Thanksgiving: Time for family to gather, eat food, watch football, go shopping. And maybe, if we’re lucky, tell a story or two.
I love stories. Growing up, though, I rarely had great Thanksgiving dinner conversation. My family gathered around a long table, pausing for a moment before we ate all the fixings of a splendid meal.
Sometimes my father would make an awkward toast and we’d dig in, the room filling with the sound of forks and knives and chewing. But while my family’s Thanksgiving feast may have looked like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, except with smiling Japanese American faces, we rarely had a grand exchange. As time passed, the TV was left on, and football filled the gaps, along with chitchat about health concerns and gossip about this lonely uncle or that cousin’s marriage.
I’m hoping this year will be different. Across the nation, we need conversations more than ever. People are not talking with each other. We yell or are silent. Many of us seem to be harboring an anger, fueled by news of scandal, disaster, shootings, politics. We live in a polarized world.
Ask an innocent question about the weather? Then you must acknowledge the hurricanes and wild fires and climate change. Safe to talk about sports? Not if someone mentions the national anthem and football.
Yet for a single meal or holiday weekend, starting with family, perhaps we could think about having at least one real conversation. Let’s use this opportunity to engage.
Let’s start, for example, simply by asking questions. Our daily discourse is filled with attitude and declarations. We have forgotten the power of listening.
A simple opening query — “Tell me about …?” – shows I care. It goes deeper, and asks about family, about experiences, for something that’s meaningful to you.
And I want it to be personal — not about something you read or repeating the talking points of a media pundit. Tell me about your life. Here’s a trick from oral historians: It’s not the first question that gets the great story, it’s the second and third. It’s not, “Mom, tell me about your childhood.” It’s the followup: “What food did you eat? What was Thanksgiving like then?”
Gently, food and everyday life tend to open the door to more connection, around who we are and our family sagas. My mom tried her best to make the classic Thanksgiving dinner yet my dad always wanted white rice with his turkey. We got confused with the cranberries. They seemed to be dessert so we ate them after the meal, a proper ending treat for a Japanese American peach-growing farm family.
A question about the past seems to grant a license to share stories. Ask for specifics, not just what work someone did but the details: What were you paid? How was someone hired or fired? Were you happy?
The goal is not judgment but verbal communion. Yes, sometimes that one uncle is a jerk and that in-law is a self centered, narcissistic idiot. The point is, they’re still family.
Stories, not sound bites: Great exchanges can be like a performance, filled with intonation and body language. In my family, often what’s not said — the pauses — are as telling as the tale itself.
Maybe I can pull in a younger generation by asking for help with technology, a brief audio recording or a short video of a conversation. Even a 20-second clip can become priceless later. Who knows? The millennial may be tricked into listening, and voilà! I’ve captured an intergenerational exchange.
Each Thanksgiving, we have an opportunity to be part of a powerful discourse, to witness the essence of family, whether it’s at a grand long table or off to the side, in a small group or one-on-one. This year, don’t take that opportunity for granted. Ask and listen, and share a story as well as a meal with someone.
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