As the holidays inch closer, and you’re beginning to dread joining the bag of mixed nuts you call your family, consider approaching them with anthropologists’ eyes this year. Participant-observation is the primary way cultural anthropologists come to understand people who live very different lives from their own, but we use it also to understand people who are *ahem* uncomfortably close to us, too.
Rather than hitting the eggnog too hard and arguing with Aunt Fifi about her political views, pretend you’re writing a book on people you don’t know anything about and respectfully ask auntie about her politics. Sit at the kids’ table and check out how different the conversations (and the table customs) are from the grown ups’ table. Notice with new ears how, despite the fact that your black cousin Trina and her white husband Sam both come from South Carolina, their accents sound nothing alike. You may find new curiosity about the lives of people you thought you already had pegged.
Even some biological anthropologists use these methods. Jane Goodall lived with chimpanzees, observing them for years and developing relationships with them. Instead of treating them as simply a mass of wild animals, she learned to communicate with them, distinguishing and observing their unique individual personalities. In the process, she radically changed our understanding of primates and how much they have in common with humans. Like Dian Fossey, a similar primate researcher who observed gorillas in close contact, Goodall noticed the humanity (as it were) in the beasts.
So the next time you want to brain your mother with a candlestick for asking you why you aren’t married/don’t have kids/haven’t bought a house/don’t have a real job yet, think of yourself as a researcher with a challenging informant, and think of your mother as a complex human with complex expectations, values, and social, economic, and familial context that you’ve just been awarded a grant to figure out. It may not be the years of therapy you know you need, but it could possibly help you view your family with more curiosity and compassion.
Because they are beautiful, your drunken cousins in the mist.
Question: Do you spend the holidays with family? How do you cope with the madness?