner home (vowing never to go through this again! - until the next time).
Here's another, slightly less familiar scenario:
I just wanted to share the horror of watching my boyfriend 'dirty dancing' with not only his sister, but his mother. It's the most flesh-crawling experience I've ever had. It wasn't just a bit of close dancing, but involved bodies touching in an intimate way. I managed to get through the evening by a) not watching b) having more to drink and c) flirting with other men.
Treat it like a party you want to go to.
Treat everyone with respect. General politeness is never amiss, particularly directed towards your elders and there should be no patronising of little 'uns - treat them like the intelligent beings they probably are.
Remember to bring a present of flowers, wine or whatever, for the host or organiser of the whole affair - throwing parties is quite a nerve-wracking experience.
Look for the best in everyone - find out about hobbies. Chances are your genes have given you similar interests, which will make conversation easier - particularly between generations.
On the premise that you only get out of a social situation what you're prepared to put in, treat your family like human beings, respect their strange little habits but rise above all the embarrassing questions by showing interest in them. They really want to talk about themselves and you might find out some juicy gossip about your Auntie Aggie.
If you're a total stranger, ie you're a newly acquired boyfriend/girlfriend and this is your first family party, cousins might be the safest bet to start on. They will often be on the same wavelength and will probably be of a similar age to yourself. (But don't ignore the others. People of your parents' generation will be genuinely interested in your own career, even if it's to secretly think to themselves how much better their own offspring have fared! - but don't assume this. They do care, really).
If you haven't seen people for a while, it is a good idea to phone someone who knows more about family matters than you do to check up that you don't commit any faux pas by asking about the health of someone who died three years ago, or make a rude comment about a family member who may have developed a disability or illness since you last saw them. Going prepared like that will also give you opening lines for conversations. And will give you more of a genuine interest in your kin which might spark or re-spark some good friendships.
Another form of preparation, if you are new to these gatherings, would be to leaf through some old photos and photo albums to jog your memory. That way, you will have more material for conversation, especially with doddery old aunts and great aunts who will amaze you with their detailed memories.
If some of your relatives are not living in this century, dress neutrally. Where your parents might not even notice your blue jeans, 'Drop Dead' sweatshirt, or short-shorts, the old aunties will talk about you for years. And while you're at it, make sure Junior isn't wearing that trendy, but obscene t-shirt, and has washed the green out of his hair, or dyed it a conservative black.
Buy rounds with a smile, and don't grimace if someone asks for a triple (just make sure you order something suitably expensive when it's their round!) If you are stuck with buying a round for the group - suggest a round of shorts, and get everyone to neck them straight down. It's a great bonding experience, and you never know who among your seemingly conservative relatives is a downright party animal.
And remember - one day you'll be that old great-aunt or uncle yourself.
The Fine Art of Mingling
How do you ensure you have time to speak to the people you really want to without offending those you wished hadn't turned up in the first place? Easy. There's two things you can do:
Don't get tied down to a particular group: don't sit down, flit from group to group saying hi to everyone, offer to buy drinks.
Stay on top of the conversation - don't let them drift into a long and weary monologue about piles or kidney problems. Keep the hi's and bye's short and sweet. Never say 'goodbye', but 'see you soon', or 'I have to go and say hi to great Auntie Doris, I'll be back in a bit'.
What can you do to help the party go smoothly for whoever's organising it? You don't necessarily have to be actively involved, but there are a couple of small things you can do:
Stick around for a few minutes at the end and help to clean up.
If the party dies and the host(ess) is at a loss, but you have an idea, either suggest it to the host(ess) or just do it.
Family parties and reunions aren't really my cup of tea. I've got so many cousins that I almost have to keep a list to remember them all. I've found that, in order to avoid those 'here's my only granddaughter, she's so special!' conversations, it's best to deal with dishes. By constantly scuttering around carrying something like a cake or refilling the punch bowl, you can really avoid being surrounded by those evil aunts and being questioned.
Volunteer to help with the washing up. Far too often at family gatherings, grandmothers and mothers get shunted off to the kitchen to do the domestic chores. Who knows better the 'dirt' on the family than the women? You might even catch the story-telling on video for posterity. You can tap into the living libraries in your family and it can be a great way to learn the 'real' family history...
Like the time the KKK burned a cross on my great-grandfather's farm until he chased them off with his dogs and shotgun... Somehow the Klan thought he was sympathetic to their cause, but a few loads of birdshot cleared up that misunderstanding.
Getting Out of Helping
Alternatively, you might rather not help...
My grandfather suggested breaking a plate very early on as a ploy to getting a reputation as someone who should stay out of the kitchen. Taking out the garbage and not returning for 15 minutes is another good tactic.
There's even a poem about it:
If you have to do the dishes,
Which is such an awful chore
If you have to do the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Then you may not have to do the dishes any more
What to Do with Different Generations
For appropriate topics of conversation read up on the latest music, movies, computers/computer games and breaking world news. If that doesn't cover the generations, nothing will.
Young kids like attention so give it to them by organising some party games, dancing with them and asking a lot of questions about things you think they might like: kids love to talk. This is especially easy if you're still a kid at heart. Children are often energetic when everyone else is quiet, so if someone is making a speech, give their parents a break and take them outside. Also kids tend to become disruptive when they're bored, so make them feel included. Introduce them to relatives and get them used to talking to them - it's a skill they will need for the rest of their life. Teach children how to have conversations so when they are older they won't have to 'endure', when families get together. If they get bored, find something to keep their interest - bring along a colouring book or a favourite toy (as long as it's not too noisy). Also include music (if it's that kind of do) that will get the kids on the dancefloor, too.
You might think that parties and the generation gap aren't necessarily the right ingredients for a great party. The older generation may not appreciate your taste in music or have even heard of the TV programmes that you like. (Are you familiar with the things they like? No? Well, there you go, not everyone likes everything you do.) Consider before you go that the fact is you haven't seen those aunts in many years and will probably not see them for many after, so go along and enjoy the party. A few well placed comments like 'Oh Aunt Maude how old are you now, 50?' when you know very well that she is at least 70, will earn you a few brownie points.
Take advantage of their wisdom and tap into their knowledge of family history:
Old people have many interesting stories to tell. It's too bad the younger generation doesn't appreciate it. I remember my Grandma telling me stories about how it was in Italy when she was a child: how she would ride a donkey to school, remembering the first car in 1910, stuff like that. I loved my Grandma. Talk to these old-timers. Some would love to talk to you, but you have to ask the right questions. Find out about your heritage or anything about what it was like way back when. War stories aren't all that bad, you know...
Indeed, there's a strong tie between the next generation-but-one, ie your grandparents or your grandchildren. They can prove to be surprising allies!
If I'd brought alcohol to a family party my grandmother would have drunk it well before the party got really started... and then she would have started singing rude songs. I found that hugely good fun as a teenager, mostly because my parents were mortified...
Bring a Friend
Bring a guest who is not a member of the family. This can be someone you're dating, someone you're pretending to date, or just a friend. Ideally, it's someone with whom you are comfortable enough with that the relationship won't be destroyed if the family embarrasses you in front of this person. In general, however, most family members tend to behave slightly better in front of 'outsiders'. This will make things for the party organiser easier, as you are bringing someone along to help out. It can also solve the 'Are you courting yet?' question. At the very least, it gives you someone to giggle and snigger with about how sloshed Aunt Judy is and how luridly dressed Cousin Jane is.
Find a Co-conspirator
I discovered my older cousins outside drinking at the cars and joined them - they were having more fun! The rest of them, except my Dad and Mum (black sheep) were teetotal. At my wedding reception one of the cousins was feeding the old aunties punch - liberally spiked. I figured a family rift was coming for sure!
If you can't bring a friend, team up with one of the other relatives, someone you can more or less trust - this will most often be someone of your own generation, generally a sibling or a cousin. Vow to run interference for each other. Ideally, you'll have some sort of secret signal in place in advance. When Grandma Josephine has reached the point of grating on your nerves beyond belief, use the rescue signal, and your partner in crime will swoop in and divert Grandma Jo's attention to a completely different topic, giving you the chance to escape. While this tactic may sometimes involve placing yourself in the line of fire for your partner, it's somewhat like tapping in and out in professional wrestling - you can handle the pain, but only in time-limited doses.
You and your partner can also 'volunteer' for things together - volunteer to be the ones to run out for drinks, volunteer to wash the dishes together. When one person volunteers on their own to do something, you never know who will insist on joining you. But when two people are volunteering for something, you can always insist, 'No, don't worry, we can handle it - I don't want you to miss out on any of the fun.' Doing the washing up may not sound like fun, but it's often a great way to escape to another room from the rest of the crowd - plus, the sound of the water can drown out your conversation to those who might try and eavesdrop. And, inevitably, some of the elder relatives will think you are sweet for taking on such a task without having been asked. If you do this while still a child or adolescent, it's not uncommon to be rewarded by having older relatives sneak cash into your pockets when your parents aren't looking.
Drunkenness and Crap Jokes
Descending into drunkenness and crap jokes is one tactic to be considered. Here's one to get you started: 'A termite walks into a bar, and says "Where's the bar tender?"'
For the drunkenness bit, take inspiration from the following story about Stravinsky, the great 20th Century composer. It wasn't a family party, but the White House held a big party in his honour, a very formal affair with President Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein , and a crowd of similar luminaries. Stravinsky, who once said to a visiting friend 'Let's listen to my Mass before we get drunk', apparently thought the party was a little too formal, as he proceeded to get drunk and had to be taken away early. It was his 80th birthday.
If a few members of the family don't drink and will look down their noses at you if you do, hide your bottle somewhere safe beforehand, so you can slip away for a nip when it gets to be too much.
However, do remember that getting drunk has the disadvantage that you can't drive home and escape in a hurry. At the very least, you might have to wait around for a cab, or a lift.
Dealing with Embarrassing, Insensitive and Dull Questions
Embarrassing questions can be part and parcel of your typical family gathering. Essentially they happen when fate and bloodlines throw together a number of people who don't really know each other very well. If you don't do your preparation beforehand, some really embarrassing, or at the very least, dull, questions ensue. One of the best things you can do is tell the truth. If one of your great uncles asks you if you're gay (a question inspired by your purple suede boots, for example), then the best answer for that is 'no', if it is the truth. How you tell the truth is important, too. Judge the character of whoever is asking the question and give your answer accordingly. Some great aunts or mad uncles might admire you for giving a flippant and sarcastic response, and you might even get a pint out of it. Others may be horribly offended and start crossing you out of their will there and then. In this case, the best advice to deal with these is to smile outwardly, while inwardly thinking of the following replies... unless, of course, you're up for a ruck, in which case, pour forth scorn all you like.
When Are You Going to Have Children?
And similar not-so-subtle hints about you having children is potentially very insensitive. You might have been trying for years, or might have recently experienced a miscarriage. If you're on the receiving end of it, choose between the following answers:
- 'I'm so busy fending off enquires about children I've got no time to make any.'
- 'When are you going to get married, then?' just begs the answer 'When everyone stops asking us that question.'
- 'When you're mature enough to look after them for us.'
- 'When my inheritance kicks in...'
Or consider this scenario:
When hubby and I made a one-week visit to his maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins in Brisbane (we live in Sydney) the year after we were married, the only thing anyone could ask us was 'So when are you having kids?' I found it even more amusing considering this side of the family had already produced nine children, 26 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
I found it quite rude towards the end when that's the only thing anyone thought they could talk about with me, as though my whole life was (of course) leading up to that point, and that how could I possibly feel fulfilled as a woman or wife if I wasn't trying?
I just responded by answering (tongue-in-cheek) 'Haven't you had enough yet?'
Haven't You Grown?
What did they expect? You're 23 and stopped growing at puberty.
- 'I haven't noticed, I've been doing too many other things.'
- 'Haven't you shrunk.'
- Or the smarmy approach. 'I'm wearing boots, but you're looking younger'.
Are You Single?
Or 'Why don't you have a boyfriend? At your age I was already married.' At which point say 'I have so many suitors at the moment, I'm afraid I can't quite yet choose!' which is bound to get them oohing and aahing - silly buggers.
Alternatively, look them straight in the eye and say 'I need to meet Mr/Mrs right before I bring them to meet my family, I respect you all too much'.
When you're a child, one of the great advantages is that you can go and hide and there are usually plenty of places to hole up in...
If there are long tablecloths over the edges of the table, down to the floor, then it's easy to hide under the tables. Of course, slightly older kids might find this uncomfortable or embarrassing.
Hiding behind a parent is a well-used tactic. Often a young child is small enough to be concealed comfortably behind a grown man or woman so that a person (perhaps a face pincher) facing you can only see the person you're hiding behind. Again, older children may find more difficulty in this.
Underneath a blanket is a tricky place to hide, often because it looks odd to see a blanket breathe. A blanket that is unnaturally wide and tall also looks to be concealing something. So don't roll up into a ball, steady your movement and breathing and perhaps lie among other blankets or on a couch.
Fake sleeping is a great tactic. Hiding in plain view is very easy, and effective but not exciting and generally very boring. To enhance your performance, really make yourself tired and yawn a lot when you have to speak.
Being invisible is a difficult hiding method to master. Some children assure themselves that if they can't see us, we can't see them. This isn't true, but it's hard to carry on a conversation with a kid with no eye contact who thinks he's invisible.
If all else fails, repel your adult relatives by eating too much sugar and drinking caffeinated beverages.
If things truly are unbearable at the gathering, there really is no rule that says you must stay every bit as long as everyone else. Stay long enough to attempt to socialise pleasantly with everyone there, conspicuously help with food preparation and/or clean-up, and the world truly won't end if you plead work demands after two hours and take your leave.
Or feign illness, which, of course, has many advantages.
You can leave early if the illness 'flares up again'.
The old aunties love you because you actually showed up even though you're ill.
You don't have to get too close to the old dearies because you don't want them to catch anything.
You don't have to go and play 'dress ups' with the little ones because, again, you don't want to give them anything.
If your confronted by an embarrassing question, a small coughing fit will mean you can excuse yourself for a breath of fresh air/glass of water.
If you have to attend, stay with someone else. That way you can escape and you're not trapped for longer than necessary at your relative's house.
Ways of Avoiding Family Parties Altogether
The best idea is to move a long way from your relatives. That way you can always find an excuse:
- The car's at the mechanics.
- I have to work.
- My spouse has to work.
- The child has some activity that can't be cancelled.
- The cat has to go to the vet.