Five Ways Not to Hate Each Other on Thanksgiving

By David Mills Published on November 24, 2021

Thanksgiving: a time some people enjoy each other like in a Hallmark movie and others try not to kill each other. Or do try to kill each other. 

It may be the daughter who went off to college and came home with the Bernie Sanders tattoo. It may be the son whose new politics, picked up online, makes you feel like a commie. Or a child’s new spouse who’s decided to enlighten you all. The problem may be the aunt who thinks everyone’s stupid whatever they think. Or the uncle who contradicts whatever someone says and trolls them into a rage.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to talk about politics at Thanksgiving. Unless a) your family and friends all agree, or b) you disagree but everyone can act with rare civility, or c) you like angry yelling followed by sullen angry silence.

Why not talk about something else? Good things. Not pointless things you talk about just to avoid conflict. You can take up subjects that will bring you closer to each other. Tell you things about each other you didn’t know. Make you appreciate each other more.

Creating Conversations

The point is to create conversations in which people reveal something about themselves. Political arguments come off the top of the head. You want to hear the heart speak. Arguments tell you what someone thinks. You want to know why the people you care about think as they do.      

Of course, you can avoid the problem entirely by diverting yourselves. In her family, writes a friend, unending political arguments have always been a problem. “We solve it by an announcement of no politics ahead of time, cutting off violators’ access to alcohol and food (locking people in bathrooms is not off the table), and engaging in therapeutic rounds of killer high-stakes poker.”

Then there are the more traditional ice-breaker games. One friend likes the one where each person has to tell two (preferably strange) truths and an untruth about himself and the others have to guess which is which.

If you don’t like playing games yourself, the NFL offers three to watch. These can divert you and your family from arguing about anything from 12:30 to about 11:30. You can join in the wholesome, character-building pleasures of cheering against Satan’s Team as they play the Raiders (traitors to Oakland though they are).

The Suggestions

Here are some suggestions in five categories. Most of these were supplied by friends and colleagues. (They’re listed at the end.) Our Thanksgivings have always been pacific, but the stories friends tell, holy cow. Tempers only rise in our house when we start playing Bananagrams after dinner. It’s a blood sport in our house.

A warning: most good subjects can turn political if you let them. A friend suggested “A reflection on hospitality that is secretly political, but not overtly.” Talking about hospitality can turn into an argument about immigration policy in half a second, and a screaming match in 30. But asking how we welcome others into our lives, and why, and what limits we may set, could create a deep and helpful conversation.

Like most subjects, it’s worth trying. But someone has to referee. At least be able to change the subject.

Our life with others. Get everyone to talk about other people, especially those they like. Ask “What is a good neighbor and how can we be better neighbors?” Or discuss ways to volunteer. The friend who said this suggested starting a family service group, to help other people with car repairs, sewing, meals, anything your family can do together.

Talk about people you’ve met in this last year and things you’re learning about your town and your neighbors. Try to tell interesting stories about them (not everyone can). The friend who said this added: “This is especially true if the stories are comically self-deprecating.”

Talking about family history can work, too — and do some good for your family if someone writes down the memories. My friend suggested working on a family tree. But especially, he said, get the older people to talk about their families, especially those like parents and siblings no one besides them knew. And be sure to write down the stories. (Though — warning — this is another subject that can go bad fast.)

Let the old ask the young, and the young ask the old, questions about each others’ lives. And about the world they live in. “For younger people, asking their grandparents questions about what they had for Thanksgiving when they were young is a good icebreaker. How was the Great Depression? How was Korea? How was Viet Nam? How does Tom Hanks compare to Jimmy Stewart? Who was Jimmy Stewart? Older people can ask younger ones, What is Minecraft? Who is Pikachu?”

Arty, Big, and Quirky

Art, books, etc. Talk about new artists, musicians, and writers you’ve discovered and liked. New to you is fine. Or books you’ve liked and books you want to read. Also (this is me) books you’ve bought and feel guilty you haven’t read yet.

Movies. But not just movies, said one of my artier friends. Her family loves The Big Lebowski and acts out quotes from the movie in a homemade game of charades. “It’s a tradition now,” she says, proudly. Talk about particular movies, said another. Ask questions like “Westerns versus Superhero Movies?” and “Who is your favorite Avenger and why?”

I’d add asking the question, “If we were going to act out a movie, what would our family movie be?” If it’s one of the bleaker Ingmar Bergman movies or a slasher movie, get the whole family to church and then into therapy.

I would take the advice of Chumbawamba in “Tubthumping” and “sing the songs that remind you of the best times,” i.e., revisit happy memories, shared or otherwise,” said one. I just want to note that this friend is a conservative recommending the insights of an anarcho-communist band.

The big subjects. My more serious friends had more serious suggestions. One suggests trying to answer the question, “What is the good life, and who has shown us how to live it?” Another added, “Saints!”, or Christian heroes, or heroes in general. Why are they heroes? Why do we admire them? How can we be like them?

One of my scholarly friends offered the subject of “joy,” which is one we don’t think about much. Happiness and enjoyment, yes, but not joy. You might ask: What is joy? What does it look like? How does it differ from happiness? Can it be acquired or is it is a gift? Describe joyful people you know and what their joyfulness means to you. Resist the temptation to tell someone else that he ought to be more joyful.

The quirky subjects. Like “X or Y?” questions. Not a big favorite of mine, I admit. Like “Sunrise or sunset?” I would add: “Cats or dogs?” but that could end badly, if you find someone you admired answered cats. Almost any pairing you can think of would work, except “Trump or Biden?” and other political ones. Blue or red? (The colors, not the political symbols.) Up or down? Books or tablets? Winter or summer? Baseball or football? Apples or oranges? 

You could try more serious versions. Like Magic or Michael?? Mozart or Bach? The Lord of the Rings or The Narnia Chronicles?

And Actual Thanks

Overt Thanksgiving. A lot of my friends said this. Weird, to give thanks on Thanksgiving, but some people insist on it. “A reflection on how we’re thankful for our given time and place (which we cannot choose!),” said one. 

Two others focused on the poeple we’ve been given. Give thanks for “whatever is good and noble and holy about the person standing in front of you,” said one friend. Another added a way to do this: “Have everyone write on a blank piece of paper at least one good attribute of each person present. Share during the meal.”

Almost any of these questions, even the most frivolous, can bring people to share what they really think and feel. That’s what you want to know, because people are not their politics, and because you want a conversation that creates friendships, friendships for which you can give thanks on Thanksgiving.


Most of these examples came from an article I wrote a few years ago for Aleteia. Thanks to Joanne McPortland (poker), Christopher Altieri (good neighbor, good life, sunrise question), Margaret Rose Realy (volunteering and new artists), Scott Beauchamp (talking about town), Chase Padusniak (hospitality and given time), Richard Grebenc (family history), Bobby Winters (old and young questions, and particular movies), Alexandra DeSanctis (books to read), Rae Stabosz (movies), Brenda Becker (Chumbawamba), Tara Jernigan (people), Jeannie Ewing (the way to do that)

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