You are sitting at the Thanksgiving table. You find yourself sitting between your 72-year-old aunt and your 14-year-old nephew, or maybe you're between your cousin's new 20-year-old boyfriend and your stepmother's sister. Oh, busboy.
You look longingly at your sister, who is chatting happily with your daughter. Your husband is laughing out loud with his son-in-law, turning often to include his brother-in-law on the other side.
How did you end up in that seat?
You probably just politely sat where there was a chair. Perhaps you were too busy in the kitchen and got the last seat after the initial seating shuffle and rush. Or maybe your host thought you would be good there.
If it had been my house on Thanksgiving, you would have sat at your name card. Growing up with open seating, my mother would direct us to "Sit first and see who likes you." I learned to have a better plan. We now use placecards handmade by kids - now grandkids - reused, though with additions and subtractions made through the years. At first, we let the children place the cards, but the table ended up with all the kids on one side. Then we had that alternating male-female rule, which didn't work so well in a family full of women. Now, we do the kids-adult alternating thing and that works until someone inevitably comes in and switches everything to be by their choice. (And it's not just the kids doing this!)
Whether you use namecards, allow guests to choose their seats or have the host or hostess direct seating, you still could end up with T.C. - tough conversation - seats.
There is plenty of advice out there for how to speak with strangers or begin a conversation: Make sure you know each other's names; start with small talk; don't get too personal; look them in the eye. The No. 1 rule is to have ideas about what to say. The No. 2 rule is to let the conversation happen.
But what you really need are specific ideas for what to say to the aunt and young nephew. I'm going to help you get some of those conversations started with comments and questions, like these:
-"I almost got a speeding ticket last week."
-"Let's try to put the food on our plate and keep the pink flower from showing."
-"When I die, I want to be buried with my iPad. How about you?"
- "I hate it when everyone is talking and I haven't started yet. What's new with you?"
- "I bet you wish I wasn't sitting here. If I could I would have picked Blake Shelton but you'll do. How about you?"
- "I watched three hours of the parade this morning. It seems the same every year but I love it. How about you?"
- "I love 'Millionaire Matchmaker,' but don't tell anyone. Do you have secret shows you watch?
- "Dinner was late because I was applying for Obamacare."
- "My sister laughs at me for watching the 'Today' show every day."
- "Do you think Santa could be a woman?"
- "What do you think the Salvation Army does with the money they collect in the little buckets?"
- "Five years from now, do you think we will still be doing this? Who will be here then?"
- "My first car was a maroon Oldsmobile F85. What was your first car?" or "what do you want it to be?"
- "Everybody is growing a beard. What do you think?"
- "We travel but the one place I never want to visit is ..."
- "I love your shoes. Can we trade?"
- "Do you sing in the shower? Do you shower?"
- "My middle name is after an old TV star. What your middle name?"
- "If you could repaint this room, what color should it be?"
- "Do you want to know how I made the pumpkin pie from my Halloween pumpkins?"
- "Sometimes I have trouble feeling grateful. How about you?"
- "What are your earliest Thanksgiving memories?"
- "If you couldn't have turkey for Thanksgiving, what would you want to have?"
-"I want to talk to both of you, but I don't know what to say."
Remember, there is a fine line between asking them about themselves and prying, a fine line between talking about yourself and boring them, and a fine line between finding common ground and bragging.
Thanksgiving is probably not the time for intimate revelations. But with a little thought, you can learn about and enjoy talking to anyone.
Comments? Readers may write to firstname.lastname@example.org.