Navigating Thanksgiving – Speak Up or Stay Silent?

Nov 22, 2023

Tis the day before Thanksgiving and all through the land, people are anxious. Amidst the joy of the holiday—cherishing togetherness, celebrating with family and friends, and expressing gratitude— there’s a potential for discomfort as opinions are shared and points of view clash. As we gather around the table, the age-old dilemma surfaces: should I speak up or remain silent when confronted with derogatory remarks, offensive jokes, stereotypes, or divisive language? As we prepare to feast, the question lingers, challenging us to navigate the delicate balance between preserving harmony among family and friends and standing up against bias. Does anyone fancy a tasteless joke seasoned with stereotypes? Or how about a big helping of bias served alongside another slice of turkey?

When you haven’t seen a family member or friend for a while, you may quickly realize that their values are different from yours. These differences can manifest in their discussions about people, situations and significant issues. Be it politics, religion or current events, a single word has the potential to transform the festive atmosphere into a pressure cooker of stress and tension. We have all been there – something feels off, but should I speak up? Do I voice my concerns, or do I choose the safer route, keeping my head down and opting for another helping of mashed potatoes?

I came across an interesting article by Dr. Sunitah Sah in The New York Times on this topic, Speak Up at Thanksgiving. Your Health Depends on It.

For many of us,especially in our current political climate, speaking up in such settings feels risky. Yet the act of choosing silence might be affecting us more deeply than we think — to the detriment of our emotional and even physical well-being. Far from preserving peace, holding back our thoughts can leave us more unsettled and unhappy. Over time, this leads to increased stress and strain, not just within ourselves but in the very relationships we are trying to preserve.

To speak up or stay silent: the dilemma

While not every comment warrants a response and not every setting is appropriate for debate, when something strikes at the heart of your values, it’s worth considering the dynamic that may be preventing you from speaking. There’s value in voicing our thoughts and concerns, even if they might be met with opposition.

We have seen this for more than 15 years in our teaching of the six Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts techniques. When people speak up, even when it’s uncomfortable, they feel more aligned with their values. They take comfort in addressing a “small thing” before the conversation has the chance to escalate into something bigger and more unpleasant. Speaking up serves not only to communicate to the target of the stereotype but also to any bystanders that such language is not acceptable, whether it be in the office, workplace or around the dinner table.

The price of silence

I can recall numerous instances where I heard someone make inappropriate or demeaning remarks, and regrettably, I remained silent, not even uttering a simple “Ouch.” Each of those missed opportunities lingers in my memory, and I believe everyone can relate to the remorse of not speaking up when they should have. My colleague, Gina, wrote a beautiful post about that here

When it comes to the impact of silence, Dr. Sah explains: “Continually suppressing our opinions and emotions, especially if they arise from genuine concern or moral standpoints, can have profound consequences. Psychologically, emotional suppression can lead to an increased risk of depression. Physiologically, holding back our feelings is linked to a variety of health problems, such as immune dysfunction, hypertension and cancer. The stress of consistently biting our tongues and the potential resentment toward loved ones can also strain familial ties over time.”

What can you say when you hear something?

Leslie Aguilar, the author of the Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts book and eLearning, offers great advice about what you can say. In fact, her program teaches 6 techniques for speaking up without blame or shame. In an interview (watch here), Leslie talked about the simplicity of asking a question.

One that many people find as an easy approach is simply to ask a respectful question such as, ‘I’m sorry, what did you say? I didn’t understand,” or “What do you mean?” or “Can you help me understand?” Just a basic question like that. Or, it can be a more complex question, such as, “It sounds to me like you’re saying that only people who are a certain age could do this.” An open-ended, neutral question is the goal that can perhaps start a conversation. This is not about snarky, this is about respect.

The rewards of voicing your response  

When you choose to speak up, you potentially contribute to a better understanding of diverse perspectives. It opens the door to discovering common ground or gaining insight into alternative viewpoints. In doing so, you become, to some extent, a proponent for change and an advocate for openly navigating challenging conversations—without necessarily becoming a difficult person.

By authentically expressing your values, you may inspire others to do the same. The outcome could be stronger and more meaningful family bonds because you’ve shown that you care enough to take the risk of speaking up.

Ultimately, the decision to speak up or remain silent is personal and complex; it is also contingent on your values, the potential risks involved and the context. There’s a way to speak up without blaming or shaming—perhaps by posing a question or simply saying, “Ouch!” If we collectively view it as a practice and regard someone’s feedback as a gift, we might enhance our relationships and strengthen our bonds. That, indeed, is something to be grateful for.