Holidays are weird, emotionally laden times. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is in love and full of twinkling lights, and sometimes it feels like everyone is in a magical winter wonderland but you, and sometimes you’ve been in line at Target for forty-five minutes and you’re thinking about hiding in the pillow aisle and taking a nap, and your mom won’t stop texting you, so you text your sister, and then the eggnog you’re holding explodes.
Plus, you spend lots of time with people who have known you forever, but may not actually know you or anything about your life. And they care (let’s just pretend they’re doing it because they care!) so they ask inappropriate questions in the name of small talk.
If you’re unmarried and of a certain age, relatives love to ask you why. The right answer is a complicated Venn diagram depending on how you’re feeling about yourself, your life, and that relative on that day.
And while it’s tempting to think of something cutting to say in return, let’s be real. Your grandma has lived through multiple world wars and may not deserve that. So here are nine all-too-real interactions and survival tactics designed to help you last past dessert.
1.The Too Little Information
Scene: Your mother and her flock of neighborhood best friends—the women who raised you, fed you, hugged you, and sent you out into the world—call you over. They spend ten minutes dissecting the love lives of their children, their nieces and nephews, the mailman’s children, and their favorite celebrities’ children. They’ve all read the recent news articles about Tinder, ghosting, and this week’s Modern Love column. They cover which venture capitalists have invested in which apps recently. They analyze the changing statistics about how one’s income, age, and level of education affect one’s chances for getting and staying married. Then they turn to you and ask what it’s really like out there for you.
2. The Too Much Information
Scene: Your dad’s twin sister really restrains herself this year. She waits until grace is said and in the pause while the table is still quiet, she booms out, “How’s your love life? You know, the problem with you kids is you can’t commit!”
Comeback: “I ate Honeynut Cheerios on my couch last night while watching Jane the Virgin, making a PowerPoint for work, swiping on Tinder, and deleting spam messages on OKCupid. Do you want to see the twenty-minute conversation I had with a man about the differences between Corgis and Dachsunds? I made an Anthony Wiener joke and he asked if I was a Democrat and then blocked me.”
3. The Interference
Scene: You and your uncle, who’s always been more of an older brother, are watching the parade on television while drinking beer on the couch. You’ve always idolized him as the epitome of cool—he was riding a motorcycle when you were in middle school, and he’s brought a series of beautiful girlfriends with awesome hair to holidays over the years. Watching him taught you everything you know about flirting. He’s holding his six-month-old and keeping an eye on his toddler, who is playing a game on his phone that appears to involve landing the actual Mars Rover on the moon. “You think you know how much it means to meet your person and build your own family together,” your uncle says. “But it’s even greater thank you think it is. You’ll see.”
Comeback: Your younger brother throws a football through the living room.
4. The Emily Post for the New World
Scene: Your priggish cousin Tad drapes his arm around his new wife, who is friendly, kind, and after the wedding discarded the boulder Tad gave her as an engagement ring in favor of a slim, plain wedding band. She makes you think Tad must have some redeeming quality that you haven’t seen in the thirty years you’ve known him. “Living the dream! No ball and chain dragging you down,” Tad says.
Comeback: Pretend you didn’t hear him and ask his lovely wife if she would like a piece of rum cake. You don’t have to be nice to people who suck.
5. The Truth Isn’t That Interesting
Scene: Your grandmother hands you a biscotti, pats your hand, and readjusts the one bobby pin in her nest of curls. “Now,” she says as she takes off her shoes, “tell me what’s going on with all those dating apps I keep hearing about. Have you met anyone nice recently?”
Comeback: “I’ve been on some very boring dates with some very nice people. I dated this one man for about two months but then his work transferred him to another city. I’ve been on three dates with someone I like okay, but I think we have different values around money, family, politics, and lifestyle, so I probably won’t pursue that much further.”
6. The Millennial
Scene: Your mom sits you down to have an in-depth conversation. After you’ve covered work, the presidential candidates, current events, and the changed recipe for blueberry muffins at the nearby bakery (less sweet, which is nice, but they’ve lost something in the texture), she asks about your most recent break-up.
Comeback: Start texting. Nothing is real except your phone. Be the phone.
7. The Jane Austen
Scene: Your second cousin Matilda on your father’s side has five cats, each represented by a bejeweled broach on her bouclé jacket. Her husband has fallen asleep at the table at every dinner you’ve ever attended with him. He snores gently beside her as she zeroes in on you. “When are you going to find a nice wife and settle down and give your poor parents grandchildren?” Matilda asks.
To her credit, your mother looks horrified.
Comeback: “Ah, yes. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen wrote that in 1813. Have we really not changed at all in over a century? Is this still a truth universally acknowledged? I perhaps find myself more in need of the good fortune than the wife—having graduated in 2008, I’m earning less than my peers from 25 years ago and am deeply in debt to society for the cost of my education.”
8. The Wink and a Smile
Scene: Your aunt’s best friend swoops down you as you’re carrying a full load of precariously stacked dishes to the kitchen. You’ve met for the first time that night. Without any preamble, she asks how old you are. Startled, you answer. She trills cheerily, “Oh, you have plenty of time! I didn’t get married until I was 33!”
Comeback: “I also have plenty of dates!” Nudge her with a chummy elbow—and drop the plates.
9. The This-Got-Real-Fast
Scene: Your dad’s friend from business school, who always asks you to call him Uncle Harry and acts as though he’s family even though you’ve met him a total of three times, looks unreasonably pleased to be seated next to you at dinner. He has no children. He’s been married four times. “Looks like they seated the singles together!” he says happily. “Now, an old man like myself, I understand—although between you and me, I play golf five times a week and I’m more fit than I was when I was twenty, if you know what I mean—” He winks. “But a lovely young woman like yourself—what are you doing without a date?”
Comeback: “You know, I’m not sure. I think I’d be a good partner. I’ve invested a fair amount of time, energy, and effort into looking. They say you should create a happy life for myself and I’ve done that. But it just doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Maybe it’s a matter of luck? Would you mind passing the sweet potatoes, please?”