Uncle Tim just stormed out the back door, leaving Aunt Cynthia in a puddle of crocodile tears. The family didn’t even have time to pass out French silk pie before the blow-up, having already endured cousin Lilly’s latest rant about why the neighborhoods aren’t safe like they used to be.
Etched into the skin of Father is the stressed-out-of-his-mind look from all the preparations and near-miss accidents from holiday traffic. Nana breaks the awkward stares by morbidly insisting on more photos since she’s certain this will be her last Christmas.
Now, Spot is peeing all over the presents nestled beneath the $40 Vermont fir. Happy holidays indeed.
Is it comical, sure. Did you actually just experience this Tuesday with the good chance of additional parties with in-laws and relatives still on the calendars, most likely.
Put a group of people who are well too familiarized with all the buttons, quirks and histories associated with each, and you might as well have better access to who they are as a person than the NSA.
Why is it then that we have such a hard time relating to those most related to us? I don’t think we ask why enough.
Why, the question most readily asked by toddlers in full-blown intellectual development. The question not to ask others if you want to engage their front of defensive responses, shut downs or walk outs.
That said, why is incredibly helpful to internally ask ourselves. Now, before we do, there’s a caveat that needs to be said here: Rude is relative.
Like the cultures of the world today whose clusters possess characteristics relative to one another, personal behaviors are relative to the standard in which one compares. Someone could be seen as relaxed when compared to you while simultaneously seen as rigid from the vantage point of another.
Why is that the case? Good job, you’re already getting the hang of this whole question thing.
Asking questions is just what we might need to navigate the naughty and nice in our family interactions.
1. Why ask why?
Every human being has an intrinsic desire to be known, to be loved and to make an impact. How one is wired genetically, influenced spiritually and shaped environmentally all influence the way this manifests.
Efficiency and value are underlying drivers to these factors. They are universal with localized expressions. This is as helpful to know when engaging across cultures as it is across the family dinner table.
For example — with acknowledgement that there are unique personalities and subcultures present — Nordic clusters of people value efficiency in work through egalitarian expressions of authority whereas Confucian Asian populations value efficiency in work through hierarchical leadership. Two localized expressions of a common human value of leadership and order in place to make an impact.
With that said, human interaction helps accomplish or detract from inherent goals of being known, loved and impactful that are personally expressed. This is where why comes to play.
We need to ask why because different behaviors aren’t necessarily wrong or rude. More often than not, they are misunderstood.
2. Why do I feel this way?
Starting with oneself is critical. Too often, we jump to assessing someone else without considering how we contribute to both what is happening around us and how we interpret those actions.
So much of the introduction to this article used adjectives, qualifiers to actions that I am interpreting. I am interpreting that Uncle Tim “stormed off.” I am interpreting that Aunt Cynthia has “crocodile tears.” I am interpreting that Father is “stressed out” and Nana is “morbid.”
Why? What of my own value system is at play in how I am interpreting these actions?
Does Nana being honest in her assessment of growing older rub me the wrong way because I value projects around me and have forgotten the brevity of relationships? Am I concerned about Dad’s stress because I have been out of state and unable to help alleviate all the demands?
Suddenly I am part of the equation to family holidays.
3. Why are they acting this way?
Americans really struggle with seeing the inseparable relationship to space and history. I can easily view actions as occurring in a vacuum, where my home and workplace are mere stages to act upon instead of contributing to who I am.
Everyone decking the halls around you does not live in a vacuum. They have arrived at this moment having lived a lot of life before what is now.
Uncle Tim grew up with a dad who stormed off instead of unpacking what he is feeling. He never had someone model appropriate conflict resolution.
Nana feels like she isn’t valued by her family and often ignored. This is something she has struggled with believing about herself since she was a child. Talking about this being her last holiday helps her feel known and seen.
4. Why do I want this to be different?
You too are not living in a vacuum. You are a dynamic human being with your own hopes and expectations coming into the holidays.
You’ve been living away from your hometown and hoped to create new memories of making snow angels and singing Christmas carols instead of grabbing Kleenex and watching your nephew take 2.5 million Snapchats. You are coming into this holiday after a recent breakup and didn’t want to think about pain for a few days.
Suddenly, there’s a new explanation to the qualifier of your grandmother’s death-laced speaking and the high blood pressure coursing through your padre. Your own vantage point influences how you imagined it to be different.
Your values matter, but it is helpful to check your expectations too. Ask why you want this to be different in addition to understanding why you feel the way you do.
5. Why do I see their words as rude?
This is the hardest. When we have walked through understanding our values, their experiences and our expectations, we approach reframing their actions and words around the values that stem from them.
Often, words that are meant to be done in love counter the values we possess. You value your impact in the school system by taking less salary for the sake of students having extracurricular opportunities; Momma asks what other opportunities are out there for you because she is worried you will not be able to financially take care of yourself.
Done out of love, but it hurts. Stopping to ask both their intentions and our triggers helps consider that hurt from a different angle.
Note: This does not nullify their need to do the same thing and possess emotional intelligence in dialoguing with you. Learning how then to discuss these hurts while being mindful of their value system is the goal.
This why starts with seeking to look at the motivation behind the action. This doesn’t mean their words or actions cease to rub you the wrong way any more than the oddity of driving on the opposite side of the road, but it helps to reorient and see meaning out of the apparent absurdity or rudeness.
Making a resolution this year to avoid rude-less situations is even less likely than that audacious goal to stop drinking caffeine cold turkey. Human interaction will breed misunderstandings.
These questions are not silver bullets to relinquish the grinches in your family (and your own spirit). They are more like Rudolph’s nose so bright to help guide around those misreadings.