And so this is Christmas. And what have we done?
Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve had a massive year and you’re looking forward to a mixture of eating, drinking, sleeping, laughing, eating some more, drinking again and possibly getting into a fight with Uncle Kev.
Because it’s Christmas in Australia mate, and fights with conservative uncles are just part of the deal. Unless you don’t celebrate Christmas, in which case I hope you enjoy your fights during Hannukah, Eid or the re-release of M*A*S*H.
First things first: I say the Judo-Christian “honour thy family” dictum is bullshit. It should be amended to “honour those people who honour you”. I like to keep people close, but if you have family members who genuinely distress you and/or are abusive, you are under no obligation to see them.
Ok, you’ve decided to go to the family lunch and you, like me, are the family member who is known for having “firm views”. This is hilarious considering that Uncle Kev’s views are the ones that are always raised first, spoken most loudly and most often, but whatevs; if you’re the firecracker in your family, you will be baited eventually. Some of my extended family go so far as to literally mime casting a fishing line as they say something offensive, just to see what I’ll do. Let’s reel her in and watch her try and get off the hook.
How do I respond?
Depends on the person, how I’m feeling and who else is there.
My main strategy these days is to smile and let them talk.
I find that within a 45 second period Uncle Kev has dismantled his own argument. He’s a bit like Pauline Hanson – give him long enough and he’ll go from Asians to Aborigines to Muslims and somehow end up at vaccination causing Autism. By the time he’s diagnosing everyone on the spectrum, the whole family has left him in his recliner.
Another approach is to answer honestly, but without emotion.
Say, for example, Uncle Kev says, “Nelly was probably down that Bourke St Mall protesting for refugees…” I smile and say, “Yes I was” … and wait for the dead air to cause a collective panic attack. Invariably one of my cousins will diffuse the tension and chime in with, “Well, you’d know Kev, given you were there at the TAB!” Gambling addiction, so funny.
Another tack is to ask questions.
I learned this one while working on ABC radio and taking talk-back calls (good practice).
Uncle Kev says, “I don’t know why those women just don’t leave!” Obviously, those women are victim-survivors of family violence, and instead of quoting the evidence or the research (facts can’t counter emotion) I might ask one or all of the following:
“Why do you think they don’t leave?”
“Where do you think they’d go?”
“Why didn’t Nanna leave?”
Uncle Kev’s answers will vary but generally I find asking him to account for his own views is far more effective that me telling him what to think or worse, telling him that his question is stupid. It’s funny, but people don’t like to be told they’re stupid – especially when you’ve had far more educational and other opportunities than they ever had.
Questions work in more light-hearted situations too.
Let’s say Uncle Kev cracks a “joke” about my youngest daughter (she’s 6 years old and has a pixie cut):
“Hey Nelly, why does she look like a boy?!”
“What do you mean?”
“Her hair! Look at her hair! It’s so short!”
“Yes it is. Looks good, doesn’t it.”
Sharp intake of breath.
“You know my hair is short, right? So is Christine’s. So is Aunty Flo’s. So was Princess Di’s.”
“Yeah, but… yeah.”
“Are we done?”
(Or you could ask how his Ashleigh and Martin is going)
Speaking of, there’s always humour.
That is, using a joke to mock, undermine or otherwise show Uncle Kev for the fewl that he is being.
Weirdly, I avoid this if I can.
My friend Jackie Kashian (American comic, look her up) talks about her Dad hurling an insult at her at Christmas lunch about her weight (endless LOLs). She looked at him and said, “Careful dad, just remember that I do this for a living.” I have honed my comedic comebacks over 16 years on stage and I am conscious of the power imbalance of a war of words/jokes with Uncle Kevs. If the insult is outrageously offensive or deliberately mean, the gloves come off, but I hold my arsenal pretty tight – make love, not war – and, in fact, I find the absolute best retort to any insult or heckle about weight, your job, your life, your kids – or whatever – is just to say, “You really hurt my feelings then.”
Watch Uncle Kev discombobulate! If he doubles down and insults you again, you’re almost guaranteed that someone else will come to your defence. Kicking someone while they’re down is about as Un-Australian as ball-tampering in back-yard cricket (although Uncle Kev no-doubt does both). If your family does collectively like to see someone kicked when they’re down, then LEAVE. See point one.
Finally, I fight. If I really have to, I will throw a conceptual elbow. Nice girls don’t always win and sometimes you have to make a fuss.
If, for example, Uncle Kev repeated any of the following real-life pearlers from the Thomas Christmas family archive, I would fight:
“Aboriginal people would be happier if they all went back to the desert”
“Some of those rape victims just make it up for attention”
“Muslims want Sharia Law here”
“Australia is being swamped by Asians”
“Sometimes those women ask for it”
(you get the gist)
There are two sides to every story and sometimes, one of them is wrong. I would tell Uncle Kev – or anyone else – who said these or similar things, that they are wrong. No equivocation, no placation. YOU. ARE. WRONG.
I would do this for three reasons: they are wrong; the standard you walk past is the one you accept, and, my kids are watching. If standing up against these beliefs results in a fight that ruins Christmas, so be it.
My default position is always to be respectful and nice, but I won’t let hate go unchallenged – I’m a woman over 40, I’m over that shit and I won’t be silenced by fear. (As an aside, I’m pleased to say that while I have required sedation, the Thomas Christmas never has resulted in a walk-out).
I’ll leave you with this story:
Last year we went to Bali for a family holiday. I was walking along in Kuta with my 10 year old daughter and her friend when a shop-keeper yelled across the road, “Hey sexy Mum, you come over here Rhonda….” (that bloody ad). I considered just laughing it off or, at most, giving him the bird, but I was conscious of the two young women watching me. Instead, I walked over to him and said, “Don’t speak to me like that and don’t ever speak like that in front of my girls.” He backed off and made some remark while the other shop-keepers fell about laughing. I looked down and saw two girls looking back at me like I was some sort of super-hero. A year later, they still talk about it.
So, as many of us gather this December to celebrate the birth of baby bon-bons, remember that you may not win with Uncle Kev, but you may convince Uncle Doug. Even better, you may let Aunty Cheryl know that you don’t think she’s stupid for not leaving or cousin Jamie that you don’t think he made it up. Resistance is worth it, just for that.
May peace be with you.
 I love my Uncle Kev. This Uncle Kev bears no resemblance to mine, for real.
Nelly Thomas is a comedian and author. If you’re looking for excellent Christmas presents for an irritating family member, buy their kids a copy of each of Nelly’s kids’ books – SOME GIRLS and SOME BOYS – both of which challenge gender roles and stereotypes. Available at Book Shops or here.