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There are always plenty of conversation-potholes to fall into at any holiday party. With the economy in a tailspin, however, the list of “don’t go there” topics is much longer this year.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/18/2008 10:40:09 AM ET 2008-12-18T15:40:09

At Thanksgiving dinner with friends and relatives this year, Amy Oztan launched into a story about how times were tough, so she’d probably have to pass on getting those custom cabinets for her Brooklyn brownstone rehab project and instead go with something cheaper.

“After prattling on for a while, my aunt finally took me aside and told me that one of the guests, who’s usually interested in my house stories, had recently filed for bankruptcy and may lose her house. I felt awful.”

Ouch!

There are always plenty of conversation potholes to step in at any holiday party or family gathering: divorces, botched Botox, old grudges, that night at the karaoke bar and those extra 10 — or 15 — pounds your brother-in-law put on this past year. This year, however, the list of “don’t go there” topics is much longer and includes layoffs, lost homes, the stock market and worries about wiped out savings.

Side-step the slick spots
Unemployment is at the highest level it’s been in years and you just don’t know who got a pink slip today — or who will get one tomorrow. So this holiday season, it will be more important than ever to practice holding your tongue, monitoring signals and arriving at parties and family gatherings prepared to side-step sensitive subjects.

Not sure what to do? We asked a few experts to share some tips on how to safely navigate party patter this holiday season.

You look great! Have you lost weight?
Surely, food will be plentiful at holiday parties and gatherings. Registered dietician Jessica Setnick says she’s learned to keep her mouth shut when it comes to what others are eating. Unfortunately, her patients tell her, many friends and family members haven’t gotten that memo.

Video: Layoff etiquette: The good, the bad and the ugly Setnick says even comments meant to be positive can be triggers for those with weight issues. “You look so great! Have you lost weight?” can sound like: “You are being watched. And if you gain the weight back, like Oprah, we will notice it.” And because there are a lot of negative reasons people lose weight, such as cancer, anorexia, miscarriage, depression and post-gastric bypass complications, Setnick says, “It’s really much better not to mention anyone’s weight or eating around this time of year.” Her suggested opening line: “I’m so happy to see you!”

Open mouth, insert foot
Do any of these chit-chat fumbles sound familiar?

  • Congratulating a woman on her pregnancy; and then learning that she’s “just” gained some weight;
  • Expressing relief that someone has finally broken up with “that loser” only to find that they have reunited or are engaged;
  • Speaking ill of a co-worker only to discover he or she is standing right behind you.

Jodi R. R. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting has heard these stories — and many more — and says that’s why it’s important to brush up on your manners before heading out to a holiday party or family gathering. Of course, not everyone you meet will do so. So if you’re the one who’s just lost a job, Smith offers this advice: “If you don’t want to talk about it, try saying, ‘It is tough, but I have some great leads for after the New Year,’” and then suggests inquiring about a recent movie. And if you do want to talk about your job search, Smith suggests saying, “With this economy, it is to be expected. Do you happen to know anyone in my field?,” and then mention that you’re hoping to spend January doing informational interviews.

New year, same ol’ issues
At family gatherings, Ginnie Fox's mother-in-law has asked when Fox and her husband are going to have a baby and if they were perhaps having difficulties getting pregnant.

You probably have your own “Oh no, not this again” story. Many family gatherings are reliably stressed-out reruns of the year before. But this year, anxiety about jobs, homes and finances might ratchet those stress levels through the roof. Relationship expert Sadie Nardini offers this mantra: “Stay non-reactive.”

If someone makes a comment that riles you up, Nardini says, “Don't let your ego take over and have to prove them wrong, or say something snarky right back. It won't solve anything, except perhaps the mystery of when and where the family drama will unfold this year.” If a situation gets unbearable, she suggests you take a walk, a bath, “or even take a swing — at a baseball or punching bag at the gym.”

Of course, you don’t have to be at a family gathering to get all riled up. Things can heat up at office parties and holiday gatherings with friends, friends-of-friends and strangers, alike. Clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona offers these deflect-and-divert tips for steering clear of touchy topics:

  • Don’t commit to opinions that clearly incite strong negative reactions and conflict. Validate both or all sides of the argument and say you’re still forming your own opinion.
  • Deflect direct questions about your opinion on subjects such as religion or politics with a general question related to the same topic.
  • Be prepared with some knowledge about local or national news items. This could redirect conversations away from touchy subjects or even avoid them.

Know the code
Being prepared with jokes (clean, non-offensive) and funny stories, ice-breaker questions (“Have any tips for my 2009 reading list?”), and knowledge of current news events (“That storm out west sounds brutal!”) tops most experts’ lists for staying topic-safe this holiday season. If these tools don’t work and you find yourself cornered in an uncomfortable discussion, Dallas-based etiquette advisor Susan Huston suggests steering the conversation away from delicate subjects by “inviting others to come over and join your conversation circle.” Or you might adopt the tradition Rob Tranchin learned from his mother-in-law. “Whenever anyone brings up a topic that she considers unsuitable for dinner conversation, she’ll say ‘Oh, What a lovely centerpiece!’ That’s the code for everyone to move on to another topic.”

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Video: Guide to holiday etiquette

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