Zoom Thanksgiving May Be the Best Thing You Do This Year

How to nurture your relationships from a distance

Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

We think of Thanksgiving as a time to reconnect with family — but for many of us, even in normal times, the reality doesn’t exactly match up. Often, Thanksgiving dinner comes with a generous helping of awkwardness that can put us on edge. This social tension may also get in the way of our ability to nurture family relationships: Maybe you use your spouse or kid as a buffer to keep people from asking probing questions about your job. Perhaps you use alcohol as a crutch. Some families have football games blaring to keep the discussion away from politics.

These defensive tactics might keep us calm, but they don’t help us really get to know the people we call family. So how can you use this year’s bizarre circumstances to facilitate more meaningful conversations with relatives? How can you be intentional about relationship-building when your normal holiday routines are upended?

You need to be curious

Humans are storytellers at heart. It’s how we connect with others. So as you share a Zoom meal or a holiday phone call, consider asking your parents, siblings, grandparents, and others to fill in the missing pieces of your family’s story. Is there an ancestor you know little about? Do you know how your family celebrated Thanksgiving 20, 30, or 50 years ago?

Being curious about your family could also look like:

  • Asking people about their challenges this year
  • Asking people about their hopes for the future
  • Learning about people’s beliefs, values, and passions

Give your relatives an opportunity to surprise you. When you begin to ask nonsuperficial questions, you open the door to finding new points in common or new ways of relating. You may discover that the great-aunt you don’t really know how to talk to is more interesting than you thought. And you might even uncover a few fascinating (and maybe even scandalous) family stories in the process.

Curiosity is also a natural antidote to anxiety because it engages the thinking (and not the reacting) part of the brain. So as awkward as a Zoom Thanksgiving dinner may feel, asking engaging questions is a great way to get over that quickly.

You need to be authentic

Building stronger relationships is a two-way street. If you want depth, interesting stories, and honest thinking from others, then you have to be willing to share more of your true self.

For many families, Thanksgiving is often a time for superficial chitchat about things like work, sports, and the weather. We stick to safe topics because we don’t want to cause anxiety or conflict in a large gathering. Or we assume people simply won’t be interested in hearing about the challenges we’ve been dealing with.

This year, consider what it would look like to skip the surface-level chatter and talk about what’s really important to you. Sharing your real self can look like:

  • Being forthcoming about your challenges
  • Being honest about your beliefs
  • Talking about what excites you and brings you joy

When my therapy clients share their struggle in talking to family members, I ask them to think about their conversations with close friends. What would you be saying if a friend asked how you were doing? In our quest to keep family gatherings running smoothly, we often forget that sharing our messier sides can help strengthen relationships that are less solid than we’d like.

When you focus more on what you value and less on how others might react, you give people the chance to truly know you and let you know them. A stronger family is built on solid one-to-one relationships. It can survive a missed Thanksgiving or two because people never stop being curious about one another.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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