16 December 2022

How to handle offensive questions from family members this Christmas

16 December 2022

Christmas is for spending time with family, whatever that looks like for you, but what if you’re feeling slightly apprehensive about seeing people you just know will ask intrusive questions?

Queries like, ‘Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend yet?’, ‘Are you going to have kids?’, ‘Why aren’t you two married?’ from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles or wider family members, are at best, irritating and insulting, and at worse, triggering and upsetting.

So, how do you protect your mental health and your privacy, whilst also keeping the peace at Christmas?

Here are some suggestions…

Answer the question with a question

“Your best bet is to answer the question by saying, ‘Do I not seem happy?’ Because if you answer a question with a question, they have to think about that answer,” says world-renowned therapist and author Marisa Peer (marisapeer.com). You could say, “‘Oh, do I not seem happy? Am I giving you the wrong impression? I’m very happy’.

“That puts the onus on the asker to realise that they’re being actually rather invasive. It’s a very skillful way of not offending an elderly relative who doesn’t know better, but also not feeling that you have to say, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve been trying for a baby for years. It’s so devastating’ if you don’t want to give that private part of your life.”

Alternatively, turn it around on them. If they ask, ‘When are you going to settle down?’ Ask, ‘What was that like for you?’, suggests Peer. People love talking about their own life stories.

Focus on gratitude and positivity

“You get married and someone asks, ‘Are you having a baby? Then, ‘When are you having another one?’ It’s almost like not allowing you to enjoy where you are,” says Peer. So, lean into positivity instead.

You could reply, ‘I’m enjoying just being married and having this job, or just having one little toddler’, she suggests. Or, ‘I’m not in a hurry for any of that, I’m really loving where I am – I just want to enjoy this moment’.

Politely set boundaries

If the question is very triggering for you, you might want to ensure the discussion is shut down immediately.

“You can absolutely say, ‘That’s not something I feel like discussing today, or right now’,” says Peer. “Particularly at Christmas, you want to get on with everybody, you probably don’t want to say something that makes someone else feel like they’ve offended you [even if they have].” Really think about what you want the outcome of the conversation to be, she says.

“It’s better to brush it off if you possibly can, deflect it,” Peer says, “so you don’t upset the day.”

Reply with humour

One way to keep the peace at Christmas and not get into a lengthy discussion about why said question is totally inappropriate and offensive, is to react with lightheartedness.

“If someone says to me, ‘Why are you not married?’ I always say, ‘I don’t know, I’m just lucky I guess!” says Peer. “That always shuts everybody up.”

Be open if you want to

Depending on how close you are to the family member and how comfortable you feel with them, sharing what’s going on if you are finding things tough, might feel right to you. After all, they asked.

For example, “You might want to say, ‘Yes, we’d love children – we really hope they come along in the future’,” says Peer, if that’s the case. But never feel pressured to share anything you don’t want to.

Understand their lived experience

Amongst some of the older generations, “there’s that belief that unless you tick the box of married with two kids and your own home, your life isn’t working – but it is working, just at a level that’s different to their lives,” notes Peer.

“We have to be mindful that’s what our grandparents strived for, to get married, to have a home of your own, [it meant] you’d really made it, you’d reached the fairy story. They lived through that, [a time when] where women were homemakers.

“We’ve stopped doing that. We live in a world where we’ve stopped ticking boxes, and it’s a good thing, but we have to give the older generation grace for not having caught up.”

You could use it as an opportunity to share what your hopes and dreams actually are, or let them know about an interest or hobby that makes you happy. “You could say, ‘I want to save the next three years, focusing on my career, I’m really dedicating myself to getting promoted, I want to travel’… but never feel you have to justify [your life],” says Peer.

Focus on what they mean, not what they say

“Most people who ask these things are actually quite well-meaning. What they’re doing is trying to reassure themselves that you are happy”, Peer says.

“The belief is, ‘Oh, I’ve done a good job, all my kids are married, so I’ve been a good parent. It’s a way of reassuring themselves they’ve done OK. It seems invasive, but it’s just reassuring.”

What they’re really asking is, are you OK? she notes. “Never look at what they say, you should look at what they mean. We’re not taught these conversation skills – sometimes we say things without the skills.”

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