It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot avoid drama at a large family gathering. Within your nuclear family unit, you’ve learned to coexist; you can manage the emotions in that group. But once a year or so, you have to attend a gathering of all the relatives, and you can’t… get… out of it.
For many Americans, that event is Thanksgiving. For others, it may be Passover, Christmas, Divali, or Iftar. The menus differ, but family dynamics are surprisingly universal.
You arrive, happy to see everyone, but your appetizers taste of cheese and dread. Not ten minutes in, you’re trying desperately to sneak out to the car as your uncle sounds off on how millennials are lazy and then asks if you’re still working that part-time job and writing your novel. Yes, Uncle Joe. Thanks for bringing it up. As he explains to you that you should really consider a field that offers benefits, your ex-military grandpa and your cousin–a freshman at Oberlin–start bickering about the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s on.
Now the meal is underway, and your mom just can’t help but bring up deadbeat Cousin Layla. Shocking no one, half the table takes the bait and the old grudge is reignited. Pass the potatoes. Don’t engage… One more thing will set this all ablaze. Just then, your sister shows up late with her new boyfriend… who is black. You gulp down the rest of your wine and pray that Grandma’s cataracts have severely worsened in the last forty minutes.
We are now all dealing with this feeling on a global scale, all the time. I like to think of this unique moment in history as Humanity’s First Family Dinner.
Even a generation ago, it was easy to go your entire life without meeting anyone different from you. You grew up in one place, surrounded by people you understood, people you could predict, people who shared your culture and behaved just like you do. You got a job there and raised a family there. It was all, for the most part, quite comfortable.
Practically overnight, in human history terms, we found ourselves living in a world in which globalization and the internet have thrust us into direct contact with people from every culture. It’s messy, it’s noisy, and it feels like we’ll never witness a productive Facebook thread in this lifetime.
Your nuclear family is like your own culture. But now we’re all connected, which means for the first time, you’re at dinner with every culture from around the globe. And if you want to stay relevant in the 21st century, this is one dinner from which you cannot uninvite yourself.
So what can you do? Well, the way to survive Thanksgiving is to empathize. Hard. You know your dad’s military values, and you know your cousin’s identity is wrapped up in being a social justice warrior. You can understand what made each of them this way. Armed with that, you have a secret weapon: the ability to talk to them in a way they can actually hear.
The same can be done with strangers. That’s the amazing thing about culture. You don’t have to agree with everyone else’s cultural biases and perspectives…but if you learn about them, then the way those strangers make decisions and see the world will start to make a lot more sense. And then we can all start to talk it out and make kintsugi from these different perspectives.
It’s not just nice to do this; you need to do this. In the past, you could stay in your bubble forever and be none the wiser. Today, clinging to your bubble has actual consequences. You’ll be left behind.
That’s dread-inducing, but it’s also exciting. You now have access to all the cultures of the world and the stories of billions of people accumulated over tens of thousands of years. That means new customs, wisdom, and (huzzah) even new cuisine is at your fingertips! The internet is the greatest unifying tool ever invented, but until we understand the power of culture, it will only create deeper divides.
Bottom line? You can’t choose your family. And Thanksgiving isn’t going anywhere either. So instead of faking the flu, let’s show up, dig in, and hear each other’s stories. At the finish line are solutions far better than what any of us could come up with on our own. And hey, maybe there’ll also be pie.