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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Code word for civility

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

letter blocks spelling merry

Are your family holiday gatherings suitable for a Norman Rockwell painting or a Hallmark movie? Maybe… sometimes.

For many reasons, gatherings of extended family can fall far short of those idyllic representations.

Let’s face it – family relationships are often strained if not broken. Hopefully, your gatherings aren’t as dysfunctional as this video: Is This Your Family At Christmas?

This Christmas Eve we hosted 32 members of our extended family for a sit-down dinner, gift exchange, and family photo. Family members started arriving for this event as early as December 17th and several are staying in our home through January 3rd. We booked two Airbnbs for the overflow. That’s a long time for that many people to be on their best behavior.

A plan to promote civility

A couple of days before the largest planned gathering, my brother, my younger son, and I discussed the potential for conflicts. Different personalities and viewpoints could result in heated discussions and unpleasant mealtimes.

We decided on a plan of action that included strategic seating and a “code word for civility.” The word we picked was “dinosaur” – inspired by my young niece wearing a dinosaur costume while sitting on my brother’s lap during this conversation.

Our plan included sharing the code word with selected family members ahead of time. The instructions were very simple – if the topic of conversation or someone’s tone of voice was leading in the wrong direction the code word was to be spoken discreetly as a reminder to diffuse the situation.

If needed, someone could ask another family member to help them with something in the kitchen and separate those involved in potential conflict.

The intention was not to prevent lively engagement on topics with differences of opinion but to encourage them away from the family table, and have them in another location, such as on a walk around the block.

Thinking ahead pays off

Now that Christmas is a few days past and we’ve had daily family gatherings with 20+ people in attendance, I can report that the code word worked. I attribute the success primarily to the discussions that took place in advance and creating a desire to keep the communication civil and on topics of shared agreement, such as fun family memories.

The code word was needed very infrequently and with instant success. When spoken quietly and without fanfare, it did not draw attention to its use.

Civility fosters positive communication

One might lament that we live in a day and age where people have forgotten what it means to be civil, but history proves otherwise. Throughout time, we humans have needed to remind ourselves that civility fosters positive and productive communication.

The Food and Nutrition Magazine posted a Pledge of Professional Civility – something we should follow in our personal as well as professional lives.

“Teaching civility is an obligation of the family.” ~ Stephen Carter

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