Leadership English: Top 10 tips for family holiday etiquette

Politeness isn't the same as docility. Etiquette isn't the same as good manners.

WASHINGTON, December 18, 2012 – Adult to child at family party: “Behave yourself.” 

Translation: “Silence, Whippersnapper!” or “Step back, kid, you bother me.” 

Families know that holidays are different from daily life: the food, the presents, the crèche, the menorah, the piñata, lots of people and parties, and whatever else your family does that makes these days special heighten everyone’s emotions. 

Oddly enough, people are often expected to be better behaved during special events. That includes knowing two things: what the rules of the event are, and how to be nice to each other under unusual conditions. 

Learning the rules of an event is not that hard; there are instructions out there for everything from how to hire a caterer to how to hold your fork. But being nice to each other is hard to do if you’re not used to it or you don’t know how during ordinary times.

Family politeness isn’t just whether the kids act up in public or not. How we talk to each other—civility in family conversation—receives far less attention than etiquette—correctness in public conversation.  

Here are our top ten tips for family politeness that focus on good manners.   

How to treat your family as well as you treat your guests 

1. Please, thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me. Duh! But guess what? This vocabulary applies to everyone—adults, teens—and anyone old enough to say, “I want (fill in the blank.)” When you want something, make a request, not a demand, except for emergencies. “I would prefer” and “Do you mind if” take tenths of a second more than “I want.”

2. Conversation openers the whole family can use:

            Tell me …

            Show me ….

            Then wait. 

3. Tone of Voice. Hey, everybody: when you’re talking about your accomplishments, use fact, not brag. Others need your attention as much as you need theirs, so take time to ask questions and wait for the answers. Let others know if it’s hard to listen: “I can’t hear you when you’re whining.” Don’t yell or call each other names. This includes grownups. 

4. When angry or annoyed, give the reason and request a different action. Avoid the accusative case: You always, You never. Also avoid the better-than-thou case: I always, I never. (Especially useful for grown-ups who are feeling a little edgy with each other.) 

5. Don’t seek approval in non-negotiable situations. This applies to both children and adults. Adult example: “It’s time to go to bed, okay?” Child example: “Please please please please please can I stay up?” 

6. No swearing. If you’re celebrating God (or someone else’s holiday about God), or even if you just sort of care about the idea of God, it’s illogical to use Him for cursing.  

7. A Beginner’s Guide to Tact. Older children can be taught how to “reserve judgment.” But first, adults need to recall what it means. 

8. Attitude trumps activities. Some people need a little quiet time, and that’s okay, as long as it’s for recharging, not sulking. Activities that isolate an individual from the group need to be performed away from the group. These activities can include reading, meditating, talking and texting on cell phones, playing one-person-only video games, and going to the bathroom. Come back soon. We miss you.

9. “Don’t interrupt when someone else is talking.” Ignore this rule. If you take that seriously in this society, you’ll spend your life silent. Rather than not speaking at all, learn how to interrupt graciously and adroitly. “Oh really?” is a good start. 

10. Have a dress rehearsal a day or two ahead of time at home, especially if you normally aren’t that nice to each other. Practice items 1-9. Practice introductions, hellos, and good-byes. Practice giving and receiving real compliments. Teach each other how to make eye contact. This means everybody. 

To avoid dress rehearsals or the standard advance threats:  “You better behave!” “You better not (fill in the blank), etc.,” start doing steps 1-9 right away, every day. 

If these 10 tips seem unnatural or too hard to do … 

 … take a look at how family conversation used to be:   

“Do not let children be brought to the table until they are able to feed themselves, first with a spoon and next with a fork, and not then, unless they can be depended on to keep quiet and not talk. The chattering of children all dinner-time is a great annoyance to grown people. The shrill voice of a child can be distinguished annoyingly amid those of a whole company. They should be made to understand that if they talk at table they are to be immediately taken away” (Family Etiquette, by S. O. Beeton, 1876, p. 98).

 So ask your kids what they did today, and listen to the answer. Then tell them what you did. It’s a start.


Frances Ponick’s bookOnly Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at Amazon.com. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn 


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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from Amazon.com.


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