Manners and etiquette: Tips for successful family gatherings

Politeness and listening go a long way. Photo: F.X. Winterhalter

WASHINGTON, January 5, 2013 – The memories of year-end holidays are already fast receding into our fond—and not-so-fond—individual memory holes. Some families and individuals will remember December 2012’s social events with delight. Others will be glad they’re over. And we’d guess that at least a slim majority of our readers wish things had gone better during their most recent family gatherings. Manners and etiquette on the part of family members, or the lack thereof, are largely to blame for such holiday regrets. But simple civility is really the key to avoiding them in the future.

Families know that holidays are different from daily life. Celebrating them with other members of the extended family tends to carry a little extra emotional baggage, which can turn a simple or casual phrase or action into something that becomes unintentionally loaded with negative emotions and hurt feelings.  

Oddly enough, people are often expected to be better behaved during special events, even though they often don’t. Better and sunnier behavior, though, 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 plenty of instructions and how-to manuals out there on 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. Sure you’ll find manuals for this, and rules of etiquette for that. But striving for genuine, disarming politeness doesn’t get much coverage.

Family politeness isn’t simply a matter of whether the kids act up in public or not. (They probably will.) How we talk to each other—civility in family conversation—is actually more important for avoiding those legendary, grinding family spats. But again, this subject usually gets far less attention than “the rules” of manners and etiquette, i.e., correctness in public conversation. And yet understanding how simple conversational civility eases the path toward a better family atmosphere can help many families to avoid the communications pitfalls that may have darkened their latest family gathering. 

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and the kids were perfectly well-behaved, right? So why not all of us? (Painting by Franz Xavier Winterhalter.)

If you and your family have found yourselves in that unfortunate place as this new year begins, let’s take a look at ten tips and techniques you can learn to turn that next family get-together into a warm and memorable success. Not to mention, a whole lot more fun, too. 

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 cussing. If you’re celebrating God (or someone else’s holiday about God), or even if you just sort of care about the concept of God, it’s illogical to use Him for cursing. Ditto for the usual vulgar expressions. The kids will happily pick them up and use them in the home if they hear them in the home.  

Why can’t we be like they were, perfect in every way? This middle-class Victorian family was obviously a model for deportment during holiday dinner. We suspect we would be, too, if we wanted some of that swell plum pudding Dad’s about to dish out.

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. This may seem counter-intuitive in an article that’s endorsing civility. But alas, if you take this rule seriously in this society, you’ll spend your the remainder of your life as silent as a strict order Cistercian monk. 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. Ridiculous? Laborious? Give it a try. 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.  

On the other hand, if you want to avoid dress rehearsals or the standard advance threats:  “You better behave!” “You better not (fill in the blank), etc.,” start getting in practice with steps 1-9 right away, every day. It’ll give you a head start on that next family get-together. 

If these tips seem too hard …  

 … 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 dinnertime 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).

Yeesh. We can do better in the 21st century, can’t we? So why don’t we begin by asking our kids or grandkids what they did today, and then by stopping to actually listen to the answer. Then tell them what you did. It’s a start. 

(An earlier version of this article appeared elsewhere in WTC.)


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 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


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