Zoom Thanksgiving is not the same as in-person. Not anywhere close.
The other day I hosted a Zoom Friends-Giving, and I’ll be honest: while I love seeing my friends, having to do yet another event on Zoom makes me unbearably sad. This winter and holiday season is filled with uncertainty, exhaustion, sickness, and frustration, and I’m scared that it’s going to get even harder.
Yet everywhere I look, people are packing their bags, trying to figure out a way to make Thanksgiving work this year, and making excuses when we should be making really hard decisions.
But I get it. It’s really REALLY hard, because family dynamics, social dynamics, and decision fatigue are all smothering us. Here’s why it’s so hard to say no to your family members, and here’s what you CAN say.
But it’s really hard to say no to family members, and so people all debating: do we go to Thanksgiving this year?
Let me help you get out of going to Thanksgiving. In this essay, I’m going to break down the main reasons that make it so hard for us to say no when we know better, I’ll tell you what I think you should do for Thanksgiving this year (spoiler alert: don’t travel or go anywhere unless you absolutely have to), and then I’ll tell you how I would start the conversation about you not traveling or going anywhere right now. I’ll share what phrases and scripts you can use to make this as easy as possible to do the right thing, even though it feels so impossibly hard. Plus, I’ll share a few ideas for new traditions you can build with your family during the time of COVID.
Why you’re struggling to say no to the holiday invitations (even when deep down you already know you should cancel)
1 —IT’S HARD TO STOP A TRAIN THAT’S MOVING
One thing I notice is that it’s really hard to stop a train that’s moving. People are notoriously bad at changing their minds in social situations with a lot of pressure, or after a first decision has already been made. If you look at group dynamics in psychological experiments, you’ll see that people trend towards making the group happy and will continue to behave in ways that support the group, even if it’s not great individually.
“Ahh, we already told my mom we’re going,” a friend told me, “and I don’t want to have to tell everyone that we’ve changed our minds.” If you feel this stress, you’re not alone—it’s hard to speak up and change a decision that is already in progress. In physics, this is called inertia, or more formally Newton’s First Law—objects in motion stay in motion “unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.”
Put in conversational terms, you’re not going to change the direction of your Thanksgiving plans unless you take active action and external force—aka, you speak up.
2 — WE ALL WILLINGLY LIE TO EACH OTHER JUST TO FIT IN
Another friend-of-a-friend of mine started a road trip to visit her relative, and halfway through the drive, her relative called her (while driving!) and confessed they had COVID. The relative didn’t say anything until AFTER she started driving, probably because they knew that it’s way harder to stop something in motion. It’s easier to say no earlier. When we wait to say no, the stakes get higher and we’re more willing to lie to ourselves and each other to avoid angering the group.
We are wired this way, because it’s part of our survival: we are wired for connection, because being alone means some sort of certain social (or real) death. So we lie to fit in, to not reject the group norms. There’s a psychological phenomenon for this, known as the Asch conformity experiments, where people in groups will switch their answers to a knowingly wrong answer just to go along with the group.
3 — AND THE SUNK COST FALLACY GETS US EVERY TIME
Another thing that really gets us are all those so-called “sunk costs.” When you book a photographer for $5k for a wedding that’s non-refundable, you say “Argh, I don’t want to lose that $5k,” so you make a bad decision based on previous decisions, and you say “We’re going ahead anyways, because I don’t want to lost the money.” Then 55 people gather together for the wedding and 7 people die as a result (this is a real story). Was it worth the $5k? Later, you’ll say no.
But it’s something that happens all the time. You already booked the flights for Thanksgiving. You already have hotel reservations paid for. You already took a week off of daycare to try to stay isolated, and you just found out Grandpa Joe has been going to the gym without a mask every single day.
Do you still go forward with the plans you made, now that things have changed?
Why you need to be brave and go against the group this year.
This is the moment when, mid-drive, you need to flip the car around and you need reject the previous decision, maybe even the group. This is the moment when someone—you—needs to stand up and exert some inertia in the opposite direction. The group won’t make a good decision if it keeps trending in the same direction you’re heading in. People are afraid to stand up and say something. I know: it’s a feeling that feels impossible, but I want you to reframe it as one of the bravest things you can do.
You can either stay where you are and keep on with what you planned, a sense of dread growing in your stomach, because you already paid, already planned, already set it up, already promised.
Or you can look at the information that’s out there, take a deep breath, re-evaluate and make a new decision.
Don’t stick with one decision you made weeks ago just because you’re afraid of changing your mind.
So I’m going to give you a special invitation: you’re invited to the grown-ups table. I’m hosting. All are welcome.
So, for Thanksgiving, and for the holidays ahead, I want to give you a new group to fit in with. You’re invited to the grown-ups table.
YOU ARE WELCOME HERE, AT THE GROWN-UPS TABLE
The grown-ups’ table is a table I’ll be sitting at, and it’s filled with grown-ups making hard choices that protect the lives of people around them. We know that we face short-term rejection and the lies of other people around us trying to cajole us into doing things.
At the grown-ups table, you’re welcome to drink heavily and over-eat and watch TV and do whatever you need to do to get through the season.You’re welcome to cry if you need to, or vent your anger about the people who are being stubborn and willfully ignorant.
JUST DON’T LIE TO YOURSELF
The facts out there are awful and they are real:
- COVID rates are higher than they ever have been in nearly every state in the USA.
- COVID is a sneaky little lurker, and it lies in wait across lots of asymptomatic (read: “they don’t look sick”) people.
- It takes 7-10 days for you to get or feel sick after exposure.
- People feel “kind of” sick for a while, and then for some people, the virus takes a hard turn and things get worse, fast.*
- It takes another two weeks or so after getting sick for the hospitalizations to start.
- The death rates lag behind the infection rates.
*My cousin works at the CDC and I ran this bullet list by her to double check it’s overall accuracy. She says it’s all confirmed by data so far, except for the fourth point—you can’t tell this one exactly from the data, but it is anecdotally what people are saying.
LET ME PUT THIS EVEN MORE BLUNTLY: WE’RE HEADING FOR A CHRISTMAS + HOLIDAY SEASON WHERE EVERYONE WILL KNOW SOMEONE SICK, DEATHLY SICK, OR DEAD. WE DON’T WANT DEAD PEOPLE AS A CHRISTMAS PRESENT.
So please, if you can, opt out of shared meals for Thanksgiving, and stay home. Weather through a miserable Zoom event because I guarantee you the sadness at missing your friends IRL is way easier to stomach than losing someone you love, forever. Okay, so that’s the hard part. Now let’s get to the useful stuff.
You know you need to make a decision, and you need to tell your family about it as soon as possible.
HOW DO YOU DO IT? Next, I’ll share how I’d say it.
How to communicate with your family members about hard things
FIRST, GET OUT OF FAMILY GUILT TRIPS
I see see people dealing with lots of family guilt trips, aka, family members that unleash their pain and frustration on you, or give you some sort of emotional wring-out when you decide not to do what you typically do as a family.
How I deal with it is like this: first, remember that they are expressing pain and they may be doing it in a terrible way (aka, taking it out on you). It’s not cool, but if you can remember that they are expressing pain, and people in pain sometimes want other people to also feel in pain, you can separate the sting a little bit. The best response is to acknowledge and address the pain rather than engaging in a fight. “I know this sucks. This really hurts. I get it. I know how much you want to see us. I know how much you want to be able to get together.”
If they’re still wielding word wars and slinging awful things at you (words can hurt!), then step two is to set a boundary, not to engage. Don’t say “Yeah BUT YOU ARE TOO” back at the Aunt that’s being mean (if you can help it).
Instead, you can say:
“Hey, I know you’re in a lot of pain—I am too—but I can’t let you talk to me that way. It’s not okay.”
Another way of phrasing it is,
“I know that you’re feeling hurt and frustrated, and I am too. This is bigger than us and our family, and I don’t want to get into a blame competition where we try to make this about the other person when it’s a huge problem beyond just us.”
A more direct way of saying it is
“I know that this sucks and we’re going to miss each other. I love you and I really want to see you. It’s not okay for you to take this out on us, and it makes it even harder when you blame us for all of this when it’s not our fault.”
Then you hang up, or say “We can talk about this later when it’s not so intense.”
MAKE THE DECISION
People are exhausted by decisions right now, and it feels safer to avoid them. Don’t avoid this one. You need to make a decision. I know it’s hard to do, so if you need someone to tell you what to do, I can do that. Right now I’d say opt for the thing that keeps you in the smallest, safest bubble, and skip the gatherings this Thanksgiving.
COMMUNICATE IT CLEARLY
People struggle with this part. We waffle, we waver, we say all sorts of things. Say what you’re doing clearly and specifically. “We’re not going to do in-person gatherings and we won’t be traveling this year. We will miss you so much and we love you so much. We won’t be coming to your house for Thanksgiving.”
Don’t forget this step, stringing people along or being vague is not helpful.
Another thing you might say: “We are not going to do ANYTHING indoors, and we are not going to any event without masks. If it’s indoors or people aren’t wearing masks, we’ll have to decline.”
Remember: clear communication involves saying it early, saying it often, and repeating yourselves. Most people don’t hear you the first time you say something, so you’ll need to be a bit of a broken record about it. (Sidebar: my children do not understand what a “broken record” is. We all are living in a new world.)
DON’T FORGET TO TELL PEOPLE YOU LOVE THEM, YOU MISS THEM, AND YOU CARE ABOUT THEM
What people hear when we tell them we’re not coming to their event, their dinner, or their house is that we don’t love them or want to be with them. Reassure them that you love them immensely and that this decision was super hard. Don’t forget to tell people you love them and you care about them.
The reason this sucks is because we conflate not seeing people with the message that we don’t love them. It’s worth being very clear that you love them very much and that this is really hard. When talking to my cousin, she told me, “I travel every year and I spend a whole bunch of money to spend a week with the people I love so much, but live very far away from.” Not traveling, she explained, felt like it was somehow saying she doesn’t love them.
Tell people how much you love them and how much you’ll miss them. This is the part that feels most stolen from all of us this year—the inability to see, hug, and be with the people we love the most, the people who feel like home, or the patterns that feel like home (even if the people part is complicated).
CREATE A NEW TRADITION, TOGETHER
Just because we’re not getting together doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate and spend time, money, or thoughtfulness on each other. What if you decided to mail presents to each other each day, for two weeks? Play “Secret Santa” or rather, “Secret Turkey,” and mail a letter, a present, or a surprise to each other every day for fourteen days.
Make staying home an adventure to look forward to while we get through these tough weeks.
- Create photo albums for each other, or create a video movie together.
- Play games on Zoom, or complete the entire NYT 36 questions with your family members in a series of Zoom calls.
- Take the time to interview your parents and record memories for your kiddos by capturing their histories in a time capsule.
If you’re creating a new tradition, a great way to start is to begin by identifying the pieces you love about the holidays. What are your favorite parts? Games? Snuggles? Being cozy? Movies? Food? Break it down and figure out what your favorite parts are. Maybe you decide to each invent a new Thanksgiving dish—from the comfort of your own home—and get on Zoom and describe what you made and how it turned out.
Do something, if you can, to capture the part of the holidays that you love the most.
PLAN A NEW FUTURE DATE TO CELEBRATE
Plan a new date to celebrate, if you can hang on.
“We’ll celebrate Christmas, in JUNE!” That’s what I keep telling my family. We’re not traveling for either holiday, but we will definitely go see them for an extended adventure when it’s finally safe to do so.
I say this to my family, and it’s worth saying here to all of you, too.
“I love you, and I know this sucks. This isn’t your fault, and it’s not our fault, it’s bigger than us.”
Trust me, not getting (or giving) COVID is a wonderful gift. You’re doing the right thing if you’re skipping. I know that not everyone can stay home right now, so if you’re traveling to take care of people, because you’re an essential worker, because you’re in complicated situations, or for other reasons (a friend of mine is moving over Thanksgiving and it’s terrible timing, but her husband is an essential worker)—I see you, too. This is hard, and I’ll stay home and self-isolating to help protect you all and keep spread down.
This is a bummer of a Thanksgiving.
I write a newsletter about personal development, psychology, and leadership. Recent essays cover how to make better decisions, designing your schedule and life, rethinking the structure of work to fit a more human body, and the intersection of parenting and work. If you're curious, seeking the spark of new and interesting ideas, and want some groundedness within the flurry of modern life, you will probably enjoy my newsletter. Don't see the form below? Head here to subscribe instead.