Holiday soirées can be fun, but they can also be full of socially awkward conversationalists. David Eddie offers a guide to the personalities you're likely to meet at the punch bowl and how to gracefully move on from them
Sure, the holidays can be (intermittently) heartwarming and relaxing and fun, but let's face it: They can also be a minefield of goofs, gaffes, zingers, faux pas and flat-out faceplants.
Not to mention full of irritating encounters with annoying people. "Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote. He might have added, "especially during long, drawn-out, non-surgical encounters that go on for hours, thus causing people slowly to go around the bend a little, unfortunately revealing their true selves under the veneer – encounters typical of the so-called festive season."
Philosophers talk like that.
Don't get me wrong: Most people are great. But in case you find yourself cornered next to the canapés by one of the other kind, here's a short and admittedly highly idiosyncratic guide on how to not only neutralize them but ideally turn these situations into a win-win for everyone.
The conversational narcissist
CN for short. Are we seeing more of this type than ever? Does it have something to do with the advent of Facebook/smartphones/Twitter? I've identified at least two subsets of the species:
1. The ball dropper. Responds monosyllabically to everything you say about yourself until the conversation reverts back to him/her.
2. The back-to-me switcheroo specialist. You: "I'm thinking of getting a dog." CN: "Yeah, I had a dog when I was a kid. Unfortunately it was hit by a car and blah, blah, blah …"
Either way, the CN's defining characteristic is no interest in you or your stuff.
What to do? Some might say: "Confront them for their lack of interest in you." Not me. Tigers who like to admire their own stripes in the mirror rarely change them, and the holidays should be a holiday from all that sort of thing anyway.
Use it as an opportunity to learn. Ask questions. Bonus: the CN will love it – and will love you for it.
But put a timer on it. When it's enough already, moonwalk out of there and find someone who might actually care about what's going on with you.
The question pepperer
QP for short. This will feel a little unfair, because we were just talking about how narcissists never ask questions about you. And we're taught from childhood that the best conversational gambit is to take an interest and ask people questions.
But I have noticed a certain type lately – could be someone you don't even know all that well – who will square off on you in a social situation and start firing off questions like riot police shooting rubber bullets at a pack of unruly protesters.
Pow! "How's your middle child Rufus doing in middle school?" Pow! "How's your recovery from surgery going?" Pow! "What happened to your hand?"
But what if I don't want to talk about how my middle child is doing in middle school or what happened to my hand or how my recovery from surgery is going? What if deep down I feel like it isn't really this person's business, that they should wait for me to volunteer this type of information over the course of a normal back-and-forth conversation?
Of course, you could go the ultra-honest route and submit to the interrogation. My own preference: the All-Too-Obviously Obfuscatory, Almost Pointedly Moronic Non-Answer.
QP: "How's your recovery from surgery coming?" Me: "Not really sure." QP: "What do you mean? Didn't the doctor say anything when you went in to see him?" You: "Yeah, but I didn't really understand it."
Ideally even the most persistent question pepperer will eventually get the hint.
The slightly passive-aggressive zingmeister
SPAZ for short. I'm all for raillery and banter and "busting people's chops," especially among the type of people you might interact with over the holidays (i.e., close friends and family).
But some people like to use this as a shield to get their little digs in. The button from the rapier comes off and you can feel the point go in – if not on the spot, then later.
You (waking up in the middle of the night): "What did he/she mean by that?"
Actual example from my life, during a hello-type hug: "I can hardly get my arms around him."
Subset: "The questionsulter." Subtly embedded in the questionsulter's queries are little zingers: "How often do you wash your dog?" "Is that how you always handle raw chicken?" "Were those fixtures your first choice?"
Only way I know to deal with zingmeisters and questionsulters is to respond as if their salvos and queries were well-intentioned – to the point where they may even become a bit embarrassed about trying to hurt your feelings, especially at this time of year.
"You think I've put on weight?" "Am I handling this chicken wrong?" Maybe even with a little jokey twist: "You're supposed to wash your dog?"
Don't attempt to zing back. Not a good look at this time of year. And remember it's probably related to some issue in the zingmeister/questionsulter's own world. Plus, they wouldn't bother trying to burst your bubble if they weren't a little impressed with you in the first place.
The agent provocateur
I like a good debate/discussion at least as much as the next guy, even when it comes to the notoriously inflammatory topics of religion and politics.
But I don't enjoy it when they become heated, hostile and ad hominem – when people's cheeks become inflamed and they start saying things such as "the only reason you think that is because your brain doesn't function properly." (Another example of something said to me once.)
Often, alcohol is fuelling these flames. The only thing to do here is – well, a) yes, cool it on the booze, especially if it causes you to make intemperate statements, and b) don't take the bait.
There's no need for it to get ugly, because if it does I give you my Dave Eddie guaran-friggin'-tee that's the only thing anyone will remember and discuss after what otherwise might have been a lovely evening – and you don't want that.
And if you stay calm and ignore provocation – even when your pickled uncle is lobbing cannonballs across your bow – people will be impressed by your equanimity and coolheadedness under fire – and you do want that.
The bickering/dirty-laundry-airing couple
These are couples who zing each other in front of other people ("Ha ha, George is such an idiot") for the benefit/supposed amusement of the crowd. My theory is that they obviously know each other better than anyone else, so if they're a little nervous in a social situation, a spouse or girlfriend is an easy target for "humorous" banter.
It's shooting fish in a barrel, really. And on the (in my life, anyway) rare occasions when it escalates to open bickering and/or the airing of dirty laundry – well, in my humble opinion, that oversteps the unspoken rules of polite society, and someone has to say something.
I guess I even feel that if none of the guests is willing to jump in, it becomes the obligation of the host or hostess to say something such as: "I don't think you should talk to her like that."
Of course, that might make the couple and possibly everyone else within earshot uncomfortable, but look at it this way: They were already making everyone uncomfortable anyway. If they feel a little stung and it causes them to put the brakes on their bickering, everything has at least a chance of going back to being pleasant. And everyone will probably wind up thanking you for that.