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Thanksgiving Table Talk

So, what is Thanksgiving?

Dress up. Meet family. Meet strangers. Small talk. Deep talk. Eat turkey. Wait for more food. Eat more food. Wait. Eat. Wait. Talk. Eat. Talk. Wait. Wait. Talk. Unbutton pants. Talk. Wait. Eat. Wait. Wait. Wait. (Thanksgiving is similar to some sort of purgatory.)
The reason it can be uncomfortable is because you’veall come from the corners of the earth to crowd around a large bird only to realize that you don’tactually know anyone. Then, because you’re all too stuffed to leave the table, you’re stuck with each other for an entirenight. Luckily, there’s an easy way to prevent boredom, awkwardness and insanity: talking. At Thanksgiving, conversation is not just an activity, not just an obligation, but a survivalstrategy.
However, despite the necessity of conversation, it can still feel difficult and forced. Here are some tips to keep your Thanksgiving conversations running smoothly:
Sit with the right people.My most successful Thanksgiving conversation took place when I was seated next to a grad student. We had a lot to talk about because we were nearly the same age. Try and sit near people similar in age or with similar interests. You’ll be able to hold each other’s attention.

Form a conversation group.When starting a conversation, don’t try to grab the attention of the entiretable—you’ll wind up with an uncomfortable silent response. Set your sights on the people nearest to you, and tailor your topics towards them. The success of a conversation decreases with table distance.
Stick to general subjects.This takes a little explaining. It’s almost automatic for us to ask people about their jobs, families or recent vacations. These topics are very personal and are great when you’re talking intimately to one or two people. However, in a larger group, more people will be able to participate if you bring up general topics, such as current events, new movies or food (a surprisingly popular topic!). And with a broad focus, your topic can lead to othertopics, instead of stopping short when your aunt finishes listing all the adorable things her toddler says.

Avoid sticky subjects. One time, I was enjoying my green beans when a heated political issue came up. My mistake was ignoring my delicious veggies and offering my two cents. The conversation ended with one man leaving the table, getting his laptop and bringing up partisan webpages to prove me wrong. The whole situation was tense and uncomfortable. But I learned a lesson: It’s best to stay far, faraway from topics like politics, money and religion. If one of these subjects does happen to come up, start an unrelated conversation with a section of the table that’s notparticipating in the debate. Your new conversation will provide an escape from anyone who wants out of the circus ring. And without the fuel of peer support, the lonely debaters will soon tire and join yourconversation.
Keep it simple, stupid. Although it can happen, chances are that most people aren’t looking for a philosophical discussion along with their gravy. Bring up topics that don’t require prior reading. If you want to talk about science, stick to popular science and avoid quantum physics. If you want to talk about computers, talk about smart phones or the newfangled tablet craze, notabout programming in C++.

When all else fails, go with your ego. As a very last resort, if all your efforts to start a conversation have failed, it’s time to dig out That Story You Tell Everyone Because You Think It’s Awesome. Admit it: You have one. Maybe it’s that epic tale of triumph when you fractured your ankle in 14 places and then ran a double marathon only months later. Or maybe it’s about the hilarious April Fool’s prank you pulled last year. Whatever it is, it’s probably a unique story where you do something that you think is awesome. You’ll tell the story with animation and enthusiasm. And after plates of tryptophan, enthusiasm is a valuable asset to the Thanksgiving table. If you’re too obnoxious, you might just inspire other people to tell their interesting stories. (But even if that fails, at least you finally got that opportunity to tell your awesome story. Captive audiences are hard to come by!)
Although conversation is tricky, you’re in the same boat as everyone around you. All those awkward pauses when waiting for food or digesting are easily fixed with conversation. This is your chance to bond with family that you haven’t seen in a while and also to practice your social skills on strangers that you’ll never see again.
Whatever happens at your Thanksgiving dinner, I hope you all have good holiday. Happy leftovers!

Rachel is a junior math major and premed student at Brandeis University. She is an EMT and recently joined her school's EMS squad. When she's not busy studying, she enjoys blogging, watching sitcoms, drawing zentangles, folding origami, and eating chocolate.
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