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Norman Rockwell may have depicted Thanksgiving dinner as a glowing, joyous affair, but many of us know that that’s simply not reality. What’s usually thicker: Mom’s gravy or the tension at the dinner table? Despite the bumpiness that’s part and parcel for holiday gatherings, not getting to travel to see family is a bummer this year. Thanks to the advent of Zoom, though, many families are able to gather virtually.
A virtual gathering still calls for proper etiquette, though. No one wants to look at a screen filled with screaming squares. Whether you’re hosting or attending a virtual Thanksgiving gathering, here are some expert etiquette tips.
You can’t avoid the “p” words, but you can be tactful
A big election will have just taken place and the pandemic is the reason we’re having a virtual gathering in the first place. So, as much as general consensus suggests that you shouldn’t talk about politics at the dinner table, it’s going to be unavoidable this year ― and that’s OK.
It’s important to check in on your friends and family, said Thomas P. Farley, who is better known by the moniker Mister Manners. “We know from all the research that it’s a time of high social anxiety, there’s depression, there are genuine mental health and emotional concerns,” he said. “If we’re not inquiring about the well-being of our loved ones, I think we’re doing them a disservice.” But, he suggests having those conversations one-on-one ahead of the Thanksgiving gathering. That way the meal isn’t being dominated by conversation about the pandemic, but it’s not being ignored, either.
It’s also to be expected that people will want to talk about current events including politics and racial injustice, said Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert based in California.
“It’s acceptable to engage in these conversations,” she said. “However, I do believe that it should be approached with compassion for others, and consideration and compassion for those who attend the gathering.”
One option is to consider putting people in breakout rooms, she said. Breakout rooms are sessions that split off from the main Zoom meeting, allowing participants to meet in smaller groups that are private and isolated from the audio/video of the main session. “Let them have at it and enjoy, because some people really enjoy that sort of banter,” she said with a laugh.
But it’s ultimately the host’s call
If the host really feels strongly that political chitchat shouldn’t clog the virtual feed, they need to make that clear.
“Each host has the right to make a decision as to what type of event they have, and how far they want various conversations to go,” Swann said. Don’t feel bad if you don’t want that kind of talk at your Thanksgiving gathering, but have something else to suggest in its place (here are some prompts to get you started).
Keep the event short
One silver lining of a virtual Thanksgiving celebration is that it probably won’t stretch into a six-hour event. “You don’t have anyone nipping off to watch a football game and taking a nap on the sofa or being a little too tipsy,” Farley said.
You can eat a full meal together if you’d like, but Farley suggests bringing loved ones together at a designated time for a brief period. A late-afternoon toast, for example, would be a great way to convene before sending everyone off to have their own dinners.
Have an agenda
One of the best ways to keep things running smoothly, Swann said, is to have an agenda. It can be somewhat loose, but it should include a time to log on, as well as a designated activity or engagement. If you have a family tradition that can be adapted for a virtual gathering, put that on the agenda. Having a plan helps prevent people from talking over one another — and chances for awkward silence.
Use the mute button wisely
Anyone who has attended a Zoom meeting knows that the mute button is your friend. Cross-talking or background noise is bound to happen when multiple people are on a call, so it’s the host’s prerogative to click mute when necessary. But guests should also be mindful.
“For any individuals whose environment is noisy, they should promptly mute themselves,” Farley said. “And the host can make a brief request at the start of the call that anyone with a noisy environment please do so.”
If guests don’t take that initiative, the host of the call should quickly send a private message asking that they turn off their mic, Farley said. If the person doesn’t know how (or maybe has stepped away from the computer and is unable) the host should be ready to do so, following up with a direct message in chat letting the person know.
Ask everyone to share something they’re thankful for
It’s possible your Thanksgiving dinners have always started with a round robin of guests sharing what they’re thankful for. This is not the year to skip that ritual! If you’re hosting, tell people to think of something they’re grateful for when you send out your invitation.
Don’t use distance as an excuse to skip the holidays
It would be easy to use the pandemic as an excuse to not bring your loved ones together for the holidays.
“More than ever, we all really need this,” Farley said.
A gathering like this might have its own stressors, but it can also help families hit the reset button at the end of a bonkers year.
“Let’s hope that we can see in the celebration of something like Thanksgiving is something that lasts past the pandemic,” he said. “And that we’re not just squares on a computer, but that we allow others to talk and focus on the true meaning of what Thanksgiving is supposed to be all about.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.