Enjoying time with friends and family may be your holiday ideal, but sometimes we’re tossed into surprising situations that if not handled well, could quickly deflate the merry mood. We consulted communication experts for tips on how to broach difficult topics (or answer nosy questions) with grace and respond with courteous comebacks.
Touchy Subject #1: Weight loss
Beware of praising a newly thin person with, “You’ve lost so much weight!”—especially if you don’t know whether the change occurred because of healthy habits or illness, says Dawn O. Braithwaite, professor and chair of the University of Nebraska’s Department of Communications. “One has to remember that what feels like a compliment to you isn’t always taken that way. Even if they did lose weight, there's always the implication they looked terrible before,” Braithwaite says.
Simply tell the person, “You look great,” and leave it at that. Leave it up to him or her to share more—or not, she says.
Touchy Subject #2: Loss of a loved one
“Many people prefer that friends and family don’t ignore the fact that there’s a significant grief occurring during the holidays,” says Robert Zucker, a grief expert and author of The Journey Through Grief and Loss. Acknowledge the person’s loss and give him or her the opportunity to share a memory with you, he recommends.
Touchy Subject #3: Divorce or separation
Avoid bringing up specifics, including the potentially hurtful word “divorce,” unless you are certain about details, Braithwaite says. Keep your comments caring, but general. Something like, “I heard about you and Joe. I’m so sorry. I’ve been thinking of you,” she says.
Touchy Subject #4: Job loss
As with other difficult situations, acknowledge a job loss simply, but clearly, reminding the person that you care. “Be wary of condemning the company as she may return there at some future point,” says Jodi Smith, president of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting firm. Remember, too, that money may be tight. If you’re hosting a party with a gift exchange, suggest creative gift giving or cap spending at $15, Smith says.
Touchy Subject #5: Cancer or another major chronic disease
Significant illness can feel isolating. There’s no hard and fast rule here, Braithwaite says. Some people will want to talk about what they’re experiencing, others won’t. “You can say something generic, like ‘I’ve heard you’ve been ill or having a rough time. I want you to know I’ve been thinking of you,’” she suggests.
On the receiving end of personal questions or comments? Prepare in advance for the kinds of questions you might get, then answer simply unless you’d like to invite further conversation, Braithwaite says. Don’t feel obligated to share though. Something simple will suffice: “I appreciate that you care about me, but that’s not something I feel comfortable talking about right now. Thanks for asking,” she says.