Some subjects best avoided

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This time of year, many of us are catapulted into situations where we are forced to either make small talk or endure people we don't necessarily care for who are intent on asking us inappropriate questions.

I face these moments every year at cocktail parties, dinners, office functions and family get-togethers.

While I hate to be the victim of these things, I know I am also guilty sometimes of creating awkward moments because I don't always think before I open my mouth.

So, let's go through a list of subjects to avoid and questions not to ask at holiday gatherings, shall we?

* "When are you getting married?"

Somewhere along the way, I ceased to be the person this was asked of and became the person asking the question.

It was none of anyone's business when I was single, and I need to remember that it's none of my business now. It's 2009. Just because a couple has been together for a while -- maybe even years -- it doesn't mean they're altar-bound.

Marriage works for me. Maybe it works for you. But it doesn't work for everyone. Just because people are a couple doesn't mean it's a foregone conclusion that they'll get hitched.

Butt out. We'll know they're getting married when we get the invitation.

* When I throw a party, I make sure to put out a pretty good spread of food.

My husband is the better (and more frequent) cook between the two of us. However, I make Swedish meatballs that are to die for. I make them every year for a little get-together we host the second weekend of December.

I need to remember that some people don't like meatballs. Even mine.

There is nothing more irritating than someone commenting on what you are or aren't eating. One of my father's favorite things to say was, "Eat in your own plate."

That was good advice in 1979, and it's good advice today. If you're going to invite people over for eats, keep your nose out of their Chinet platter. They should be welcome to eat as much or as little as they want.

* My husband and I have been married for eight years. We have two children. One is nearly 19; the other is 7.

When we go to family gatherings, people still insist on asking us when we're going to have another baby.

For the record, the answer to that question is never.

While it's mildly annoying to me when people ask us such a thing in mixed company -- for no other reason than it's none of anyone's beeswax -- it occurs to me that for some people, this question could be hurtful. We're friends with a happily married couple who have been trying for years to have a baby and have been unable to do so. While we are privy to this information, everyone in the world isn't, and they don't want to rehash it over and over.

Having a baby is a very personal thing. If there is something to tell, people will do it. Don't ask.

* "So, your candidate got his hind end handed to him in the election, huh?"

No, no, no. This is not a good conversation starter.

Holiday parties are places for good will and cheer, not arguments. In my experience, nothing will start a tussle faster than talk of politics -- or someone gloating about politics.

Keep the subject matter light. Don't be a jerk and kill someone's party by bringing up politics.

* If you know someone's kid is going to a certain college, don't bash it.

I'm guilty of this. I admit it. If someone mentions a college that was a rival to my alma mater, I make a rude crack.

Example: The guest says, "Hildgarde is going to Purdue."

You say, "Oh, I'm sorry."

I shouldn't do that, and neither should you. Perhaps you don't care for the Boilermakers, and that's fine. But keep it to yourself. It's altogether possible that Hildegarde got a major scholarship to Purdue, and that she may not have been able to go to college any other way.

You don't know what the circumstances are, so shush.

And I'll do the same.

* Do you have a relative who insists on sharing too much information? So much so that he or she makes everyone uncomfortable?

I do. In fact, in looking back I realize I may have been that relative. My life is pretty much an open book, and I'll tell anyone anything.

The reality is, not everyone wants to know everything about me, so I need to keep what I'm sharing in check.

Everyone in the room probably doesn't want to know the gory details of your gout, your latest break-up or why you lost your last job. Those things are mood-killers anyway, so try not to drone on about them.

* The elephant in the room is often alcohol consumption.

We've all had friends who tend to get a little obnoxious when the liquor is flowing.

This is nothing you should call people out on in front of an audience. If you feel the need to address someone's overindulgence -- whether it be your college roommate who's done one too many kamikaze shots or Uncle Al who hits the Mogen David a little too hard -- do it in private.

In summary, let's all try to avoid two things this holiday season: Asking too many personal questions of others or sharing too much information about ourselves.

These are two very simple things that could save your holiday season.

Jamie Barrand is the editor of the Banner Graphic. She can be reached at jbarrand@bannergraphic.com.