How can I tolerate gatherings more?
December 1, 2008 9:51 AM   Subscribe

With the holidays coming I find my inability to tolerate some family members and listen to the inane chatter that fills the room. I am often visually unhappy about the situation. How can I tolerate such gatherings in a way that at least makes it appear I'm not so unhappy? (Bonus points if I'm ACTUALLY not so unhappy).

Let me start by saying I am not generally anti-social. I have been called "life of the party" a few times, though my personality does tend to be more introverted than extroverted. However, I've finally pinpointed something--I really only do well in social situations with people where there are things in common, things to talk about, and usually with people within 10 years of my own age.

If I am with friends or even people I don't know who are generally in my age range I am able to be social, have congenial conversation, and enjoy myself in the process. I find myself able to discuss literature, history, current events, food, movies, music, pop culture, video games, human relations, etc. all fairly easily and I have true interest in those discussions so I am engaged and enjoy myself in those situations.

But if you remove those topics I find myself unable to engage in conversation. I know nothing of sports and can only take so much of hearing about people's kids or the trivialities of their jobs.

In business gatherings I can usually chime in when conversations reach topics I know of, or am interested in, be silent during sports or children conversations, and usually enough work is discussed to keep things moving along amicably.

I am not so lucky when dealing with my in-laws and my elderly relatives.

They are hard core conservatives in life and politics, and my wife and I are very liberal people, so discussing politics, social situations, etc. is upsetting to all involved (dinners were tense during the Obama campaign let me tell you). None of our family really follows the news, nor do they enjoy any of the same leisures in life that we enjoy (reading, movies, television, video games).

I am not judging them, but we are just all very different people, and truthfully not very interested in each other's daily mundane lives. Rarely does anything occur (a birth, a death, a job change) that prompts true conversation leaving us with just idle chit chat. While we all travel for various purposes, such discussion of the trips usually are less than 10 minutes long. As we all live in the same city we see each other at least twice or more a month, meaning there isn't time to build up a reserve of topics for the next gathering and there isn't much to talk about.

Yet talk they do. I hear uninteresting stories about people I've never met and will likely never meet, such as my Mother-In-Law's coworker situations or my Godmother's grandniece. If the stories were truly interesting then I might be engaged, but it's usually along the lines of "so-and-so is now entering the 5th grade. She's really smart for her age. The braces come off soon.", and since I've never met these people I don't care. And I'm not good at faking it.

Likewise, they do not care to hear much about our lives. While we can discuss work, we know it is not interesting to other people if we tell the minutia of our day to day routines (yet they are not so considerate to not bore us with the minutia of their routines). More, our biggest hobbies are not shared, and due to ours being generational specific (toy collecting, video games) they are often met with condescension by this AARP enrolled crowd. After a few subtle jabs at our maturity, still playing video games in our 30s, we have ceased bringing up anything about our leisure activities, glossing over the aspects of our life that they frown upon.

This leaves us with nothing to discuss.

After about 45 minutes of being around these people, feeling on stage, struggling to find anything to talk about, my demeanor starts to worsen. During the first of two Thanksgiving gatherings this past weekend, on the first we were the last to arrive and, 2.5 hours later, the first to leave. On the second, which we hosted, after 3.5 hours I just had to excuse myself and go lay down.

Liquor doesn't help, it actually makes me LESS tolerant.

What can I do to be more amicable and a better host in these situations? Or more importantly, is there any way I can actually enjoy these get-togethers with people where I have nothing in common to discuss?
posted by arniec to Human Relations (28 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In similar situations, I try to make a game out of the ridiculously boring conversation somehow. If I'm feeling patient, I do my darndest to find something, anything, about the other person that could be interesting to me. With old folks, asking about their favorite memory from childhood can sometimes be interesting. Actually, asking anything about a period in their life when they might have had something in common with you is good. You've never been an oldster, but they were in their 30s once. This is common ground.

It can also be fun to ask offbeat but non-offensive questions - like maybe do a survey of least favorite childhood food or most embarrassing moment.

Since it sounds like you've got a significant other in the picture, you can add the fun of competition. Maybe ahead of time you each pick a subject, and whoever's subject comes up first at the dinner table wins. (Like, you get "dentures" and she gets "hearing aids," and then when Grandma starts complaining that she can't eat the corn on the cob, you get to smirk in secret triumph at your SO.) You could even each make a list, and see how many points you get.

Also, you can decide ahead of time to regale each other with horror stories of how boring the conversation was. Then, the worse the discourse gets, the happier you are because it gives you another "Can you BELIEVE he said...?!?!?!" topic.
posted by vytae at 10:04 AM on December 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

My family spends lots of time reminiscing. Talk about the past. Get older family members to tell you stories of their youth. Or about their parents. As a child, I was fortunate enough to have a 106 year old great aunt who told us about her first hand experience of the American Civil War. My grandfather tells about his days working on the railroad. There are famous stories about my grandmother and her siblings get caught in a little wooden boat in the middle of a lake with the engine on fire. I've heard it a million times, but it's always funny. Learn more about your family. Let the older folks feel good. Listen and ask questions.
posted by kimdog at 10:09 AM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Seconding the "let's make this a game" approach. I knew a guy who, just to amuse himself at company meetings, would select a semi-outrageous phrase and aim to work it into the meeting discussion in the most casual way.

This was told to me by another co-worker. The phrase that day was "your gay uncle". It was worked in smoothly; no-one but the co-worker even noticed.
posted by xena at 10:16 AM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Man if they are that lame why spend the day with them at all? Do something else.

But if you must...

Spend the time finding something of value out of the boring conversation. Learn something you didn't. Really? Insurance X has a $100 deductible on Procedure Z? What about Procedure A?

Enjoy the tattoo of the horses hooves on the well worn cobblestone path of banal conversation. Seriously, there is a weird music to it all.

Look your torturer right in the eye in a way that looks behind the veil and says....PEAKABOO, I SEE YOU! When you see the look of slight startlement in their eye give 'em a wink.

Imagine what that old bastard looked like when he was younger. No I mean really imagine it. How did that nose get so bulbous! How does gravity wreak such havok with cheek jowls?! What's going to happen to my youthful visage? Fascinating.

When in doubt, whip it out! Bring something interesting to talk about. Show and tell. I bet if you brought a taxidermied Duck Billed Platypus you would get some interesting convo.
posted by ian1977 at 10:18 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You've got to pace yourself. Take frequent breaks to recharge. The sudden dand fortuitious evelopment of a smoking habit might be useful in this respect, facilitating a quick escape for 15 minutes every hour.

Also, you have to see them twice a month? That seems excessive to me. Maybe you should cut down to once a month, and let your wife go alone every once and a while.

Maybe take the initiative to make your social events more focused on doing something -- gardening, a walk, cooking together, a non-boring board game, watching a documentary?
That way you can fulfill the family time requirement, but in a way that doesn't force you guys to be each others' entertainment.
posted by footnote at 10:20 AM on December 1, 2008

This is the reason that board games were invented! Triominoes and Jenga exist only to keep people from having to talk to each other. Heck, even the most curmudgeonly oldster will play a hand of cards before dinner. Get out the games - load the guests up with alcohol - and get up often to freshen their drinks....voila - evening is over!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:22 AM on December 1, 2008

I agree. The secret is to find something in common that you're both interested in. This can take a lot of digging, but it often turns out to be the most surprising topic - I found my crotchety old grandmother whose only topics of conversation are her family and her vacations, is also interested in famous grisly crimes, for example. So now we discuss those.

Everyone - even the pendatic bores and conservative squares - with have interesting things in common with you. They're human beings after all. You've just got to find out it is.

Good luck and I feel for you.
posted by dydecker at 10:24 AM on December 1, 2008

Turn on the television. Bring a game. Play cards. Go cook dinner. Some people who love you just want to be with you. They might not have the same exacting standards of interestingness and conversational engagement as you do. Also, this post makes you sound like a brat.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:26 AM on December 1, 2008 [6 favorites]

The thing is, you're not on stage. These people are your family members. Could your perceptions be off? Do they really care that you play video games? Do they think less of you because of it? I seriously doubt it. I think it's best to smile and be gracious and try to engage as much as you can. You won't have any regrets when it's over. If they make a dig about your video games you can say something upbeat about the games and why you like them. If they are insulting you, make believe they're not. Play naive. Be as jovial as possible.

I used to get irritated by "inane conversations" and so called stupid people. It's usually when I'm on a self-righteous streak and think other people's opinions are uninformed or stupid. Or, they're too loud or obnoxious, or repeat themselves, or whatever. I find myself concentrating on the offending behavior, which is really unfair and strange and only makes me more unhappy while the loud Gum Smacker that's pro death penalty goes on and on oblivious and happy. The constantly irritated attitude puts a huge damper on the situation. Nobody was more miserable than me. Let that attitude go. So what if you have different politics. Don't discuss them. A lot of people are going to talk about their children because they are the most important people in their lives and they can't help themselves. They want to share the joy, even if it's pure misery for you. So, I'd say to try to relax and enjoy the day for what it is. Don't take yourself so seriously. If you're truly unhappy you should think about spending the holidays without them.

I love the idea of a game if things get too boring. Get an easel and play Pictionary. Or charades. Or take a family walk. Or position yourself next to someone you like. Excuse yourself to help with dishes or cut the pie if the conversation is making you fall asleep.

And I don't know if I'd ever excuse myself to go lay down if I were the host if I weren't ill. That comes off as pouting and rude. A silent temper tantrum. It could have been fine but that's my initial thought.
posted by Fairchild at 10:29 AM on December 1, 2008

Best answer: - If you're into board or card games, bring some along and see if you can get a game together. Don't bring anything that involves a twenty-minute explanation of the rules or a thousand little chits to punch out and organize, obviously. You may have more of a Scrabble crowd than a Settlers of Catan crowd, so bear that in mind when choosing what to bring.

- Bring the ingredients for a dish you'd like to contribute and ask for a little counter space to put it together. This can be fruit salad, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, whatever. This will give you something proactive to do with yourself if you're not feeling particularly chatty, or you might find that someone will volunteer to help you and that might lead to a pleasant one on one conversation. Check with your hostess before the event to see if what you plan to make isn't something he or she has already planned, naturally.

- Bring a frisbee or a ball and throw it around outside with your SO. If there are little kids, play with them; maybe organize a game of Red Rover, tag or hide and go seek. Kids are delightfully apolitical, and their parents will thank you for occupying them.

- Bring a camera and designate yourself as the event photographer. Compose shots, let others take pictures of you, etc. Gives you something to focus on other than conversation.

- Designate yourself as the dishwasher/table-setter/bartender/silver-polisher/general tidy-upper for the afternoon. Again, gives you something to do and your host will thank you for it.

- Listen more than you speak. You may find that becoming a better listener will genuinely pique your curiosity about what others are talking about. I find that a few simple prompts like "What was that like for you?" or "I know so little about that subject, tell me a little more about that." work wonders in a social setting.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:34 AM on December 1, 2008 [6 favorites]

I hated Christmas for the first 35 years of my life for the same reasons you mention.

Now, I volunteer at a soup kitchen on that day. I don't have to put up with morons and the morons can't complain as it makes them appear to be complaining that I'm helping the less fortunate.

So, I'm suggesting you skip the event and volunteer your time someplace where people can't complain about you skipping the event. Between you and I, one year I felt like doing neither so I didn't volunteer but told my relatives I did. They were none the wiser and I enjoyed the day at home, in peace, with my dog. To date, it's the best Christmas I've had in 40 years.
posted by Manhasset at 10:39 AM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Man if they are that lame why spend the day with them at all? Do something else.

My fiance's sister has basically just stopped going to family events because she finds them tedious and lame. Nobody seems to give her a hard time about it, and I've been urging my fiance to follow suit. Really, the best way to get through these situations is to simply not go to them. The fact is, the people there probably could care less if you and your significant other are there or not (as evidenced by them talking only about themselves and never asking you anything about your life, and their dismissal of your lifestyle and politics), and will simply talk somebody else's ear off. At the least, try to shorten every visit. Plan some activity for the evening, then show up late, then grimace and apologize as you explain how you have to leave in an hour. Send everybody a nice card on birthdays/Christmas and all will be forgiven. They'll just say, "Oh that arniec, he (she?) is just such a busy little bee, you know, always got something cooking, couldn't even be here the whole time, they're so busy!" Life is too short to spend it with people who drive you crazy.
posted by billysumday at 10:48 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Does anyone in the gathering have small children? Or any children?

Maybe opting out of the grownup conversation entirely and appointing yourself kids' entertainer could work -- either round the kids up for a board game, or teach them how to fold airplanes, or something that would keep the kids busy. They'll all see you as being this wonderfully selfless person who loves watching the kids for them, and only you will know that "no, it's just that debating whether it's Miss Scarlet in the Conservatory with a Candlestick is way more interesting."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:51 AM on December 1, 2008

I have to nth trying to organize a game. In the various family gatherings I go to, there are differing levels of comfort, but they are all helped immensely by games. There is usually at least a few people who don't play, but they can still sit and watch, act as an impartial judge, etc. Teams can be formed so that even those who don't want to fully participate can still be in on some of the fun.

Since they have subtly put-down your "juvenile" hobbies, I suggest a game like Balderdash (or Beyond Balderdash, Wise or Otherwise, etc). It is serious enough to appeal to the non-gamers, yet can devolve into a fit of teary-eyed laughter.

Another reliable way out of the boring conversation is to engage the pets and/or kids. You still look social, but you have a more interesting being to interact with. Plus then you have something to talk about with the parent when you are sitting next to them at dinner.
posted by soelo at 10:51 AM on December 1, 2008

Response by poster: Learn more about your family. Let the older folks feel good. Listen and ask questions. This isn't bad for the in-laws...for the really older folks, I've known them 34 years and really feel like I've heard it all so often...

Also, you have to see them twice a month? That seems excessive to me. Maybe you should cut down to once a month, and let your wife go alone every once and a while.
In the case of the 90-somethings, we are all the social life they have other than my in-laws. They live alone, though they are able bodied. We are in the role of caretaker, calling regularly to check on them, as well as their social life... Believe me, it is truly a lot better when we can each build up some stories for the gathering.

Maybe take the initiative to make your social events more focused on doing something -- gardening, a walk, cooking together, a non-boring board game, watching a documentary?
Good idea. I have done this Thanksgivings in the past, picked a family-appropriate movie, and used it as a distraction while I cook, set the table, etc. The bored games illicit snide responses (they're the old people who feel that age means they don't need to be polite anymore), and their age and health make it so anything that requires movement is impossible.

Also, this post makes you sound like a brat. Perhaps, but I posted this truly out of the purist of motives, to appear more social for THEIR sake, not my own. I feel a bratty thing would be to just get out of going (which I did admittedly do for a long period). But I'm trying here...doing the best I can.

The thing is, you're not on stage. These people are your family members. Could your perceptions be off? I may have misstated that as, having been on stages in the past, it's not that bad... It's a combination of being on stage at TIMES, and other times feeling trapped in the world's most boring movie, unable to escape.

And I don't know if I'd ever excuse myself to go lay down if I were the host if I weren't ill. That comes off as pouting and rude. A silent temper tantrum. It could have been fine but that's my initial thought. In my own defense, it was short lived. I was gone the duration it took for a pot of coffee to brew, and I think they thought I was in the restroom. It was about the length of a cigarette break (see good advice regarding me taking up smoking above...which I'd totally do if my company didn't charge smokers an extra $2k/year for health insurance). I didn't announce my intentions, just excused myself for a few minutes as I just relaxed...I had no idea they'd be at my house for 5 hours that day. The meal ended, the socialization continued, and continued, and continued.

And thank you to all who have similar situations, good to know I'm not just socially stunted (or if I am, I'm in good company LOL)
posted by arniec at 10:56 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, this post makes you sound like a brat.

Wow, so this comment stands and my comment gets deleted? Interesting.

I just want to reiterate to the poster: I've been in your situation before and I know how you feel. You do not sound like a brat. These situations can be lonely, depressing, and tiring. Frustrating. Good on ya for trying to find ways to cope with and improve these situations.
posted by billysumday at 10:58 AM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Are you sure anybody actually sees your discomfort? (Apart from your wife.) It sounds like everybody else is so wrapped up in their small talk that they probably don't notice your reactions.

I also despise family gatherings and suck at small talk, but I've found that nobody really cares if I don't participate. They make one or two half-hearted comments at me, then ignore me in favor of more congenial companions. I don't sulk or anything, I just sit quietly until I can make my escape. The polite little smile and the conversation-deflector-shields ("No, not really - what about you?") are enough to make people go away without feeling dissed, and I believe most people don't even notice when I leave.

It's comical how easy it is to get people to ignore you. Just be polite and bland as milk, never tell juicy stories, don't share any gossip, be neither encouraging nor discouraging in conversation, and forget you ever had a sense of humor or even a personality. Be the most boringly polite cipher you can manage, and you'll soon become invisible for the rest of the day. Then you can leave. (Get your wife on board with this strategy beforehand, though.)

Other strategies: if the gathering is big enough it's often possible to slip outside for a walk. Or you can offer to do something useful, like help in the kitchen, run a last-minute errand, walk the dog, etc. This generally exempts you from chit-chat, because you're busy, y'know.
posted by Quietgal at 11:01 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sit next to, and hang out with, another family member who shares your sense of humor, and then find ways to be entertained by the nonsense together, verbally and non.
posted by davejay at 11:34 AM on December 1, 2008

You can't buy milk in a hardware store. Translation: Don't expect something that you want (stimulating conversation, etc..) from someone that can't provide it (the in-laws in this case).

If you're not the host, one of the best ways to deal with this that I (and Mrs. WebHund) have come up with is to drive two separate cars. That way you leave after a reasonable period of time under some semi-plausible excuse and spouse is stuck with his/her own family obligations. Then I don't have to sit around and listen to all the talk about how "scary" it is that Obama will be president. There's no percentage whatsoever in trying to rebut that type of thinking.

If you're the host, it's a little more difficult, but still doable. After you've got them settled in, distract yourself with getting them served dinner, keeping busy with cooking, etc... Once that distraction is not longer available to you, then figure out how to leave for a period of time: Oops, forgot to get Fido's dogfood, the milk, return library book, go to post-office, etc...

Great question and the answers/suggestions have been great, too. The OP scenario is almost identical to my situation and I thought someone had posted it under my username. Can't wait to show this to Mrs. WebHund.
posted by webhund at 11:34 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Bring the video games. Really. we got my 86 year old grandma (granted, she still swims three days a week) and 84 year old Grandpa (who's got alzheimer's bad enough that he doesn't always recognize his own house) a Wii as an early xmas present, and they had a blast.
posted by notsnot at 12:08 PM on December 1, 2008

I try to have a time limit on this stuff or a previously scheduled obligation. If it's enjoyable it doubles as a reward. I can only fake smile for so long, and I feel terribly guilty when people can tell how tired I am of someone's company.
"I'm sorry we'll have to cut this short, we have a reservation at... / an appointment at / traffic / etc."
posted by kristymcj at 12:18 PM on December 1, 2008

arniec: I don't know why the mods don't delete comments that are so hostile to you for simply asking a question. It's very random how they decide which comments stay and which comments go.

Maybe they don't know about some comments because they haven't been flagged?'s my guess, at least.

Nthing video games or a movie, especially if it's a home movie. My father once got my entire extended family very, very involved in watching a videologue he'd made of himself and the neighbors making pierogis, to the point that Grandma actually started doing a bit of MST3K commentary.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:19 PM on December 1, 2008

Mod note: a few comments removed - I am sorry you don't like the holidays, don't take it out on the holiday questions, it's jerky. thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:29 PM on December 1, 2008

Has anyone in your family written down the boring stories? I ask because a family member of mine passed out a few sheets of paper with the stories she remembered on it at a family reunion and asked that anyone who remembered anything else to email her. We were all appalled at how little there was. This was from a family of 7 who told the same stories over and over and we didn't think we could ever forget but we did.
Try writing some out and then pass them out at the next function and see what happens.
I'm not talking about a lot of writing, ours are just paragraphs. Like the time Aunt Bea was in beauty school and talked Uncle Joe into letting her paint his toenails red. He went out hunting later that week, shot himself in the foot, and made someone go track Bea down to "get that shit off his feet" before he'd go to the doctor.
If you can get them to focus and try to top one another it might get a whole lot more interesting and at some point you and/or your children will be be glad it all got written down. It will also get you all working towards a common goal. Do it while the old guard is still around, trust me, just do it.
posted by BoscosMom at 12:30 PM on December 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

Ask new questions. When Aunt Bee starts in on the looped story about Uncle Hank, grab the conversation by the horns and ask what their house was like, or what great grampa did for a hobby. Ask if there were any juicy family secrets. Aunt Bee is probably bored by herself, but you might be able to jolt her out of her rut.

Take a video camera, and ask the older family members to tell a story to the younger ones. Pretend you're a documentary filmmaker, and try to pry a good story out of the old farts.

Board & card games are excellent; it turns out my Mom was a poker shark. That was a fun Christmas.

Arrive late, go for a walk at some point, leave early.

In my family, the flow of liquor was critical. A little bit, and they got onto the same old stories, a bit more, and they sometimes got fun, too much, and it got really ugly.

Sometimes, getting some good music going will jostle people into activity as well as brightening the mood.
posted by theora55 at 3:15 PM on December 1, 2008

People make inane chatter because they can't think of anything they have in common with you to talk about, either. It's not that they expect you to be enthralled by the story of their five-year-old's braces, it's that talking about that is preferable to staring at you in stony silence.

In other words, they find you just as boring as you find them, but at least they're making an effort. It sounds like you're not.

If you're bored by the conversation, you need to either say something interesting, or give them an opening to tell you something interesting. Ask some of those elderly relatives about their childhoods, about what it was like living through the great depression or the world wars or the Nixon administration. That wrinkly old lady you're talking to has eighty years worth of stories.
posted by ook at 3:36 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Failing that, watch football like everyone else. It doesn't matter if you don't like football; neither do half of the guys sitting around the TV. It passes the time.
posted by ook at 3:39 PM on December 1, 2008

Response by poster: Ook, you not only gave me a GREAT answer but also a bit of insight into male culture that I never knew...and I am one.

Thank you!
posted by arniec at 5:51 PM on December 1, 2008

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