By Chris O’Shea
A typical Thanksgiving goes something like this: Arrive at a house, complain about the Cowboys playing, then eat until you fall asleep. But that all changes if the day happens to be your first holiday with your significant other’s family. Instead of being relaxed to the point of walking around with your pants unbuttoned, you must be on. Instead of leaving an impression on the couch, you must be impressive. But not to worry—we’ve got your back.
Anna Post, of The Emily Post Institute, is an etiquette expert. Stephan Labossiere is a certified relationship coach. Together they’ve got plenty of ideas for how you can make it through this stressful first Thanksgiving. All you have to do is heed their advice.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
The first Thanksgiving with your girlfriend’s family is all about preparation. You’re going to have to do some work before the day even arrives. If your girlfriend happens to have game tape you can study—note how grandpa goes from pleasant to emo after his third scotch—that’s great. But short of that, you must ask her what to expect. The days prior to Thanksgiving are also the time to discuss how you’ll answer awkward questions, like when you’re getting married, what about kids, etc. “If you go into the day prepared for these kinds of questions,” Labossiere explains, “you won’t get rattled when they come up. So talk to your partner beforehand. You should already know how you’re going to answer certain things.”
If you’re wondering about bringing something: Do it. Post says a bottle of wine, flowers or chocolates is always a good bet, but again, do your research. Your girlfriend will know what you should bring. And just like a job interview, you want to dress better than you normally do.
See more: How to Spend Thanksgiving Alone
Act like them, (but be yourself)
When you arrive at your partner’s house, “Go for it,” says Post. “That’s the most important thing.” In other words, do whatever they do. If it’s a simple hearty handshake, good. If an aunt wants dap, go right ahead. However, avoid an over-the-top pounding of your chest and an “Aunt Jane, you’re my heart!” afterward. “You have to be yourself,” says Labossiere. “You don’t want to sell them on a personality that’s not you.” If being oddly intimate with strangers is actually something you do, then by all means, let auntie know.
Make small talk, not arguments
Believe it or not, the time before you eat can be more intense than the dinner. At least during dinner you can make inane observations about cranberries and no one will think twice. But beforehand, you’re in the Wild West of conversations. Anything goes. It’s highly likely that you’ll get stuck in a stand off, staring down a sibling who says Drake is the undisputed king of hip-hop. Before you draw first with intent to kill, keep in mind what you’re there for, says Post. “Just remember your priorities. You’re there to get to know someone’s family. People have strong feelings, so if you’re sensing disagreement, understand that you’re not going to gain ground, you’re only going to start fights, and that’s not why people get together.” But yeah, obviously the dude is an idiot.
Watch your table manners
This is it. Dinner is your time to shine. That’s because it’s all about reacting. Don’t eat until the host starts eating. Let the conversation come to you. Read what the defense is giving you, go through your progressions, and deliver a spiral. “Feed off of them and play off of them,” Labossiere says. “You might want to discuss things, but let them guide the conversation. Everyone is sitting in one place, so there will be questions. Just be prepared to answer and be genuine. Don’t try to throw a topic out there, because you never know what is and isn’t accepted.”
See more: 5 New Rules of Fall Layering
If you do decide to initiate some dialogue, play it safe. Post suggests looking at family photos before sitting down and asking about them. It shows you’re interested, and hopefully the family’s trip to the Grand Canyon isn’t an intense subject. Also, always compliment the chef—even if you’re positive the food is going to exit your body in a very bad way.
One thing we should mention that might seem obvious: Turn off your phone. Post and Labossiere both mentioned this. It should be off from the moment you walk in the door, but at the very least, shut it down during dinner.
When everyone is done stuffing their faces, offer to help clean up. It’s a great way to show that you care, says Post. Also, this is your chance to get away from the cousin who just tried to start a conversation with “Them indians—oh, excuse me, Native Americans—sure complain a lot, don’t they?”
Depart gracefully and graciously
We’re sure your Irish Exit skills are legendary, but now is not the time. “You’re going to want to say goodbye, rather than slinking off into the night,” says Post. Go around to everyone who is left and say a quick, but genuine goodbye. If you’re dealing with a big family, start this process about seven minutes after you arrive.
More from GQ:
photo: Romulo A Yanes