Organizing Your Thanksgiving Diplomacy

"Over-indulgence--a spoiled Thanksgiving." Illustration by Alice Barber Stephens. (1896) From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In preparation for Thanksgiving this week, last week I posted a couple of tips on the biggest organizing challenge this week, cooking! Whether quick and easy or culinary challenge, there are many ways to organize your Thanksgiving meal. For many people, however, cooking is not the biggest challenge of Thanksgiving, that honor goes to the human interactions that occur around the Thanksgiving table.

To be sure, many of these frustrations start with the Thanksgiving meal planning. If you have not read this true but hilarious Thanksgiving letter at Awkward Family Photos by an overanxious hostess providing detailed and insulting instructions on every dish to be brought to the Thanksgiving dinner, it is worth a read.

The comment below summarizes the typical guest’s reaction:

Katherine says:
October 6, 2010 at 6:06 pm

“Two bottles of clos du bois will NOT be enough to deal with her. Who’s bringing the vodka?”

Dear Abby recently advised a woman frustrated at the request to have Thanksgiving a vegan meal this year. Dietary restrictions are becoming more and more common. Whether for weight loss purposes, food allergies, personal preferences or philosophical reasons, many people have restrictions on what they will and won’t eat. To be fair, some of these restrictions are legitimate life and death concerns while others are petty preferences and it can be very hard to distinguish one from the other.

As the host, you have the responsibility to consider these requests and try to accommodate them if you can. If you can’t accommodate them, you politely let people know and suggest an alternative.

Food has become so controversial, I would not be surprised if eventually Thanksgiving has to evolve to be two events: one a meal accommodating the needs of the most flexible eaters and another an event that has nothing to do with eating that is primarily social, like watching a football game, playing a rousing tournament of Monopoly or Scrabble, or taking an outdoor walk or hike.

Below are 10 tips for hosts and guests to help make Thanksgiving a positive event for all:

As the host:

1. Put your guests first. Your goal is to make the event joyful for everyone and make them feel welcome and respected. This will require patience and creativity.

2. Be flexible. If your guests want to bring different foods than you had planned, bring children or want the dinner at a different time, consider whether you could accommodate that request, not just whether you want to. Someday another host will return the favor for you.

3. Make things easy. The fewer restrictions you put on your guests, the more comfortable they will feel. Allow people the freedom to wear what they want to the dinner, reinterpret old traditions and otherwise be themselves. The surest way to ruin a family gathering is to try to force people into the molds you wish they fit into or remind them of the ways they have disappointed you.

4. Invite the right guests. If you have a challenging guest list comprised of some guests you like and others you barely tolerate, make sure you invite some “buffer guests.” The buffer guest is one who helps the party run smoothly, the person who chats easily with anyone or adds a sense of humor to diffuse tension. Often you hear of people inviting a neighbor or other non-family member to Thanksgiving for this purpose. It is sad but true that we are often kinder to strangers than our own loved ones and the presence of a stranger helps us stay on our best behavior.

5. Accept help when offered. You may not be comfortable delegating but do your best to allow others to contribute to the party. They will feel a greater connection to the event and it facilitates interesting conversation among guests. “Who made these wonderful sweet potatoes?” “What an incredible centerpiece!” Hold on to the parts of the party you enjoy doing yourself and subcontract the rest out. If people offer to help, have a list of things ready they can contribute: cooking, designing a centerpiece or place settings, greeting guests and taking coats, manning the bar, taking photography or video, creating activities for children, providing entertainment (if they are talented), etc.

As the guest:

1. Remember the world does not revolve around you. Consider whether your personal preferences could be relaxed or adjusted for one day. For example, your health is important but the most considerate way to address your dietary restrictions is to advise the host that you will bring your own food appropriate to your needs (along with some extra to share) and not make a big deal about it. As a parent, try to relax and adjust your child’s schedule to the event rather than insisting it not be disrupted.

2. Offer to help. Most people are loathe to ask for help and also don’t know how to respond to questions such as, “What can I do to help?” Making a specific suggestion such as, “I have a great recipe for cranberry sauce. Could I bring that?” or “I know hosting has its surprises. I would be happy to come over an hour early to help you with any last-minute details if you like.” Offer something you are generally interested in doing. And if the host declines, don’t be insulted, just know you have honored your obligation to be thoughtful and breathe a sigh of relief that there is one less thing for you to do.

3. Facilitate group cohesion. There are plenty of differences among guests around the table. As the guest, the more you can do to help people interact and enjoy each other’s company, the more value you are adding to the party. Have an answer ready for the inevitable round-the-table question, “What are you thankful for?” Avoid controversial topics of discussion, personal questions and insults. When people feel comfortable with you, they will share the interesting parts of their personal life freely but they will not appreciate being given the third degree. Older relatives take note, this includes questions like “So, who are you dating these days?,” “When are you going to get married?” or “When will you have children?” No one appreciates these questions. If you want to gossip, share your own news rather than insisting others spill theirs.

4. Know your limits. If you really can’t be civil and respectful and enjoy yourself, sometimes it is the kinder thing to decline the invitation to dinner rather than come to start an argument. Just let the host know politely, “Thank you for inviting me. It has been a difficult year and I am just not up to Thanksgiving.”

5. Thank the host. It takes a lot of time to issue invitations, clean the house, cook and clean up afterwards. Compliment the host during the party and thank them on the way out the door. For bonus points, a quick e-mail or phone call the day after the party saying, “Thanks so much for hosting. We had a great time!” is huge! That is the ultimate payoff for any host.

What lessons have you learned as a Thanksgiving host or guest? Please share in the comments.