How To Navigate Tricky Thanksgiving Catch-Up Questions Like An Etiquette Expert

“Why aren’t you married yet?”

Family talking over Thanksgiving table
Photo: shironosov/Getty

Even with the best intentions, a Thanksgiving conversation with a loved one can quickly go downhill. We're not even talking about when that cousin inevitably brings up politics over turkey dinner . We're talking about those well-meaning questions that just don't sit right.

For many, this Thanksgiving will be a big year for catching up with family and friends. The last two Thanksgivings likely looked a little different, often missing some loved ones from the once-crowded feasts or even having taken place over Zoom. Needless to say, we're more than ready to see some familiar faces this Thanksgiving. Even with social media as a helpful tool, we're long overdue to catch up on what's been going on in the lives of friends and family since the last gathering of the sort oh-so long ago.

In the restlessness to get all the details about what's been happening, sometimes we're faced with questions that are just a touch insensitive or can make us uncomfortable. This party faux pas is all too common. We've all heard (or overheard) some variation of "when are you going to give me a grandchild?" Odds are the asker has only the best intentions and means it in a loving way, but that doesn't mean that it's always received as such.

Or perhaps a family member is going through a time of transition. Maybe they're going through a divorce, moving, or changing careers. It's perfectly reasonable for those that care about them to ask "what's next?" When the answer is still uncertain though, this question can be stressful, exacerbated because you just know it'll be repeated multiple times by each person you catch up with throughout the day.

How can you politely navigate these situations? No matter how many times it happens, these conversations will always be tricky. As a senior in college staring down the barrel end of my school days, I resorted to outrageous fibs when my family asked me what I would be doing after graduation. It led to a laugh and diffused the situation, unmistakably pointing out that I had absolutely no idea what the future held, but probably wasn't the best course of action. To help guide us through this year's tough questions, we sought help from the etiquette experts.

"Honesty is always best," advises Diane Gottsman, National Etiquette Expert at The Protocol School of Texas, immediately disqualifying my strategy. "You may not feel great and it doesn't mean that you have to mask your feelings, but try and focus on answering the question and not just monopolizing that question with all of your woes for the next hour."

Or adversely… avoid the question all together.

"We give people grace—it is Thanksgiving, and we do give them grace with what they're asking," Gottsman says, "but we also have to set our boundaries. In a very courteous, polite way, we can opt out of that conversation. We don't have to say it, but we can just change the subject ourselves or talk to somebody on the left or the right. As good table mates , all we have to do is read the room and read the table"

When asked the unavoidable "why aren't you married yet," Gottsman recommends a combination of these two strategies. "I am very happy with my life and marriage is not on my radar as of today. I will make sure and let you know if that changes but in the meantime, tell me how your Tai Chi classes are coming along."

With those questions suitably subverted, we also have the responsibility to ask thoughtful questions. Sure, we may now be equipped to face these lines of questioning, but we still shouldn't inflict the same pressure on others when we know first hand how uncomfortable it can be. That doesn't mean we have to walk on eggshells while catching up.

"The holidays are for celebrations, but let's be real," says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. "We've all had our trials and tribulations these last couple years—everything from money challenges to illnesses to possibly even some deaths and loss of jobs. So I would just recommend that when at all possible you keep the conversation light and try to stay away from controversial topics."

Body language and how you say things, not just what you say, can be a big help in conveying good intentions, both Gottsman and Whitmore explained. So this Thanksgiving, handle catch-ups like an expert. Keep it light and keep it friendly to keep the peace.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles