A semi-definitive guide to Thanksgiving conversational opportunities and small talk

Let’s be pretty honest about this: in the next 36 hours or so, you will either be asked, be adjacent to someone being asked, or do the asking of this question: “So, how was the trip?” I find this more interesting now than I ever did before. It’s not because I moved off the east coast 15 months ago, which is where I lived most of my life; it’s actually because, in so doing, I met a lot of international students via my graduate program. At our school, when you interview for jobs, there’s a huge hallway from waiting area to interview rooms; I’d guess it’s probably 100 or so yards (that seems long, as in it’s a football field, but briskly walking 100 yards really isn’t that long). A recruiter/interviewer comes and picks you up in the waiting area, and you walk those 100 yards with him/her. What’s happening in those 300 feet? Chances are you’re making small talk: weather, sports teams, day so far, something in the news, office layout, clothing, whatever. Americans f’n love small talk. But when I met a huge variety of international students (Chinese, Thai, South Korean), they flat out didn’t understand it. I asked them what would happen in those 100 yards in their country. Their answer? “We walk in silence.”

By the end of this weekend, a lot of Americans would probably deem that preferable too.

Thanksgiving is an awesome holiday for (a) food, (b) the ability to bring a family together, (c) Macy’s, (d) traditions, (e) beginning of the “holiday season,” (f) football, and (g) various other things. It is an absolutely awful holiday for literally every other reason, from (a) travel to (z) passive aggressiveness. (Can you tell I’ve done some stints in therapy?) It is also, perhaps, the most small-talk-associated holiday of them all (July 4th would be up there, but often people attend July 4th shindigs with their core friends, where the amount of small talk decreases). Thanksgiving is much more a “Hey, uncle I haven’t seen in 2.5 years who may or may not still be working at the same place, so hey, how are things? Specifically, how about this weather outside? November, eh?” Now, some families are closer, and if yours is one of those, the need for small talk and conversational options is less pressing. For everyone else, dive deeper.

Here’s a really generic post on mastering the art of small talk, and here’s a really short but more personal one. There’s a handful of academic papers on the topic (here’s one) if you want to go that route. Miss Manners also wrote an entire book on the idea of the “right thing to say.”

Let’s flip this and apply it directly to Thanksgiving. You could always discuss ObamaCare enrollment, although in general, avoiding politics (and religion, even if everyone is the same religion) is a good idea. Yahoo! wants you to consider discussing legacy planning; I’d pass on that one too. “A day of generosity” may be something to explore, and here’s one for the in-college student. Here’s a fairly aggressive post about bringing up the US’ turn towards socialism on Thanksgiving; I’d probably skip that too. If you do anticipate a political discourse emerging, maybe do a little research before dinner. There’s also about 19,349 of these types of things on Buzzfeed, if you want to browse a few for ideas.

The government’s also got some historical suggestions for you; Chris Hayes on MSNBC is doing an entire show about it. You could also reference gun control (can’t possibly end poorly). Then, if you have a preponderance of males, there’s the whole sports angle:

I think (could look this up, but not going to) that the games involved NFL-side are Packers-Lions, Cowboys-Raiders, and Steelers-Ravens. None of those are particularly interesting, although some talking points would include “Wow, the Packers are NOT the same team without Aaron Rodgers!” and “Wow, could the Steelers make noise as a six-seed?” (That latter one can you indiscriminate whiplash if you use it incorrectly.) The TV will be on, so you might as well be discussing around it. (Absolutely insane stat you need to stop and process: Redskins-Cowboys last Thanksgiving was the most-watched show in the entirety of fall 2012. I guess that’s not that surprising, since it’s the NFL and all, but still … on a day theoretically devoted to family, 30 million people were glazed over watching Tony Romo? Odd.)

If you Google “Thanksgiving conversation topics,” there are 61.5 million results, including random lists from David Tutera and others. Clearly, this is an online posting cottage industry, and I don’t need to contribute to that noise. I’ll keep it simple: the base topics are food, sports, weather, and notions of being thankful. Keep core aspects of your life vague unless you’re super close with your family; going too deep is really hard for people, even people who claim to cherish the togetherness aspect. Pepper a few jokes in here and there (physical comedy not recommended). When in absolute doubt, talk about an inspirational story you recently heard. And even though most Americans don’t really do this, pound a few.  (And hey, don’t worry too much about overlaps vs. interruptions or the ‘New York Jewish conversational style’ — academia has ya covered there.)

Ted Bauer