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20-40-60 Etiquette: How to politely avoid conversation traps

QUESTION: Any ideas on how to change the subject gracefully when a heated conversation comes up at a family gathering? We recently had gathering of 10 relatives for dinner, and the subjects that people talked about started to get uncomfortable. Several of our group went home early. As host, what should I have done?

CALLIE’S ANSWER: Hopefully if it is a family gathering, you can stop the conversation quickly by just being honest. Maybe say something along the lines of “change the subject,” or “let’s move away from that topic.”

LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: Sometimes you have to be direct, and other times you have to be subtle, but this situation requires some finesse.

Every subject right now feels like a minefield — you can’t even talk about something that used to be light-hearted — like going back to school — without things getting heated with differing opinions about how to handle school this fall. It’s so hard to figure out the best course of action with the coronavirus invading everything we’re doing these days, and so many conversations have the potential to turn angry quickly, whether virus-related or not.

As the host, as you sense things getting too heated, I would start by trying to subtly change the subject to something else — recent family vacations if any, work, ideas for recreation, how people were holding up with all of the world events (keep that one to individuals’ mental or physical health and sincerely ask how they are doing), etc. Maybe you could think of some topics ahead of time. If that didn’t work, acknowledge the difficulty of solutions to major problems in these times, lightly declare that everything’s a mess and recommend changing the subject so you can enjoy one another as a family. I think you can publicly acknowledge how heavy XYZ topic is and the difficulty our leaders must be having to figure out a way forward when we can’t agree on much while reaffirming the family ties that brought you together. Hopefully, people will shift focus before others start squirming and leaving.

HELEN’S ANSWER: The goal of conversation in a group in your home should be to make everyone feel comfortable. When hot topics come up, someone may feel trapped. You can change the topic gracefully and maybe pivot with a question. You can acknowledge the person’s feelings about an issue saying, “I see that you have strong feelings about this issue” and then suggest that everyone leave it there.

You can always throw out the age-old convictions from our mothers about not talking about religion, politics and money in a group setting.

GUEST’S ANSWER: Kirsten Cash, speech-language pathologist and mother of four: This is always a tough situation for all involved. You have a few options. The first is to attempt to segue the conversation to a more neutral topic. “Well, I am looking forward to Aunt Betty’s BBQ ribs! How about everyone else?” “Let’s talk about Cousin Suzy’s upcoming wedding! Suzy, how is the planning coming along?” “Have you all heard about the new store/restaurant opening soon?”

Another option is the more indirect route of drawing attention away from the topic. “Look at Sally do those cartwheels! She is quite the gymnast!” “It is so much fun seeing all the little ones playing together! Can you all believe our family has grown this much?” “Did I just hear the fireworks starting? Let’s all go outside and see.”

A final option is to be direct and say something such as, “I know we have all been looking forward to spending this time together, and I love how passionate we each are about our perspectives on so many topics. While we are together, let’s focus on our time with each other and try to avoid topics that may not suit everyone’s comfort level.”

Since 2009 Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include guest responses from a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is 20-plus; Lillie-Beth, 40-plus and Helen, 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email