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Holiday Social Gathering Etiquette

Social gatherings are meant to be joyous celebrations with friends, colleagues or family. Unfortunately, many people tell me that they intentionally avoid these events because of the stress around answering certain questions, judgement from others or even the pressure to drink or eat certain foods. I completely understand that oftentimes the person asking the question (or offering the food/beverage item) might be unaware that what they are doing is harmful. I like to believe it always comes from a genuine place of curiosity or wanting the other person to feel included. For this reason, I thought I would review the top 5 reasons why some people avoid social events. Share this with someone who could benefit from brushing up on social etiquette. You (or they) might simply be unaware and that's OK! You can't be expected to know what you don't know... but now you will know. 😉

1. Offering alcoholic beverages:

When you’re at a social gathering and are offering someone a beverage, always ensure you’re providing them with non-alcoholic options. If the person chooses the non-alcoholic option, do not ask them why and do not pressure them to “just have one drink”. Someone might be on a new medication that interacts with alcohol. Maybe they’ve noticed that they have addictive tendencies and they’re finally working through a mental-emotional aspect of their health. Maybe they are newly pregnant or undergoing fertility care and don’t feel comfortable sharing the news with you. Perhaps they’re wanting to improve their sleep or decrease their risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, etc. the list goes on! It actually doesn’t even matter WHY they are choosing a non-alcoholic drink option. They don’t have to give you an explanation and they certainly don’t need to feel tempted or pressured to drink alcohol. Your job is to respect their choice. Nobody ever expects an explanation as to why someone doesn’t want mustard or pickles on their sandwich - so why do we have to give a reason for not wanting an alcoholic beverage? No means no.

2. Relationships, engagement & marriage questions:

I get it. Usually this question comes from a genuine place of curiosity. If you are someone who asks this question to your friends or family, I can promise you this… if someone is in a new relationship or if they are engaged and planning their wedding, they WILL tell you the happy news without being prompted! People love to talk about things in their life that they are happy and excited about. Asking about whether or not someone is in a relationship (or engaged) actually works the opposite way we want it to. It only leaves the other person feeling sad, alone or empty and can sometimes make them feel like they aren’t at a stage in their life that society makes us think we need to be at. The person receiving this question might giggle and make a joke about being single in the moment, but it also reminds them of something they might genuinely feel down about in their daily life. They don’t need a reminder. They WILL tell you when they are in a new relationship, engaged or married - I promise. I also want to say that I can cite this as one of the main reasons many of my patients tell me they avoid social gatherings.

3. Asking about if someone is pregnant or when someone is going to have a baby (or another baby):

Another reason why patients tell me they avoid social gatherings is the pressure from their family or friends on “when are you having a baby” or comments like “your biological clock is ticking”. Trust me, people are well aware of their age. They are also well aware of the fact that they’re trying to get pregnant, maybe have had one (or several) miscarriages or are undergoing physically and emotionally taxing fertility treatments. Asking questions about when they want to have a baby only reinforces the fact that they are not yet pregnant and can spark emotions that they are trying to hide at a social gathering. Maybe someone simply doesn’t want to have children now, or ever! If someone is pregnant and is at a point where they feel comfortable sharing the news, I promise they WILL tell you. Having a baby is a joyous time in someones life and happy news is something people are excited to share when they are ready. Surely there are other topics you can ask someone about. I do understand that these questions come from a genuine place (and many people don't mean any harm by them), so if you’ve ever asked someone this question before, don’t feel bad. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? But now you know :)

… also don’t assume that just because someone isn’t drinking alcohol that they are pregnant. Circle back to point #1 to review alcohol etiquette and reasons why someone may choose not to drink.

4. Commenting on someone’s weight (up or down) and what they are eating or how much they are eating:

When patients tell me about these comments, they always irk me. Allow us to review food etiquette at social gatherings. Comments on someones weight, whether it be weight gained (which society makes us believe is “bad”) or weight lost (which society makes us believe is “good”) are not appropriate. Someone who looks more thin than the last time you saw them might actually be dealing with a crippling health condition that they are self-conscious about or perhaps they are suffering with a new eating disorder. Body comments like “you lost weight; you’re so thin; you look great” will only fuel someones disordered eating pattern. Contrary to what people think, I actually work with many people whose goal is to GAIN weight and they feel very self-conscious about their thin appearance.

If you’ve noticed someone has gained weight or is going for a second or third helping of food, it is also not your job to patrol what they are choosing to eat or how much they are eating. Sometimes with family, these comments come from a genuine place of trying to help someone lose weight but I can also promise you that these comments work the opposite way we want them to. Asking someone if they “really want that second portion” of food only actually causes them to feel shame, guilt and rebel by eating more food to deal with the emotional stress. It’s also not your job to decide how much someone should eat or whether or not they should even lose weight! If they are trying to lose weight and want your advice, they will ask. Each individual person is well aware of how they feel in their body, what their body looks like and how their appetite feels within that day. Let them make the decision as to how much food they eat and what foods they are choosing to eat. As a supportive friend or family member, your job is to be there for them and love them unconditionally.

5. Unsolicited parenting advice, comments or comparing children:

Let’s unpack this. To begin, if someone is sharing with you a parenting struggle they’re not always looking for a solution. Sometimes they just need someone to listen and validate how they are feeling. Again, I promise you that if someone wants your tips or suggestions, they will ask! They will say; “Can you help give me some ideas about what you think will help with this?”.

Example: Parent says “It’s been so tough lately, Sally is waking up multiple times in the night. I’ve been so tired”. Instead of saying “you have to try [insert sleep suggestion] it’s the only thing that worked for me and my friends”, you could say “that sounds so tough to work a full-time job and manage your house when you’re sleep deprived; if you ever want me to babysit for a couple of hours to let you rest, I’m free on Saturday afternoons”.

Also, making comments on a child’s behaviour, appearance or comparing one child to someone else’s is not appropriate. You don’t know what a family may or may not be struggling with when it comes to their child’s temperament. Comparing one child to another only makes the parent feel like they did something wrong. Children reach milestones at different rates and they all have their own unique gifts or talents that should be celebrated.

We also might need a refresher on offering food to children. Always ask the parent or caregiver whether or not you can offer their child something to eat. That child might have certain nutritional items that the family is trying to focus on, or maybe you are unaware that the child has already consumed 12 candy canes before attending the holiday dinner. The parent might be completely fine with you offering any food item to their child, but it is always important to ask them first.

Another important concept to understand is normalizing childhood behaviour. Why are children expected to sit quietly, obey every command such as “give grandma a hug right now” or not get upset if they aren’t allowed to stay up passed their bedtime? All emotions should be accepted and they should be able to exercise autonomy. It’s ok for them to be upset about something but it’s not okay to hurt someone else in the process of expressing their emotions. Children are not robots and our job as parents or caregivers is to help support their emotions and boundaries. Just because they want to stay up late doesn’t mean you have to allow it, but it does mean that they can feel upset about it and express that in a safe way. Happiness is not the only acceptable emotion.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season! All the best in the New Year.


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