Editorial: At Thanksgiving, have a helping of family history

If politics is off the menu at the table, keep the conversation going by delving into family stories.

By The Herald Editorial Board

In a perfect world the biggest disagreement at Thanksgiving would be whether the cranberry sauce should be mounded simply in its serving dish or should keep its cylindrical fresh-from-the-can shape as long as possible as it is passed around the table.

We know that particular tiff is likely to be only the beginning for most gathering for the traditional annual assembly of family and friends; the range of personal opinions on politics and society served up to families rivals the variety of side dishes and desserts.

And frankly, America, the national news media — fresh from covering the recent gladiatorial impeachment hearings in Washington, D.C. — is a little worried that incivility is going to dominate the dinner table conversation this Thursday.

The Washington Post asked a Seattle-area author who’s written about kindness, Donna Cameron, for her tips on promoting courtesy during the family gathering.

“Science has determined that both incivility and kindness are contagious. Like a virus, they’re transmitted from one person to the next. … So, we have a choice of which contagion we want to spread,” she wrote.

Having recognized that, Cameron writes, it’s easier to answer a brother or aunt’s button-pushing with a calm and civil response. It does takes some effort. Cameron advises thinking ahead about your response if a family member goes on the attack, and even trying to understand what prompted a snide remark that goes beyond stating opinion.

Last year, Fox News talked with a psychology professor at the University of Kansas who recommended setting ground rules for acceptable conversation topics, forbidding politics if necessary.

“Make the rule clear: You’re all here to enjoy the holiday, so let’s not talk politics,” Omri Gillath said. Although for some families, political differences aren’t an invitation to hurt feelings and can lead to important and informative conversations.

“PBS News Hour,” a couple of years ago went so far as to assemble a page on Holiday Civility — conveniently placemat-sized — that can be printed out and placed at the dinner table. Among the advice it gathered:

Be an active listener and encourage positive conversations about shared values.

Ask questions in an open-ended way that doesn’t presume that only you have the right answer.

Go ahead and have those difficult conversations, but know when to end the discussion if necessary.

To that end, it can be a good plan to find something else to do, such as helping in the kitchen, watching football, going for a walk or spending time with young family members.

Avoid politics if that’s best, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit in silence.

The sharing of family stories can be the best way of encouraging understanding, strengthening familial bonds and keeping family history alive.

StoryCorps, founded to encourage people to record personal stories in one-on-one interviews — many of which are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress — has promoted what it calls the Great Thanksgiving Listen. A companion to the interviews it hosts as mobile booths throughout the country, the do-it-yourself program especially encourages younger family members to interview elders and other family members about family history, their childhoods, their lives, careers and pursuits and more.

And, since the kids are handier with these things, StoryCorps offers an app that can be used to record the interviews. The completed interviews can be kept by the family for future listening, and even shared with StoryCorps if desired.

The StoryCorps website offers links to the app, suggested equipment (most smartphones work fine) tips for interviewing, information about parental consent and privacy and links to the StoryCorps archive, including many interviews that have been illustrated with animation.

As Thanksgiving approaches, the assortment of pies doesn’t have to be the only thing you look forward to; a chance to share and hear your those stories can bring families closer, provide better understanding into each family member and make for an enjoyable day.

Even when you can’t agree on politics or the shape of the cranberry sauce.

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