Your family dinner table has perhaps five or six generations gathered. As you take your seat, it’s hard to settle in when you’re anticipating someone will cross the threshold of small talk into something a little bit deeper. Why can’t you have a real conversation without worrying about reactions, tension, or even ruining relationships? After all, the world is changing, and everyone is affected in some way, or else has an opinion about it.
In my recent research I examine generations, why the gaps between them seem so wide, and how across generations there are similarities that can potentially bridge those gaps. Based on my findings, here are seven ways a family dinner can be more successful.
- Know some historical context.
Generations are groups of people who grow up during the same world events. If the oldest members of your family are in their 80s, they grew up post World War II. They might have had older family members returning from war, helped out in their Victory Garden which provided most of their food, and felt pressure to earn enough of a living since their family recovered from the Great Depression. Members of the family in their 60s likely witnessed events like the Civil Rights Movement, space travel, multiple assassinations of leaders, AIDS, and more. Members in their 40s might remember the Cold War, fall of the Berlin Wall, etc. Those in their 20s grew up with events like 9/11, school and mass shootings, and technological/digital advancement. Our teens and adolescents see a global pandemic, fights for justice, and the world through a screen. The littlest ones and babies may not know what they see and we may not know what’s in store for them, but they probably feel the effects of their stressed parents.
Though everyone has individual, subjective experiences, events like these breed our fears, instill our values, and direct our life courses. It’s not about who had it worse or making excuses for behavior, but about recognizing and empathizing with the circumstances in which people grow.
2. Be aware of what is feeding you.
Not your full plate, I mean notice all of the information out there, the channels you watch and articles you click. Notice the audiences they target. Generations are grouped exclusively for the culture they nostalgically identify, “common” character traits, and consumer trends. Maybe you’ve noticed that your generation has been blamed for some downfall in society at one point or another. It is easy for us to believe those who are outside of our age cohort are different from us, even dislike us. Any resentment you may feel towards the views and actions of people within a generation may be fed to you by media.
3. Self Reflect
A great way to approach others is to first cultivate some self awareness. What are your own opinions? What is important to you? How do you know what you know? How do you react when someone has a different opinion or a different way of expressing it? What do you like or dislike about family gatherings? Are you a good listener? Some great ways to self reflect are through writing or sitting quietly with your own thoughts. Notice where you’re uncomfortable and where you’re passionate.
4. Notice Patterns
Does your mom get a headache every time a particular topic comes up? Is anyone over 30 taking pictures of the food? Do you reach for the wine whenever you receive unsolicited advice?Does stubbornness run in the family? Maybe your niece gets really red when someone jokes about her being a vegan. Make note of any repetitive word choice. When is the tone condescending, dominant, dismissive, hurt? Remember you don’t have to fix everything you notice, and you don’t have to call anyone out with your observations. This is to see the humans behind the voices and the silence.
5. Be the model
Some family members may not respond well to topics and feelings or even what you are modeling. Maybe your family likes to keep to themselves and avoid confrontation and you want to facilitate a healthy discussion. Maybe your family is very expressive and doesn’t like how you don’t want to get involved while they hash it out in a shouting frenzy. Or maybe your family is a medley of very different personalities. Use your self reflection to guide you. If you want people at the table to listen to each other, practice better listening. Use engaging body language. If you want people to be more relaxed, be humble. If you want kinder communication, use the respect you want. You’re all family, but that doesn’t diminish humiliation. Sometimes a comment or concern is best addressed privately and not across the table. Monitor how you present your own opinions. Both the adults and young ones are learning from you.
6. Take Breaks
This is a lot of work. It can be exhausting! There’s nothing wrong with taking an extra moment in the bathroom to check in with yourself or to go get a little fresh air. When we’re overwhelmed, we may be more likely to say something we don’t mean. Breaks can help you reset so you don’t regret.
7. Ask Questions
If you can’t understand how or why a relative could possibly have come to a conclusion, clarify by asking about it with genuine interest. If the answer comes in the form of a rant, you at the very least modeled being open to a different perspective. It’s ok to be wrong sometimes, but recover with curiosity. Ask about what changes someone’s mind. Did a world event influence some of those changes? In my research I asked participants about their perfect day. It was a great way to learn about people’s values, happiness, and what brings them peace through an indirect, storytelling lens.
Across five generations participants talked about how they value kindness, open-mindedness, and learning. When asked about something they’d change in the world today, all mentioned something they believed would restore harmony or be for the good of all people. We can embrace differences and similarities across generations by compassionately listening, speaking kindly, being open and willing to learn. Of course, this is easier said than done, and like everything else, it will take some practice.
When asked about personal purpose in life, most indicated it was to have an impact on others. Most participants discussed the importance of connection, the importance of family. Everyone has something to share, let’s share it at the dinner table.