The following first appeared in Stephinitely, a weekly newsletter from columnist Stephanie Hayes featuring a bonus column and behind-the-scenes chatter. To get it in your inbox every Monday, subscribe here.
Making conversation in mixed company is more art than science. Like golden retrievers, many people have a natural sense of who is volatile and who is not. For instance, it might be fine to utter “Joe Manchin” around Tina, but not Denise, especially if Denise has pulled her hair back and removed her earrings.
Maybe, like me, you are generally conflict-averse. You find yourself deflecting with folksy expressions you’ve never once uttered, such as, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!” If this sounds like you, it is fine to go to the bathroom as many as 10 times. Better they talk about you than to you. Another way to get out of conversation is to take up smoking, just for the night.
Some people, and this makes me want to die, enjoy boldly provoking relatives. This behavior can be traced to Eris, Greek goddess of discord. According to ancient texts, she once wore a QAnon tank top to Thanksgiving and asked a nephew why he thought he deserved a higher wage for making frappuccinos.
Lastly, there are the secret plotters, the Littlefingers, sowing chaos so expertly you don’t even know it happened. They may seem harmless, but these guests are the most toxic of all. These folks will tell Tina on the patio that “Denise is really off tonight,” and then go to Denise in the kitchen and say, “Something’s up with Tina’s energy.”
You know which one you are! I am merely here to get you through dinner. The political hot buttons of the day are obvious, but here are other mousetraps to deploy or avoid, depending on your preferred level of pandemonium.
Taylor Swift seems like a fun topic. Her re-release of the Red album contains plenty of hot goss, such as a 10-minute song allegedly about Jake Gyllenhaal. Easy pickings! However, dissect the song and it’s really about looking back on relationships and realizing you were gaslit. Your cousin Charles might still be in an online Scrabble room with your ex, who once said he “shouldn’t have to check in all the time” and it’s going to get messy. Related: Do not touch Adele with a 10-foot pole.
How about new movies? Dune? Half the table will tune you out. The polite ones will nod, but they will not absorb a single word. I am begging you, do not bring up Dune unless you are absolutely sure another party cares about feudalistic planetary battles over a spice. Then — this is important — sequester with that person at a corner of the table where no one else can hear. Better yet, go outside.
Exercise is top of mind for many in January, but we’re not in January yet, Tina. Adele (we talked about this) told Oprah she can deadlift 170 pounds, which is rad. But a holiday at which an iconic dish is pieces of bread cooked in the dripping fat of a turkey is not the time to espouse the joys of HIIT class, or how a diet of mostly legumes is helping people live to 100.
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Vaccines? Godspeed, friends. Tina just said she has done her own research, and Denise is saying “we’re doomed” and taking off her watch. I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Happy Thanksgiving!