It can be hard to know what to talk about over the holidays with relatives you haven’t seen in a while.
Ideally, you want to bring up topics that are lighthearted but still meaningful ― something that can be challenging for many people, said Alicia H. Clark, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.
“The trick is to ask about something interesting without going too shallow or too deep, while avoiding topics that can get dicey,” she said. “Thinking about topics you’re interested in ahead of time is a great way to prepare for a mutually stimulating and interesting conversation.”
Below, Clark and other therapists share six conversation starters to bring to the table this holiday season.
1. “What’s new since the last time we talked?”
It’s OK to ask general questions at your big family gathering. Asking what someone has been up to lately gives your relative the opportunity to lead the conversation and share only what they want to share, Clark said.
“This gets people talking about themselves, which most of us like to do,” she said. “Make sure to listen attentively, ask for elaboration where it makes sense, and look for a place to offer something about your life that relates.”
2. “What holiday traditions did you have growing up?”
The holidays are all about long-held traditions: eating your aunt’s jaw-droppingly good sweet potatoes or opening up that first gift at midnight. Ask newer members of your family ― your brother’s fiancée, for instance ― to share some of their favorite traditions growing up. Or get older relatives to share some that may have fallen to the wayside over the years, suggested Anne Crowley, a psychologist in Austin, Texas.
“Bring the past alive in the present,” she said. “When a person recalls a tradition that was important to them, it creates an opportunity to reflect on cherished childhood memories and share them in a current context. It creates a new way of relating to your relative.”
3. “I have to show you this funny video.”
You’ll inevitably be on your phone at some point during evening. Turn that into a good thing by showing your family something funny or cool you saw online recently. (Know your audience, though: Maybe don’t share your favorite esoteric meme page with your grandma.)
“Thinking about funny things is a great way to keep it positive and give you and your relatives an opportunity to laugh, which is something that’s well known to facilitate bonding and good mental health,” Clark said.
4. “I know you’ve been going through a rough time lately. I’m here to talk if you need me.”
There’s no need to avoid elephants in the room. If your cousin has been going through a difficult divorce or your grandma is reeling from the death of a sibling, let them know you’re there for them, said Margaret Rutherford, a psychologist in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“They’re probably trying to put one foot in front of the other during the holidays. You can write them a note beforehand, and when hugging them hello, slip it to them, or simply say, ‘I’m thinking about you,’” she said. “Let them know that you’re willing and to talk. If they say no, don’t push. They’ll know you care because you asked and that will be meaningful to them.”
5. “What’s your favorite holiday movie?”
Are you a sucker for a schmaltzy Hallmark holiday movie? Secretly a “Love Actually” fan? Bring it up as conversation fodder at the dinner table. On the surface, it’s a lighthearted, safe topic but your picks reveal more about who you are than you realize, Crowley said.
“Movies can evoke sentiment (think: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’), introspection (think: ‘A Christmas Carol’) and belly laughs (think: ‘Elf’),” Crowley said. “Share why you love the movie or debate on what you didn’t like. This topic is not too personal, but it gives the whole family the opportunity to reflect on your different preferences and opinions.”
6. “Wanna go talk about ____ away from the table?”
It’s hard to have quality time with relatives when five conversations are happening at once. If there’s a relative you really want to catch up with, break off from the main group to chat one-on-one, Rutherford said.
“All you’ll hear at the dinner table are crickets if you ask a probing question over the mashed potatoes,” she said. “Most people are a bit uncomfortable sharing about themselves when all the attention is on them, so ask specific relatives if they want to go for a walk or find a quiet corner to truly catch up.”