Breaking Bread, Not Bonds: Dealing with Differences and Fostering Friendships this Crazy Holiday Season

Gabe Zichermann
6 min readNov 22, 2023
Today’s highlights for the author from the New York Times

What does it say about our culture that every holiday, two kinds of essays dominate the media: how to nail the holiday meal or its aftermath and how to talk about (insert touchy political subject here) at the dinner table with people who disagree?

In the main, perhaps we’re overworked, bad at “kitchen” and perfectionists. But more importantly, are we forcing ourselves to enjoy a holiday with people we don’t like, or do we really not know how to deal with differences of opinion?

Unfortunately, it seems like the latter — and America is getting more stratified and sorted by preference each year. Over 70% of our families are made up of people with the same political and religious affiliation. Social media shows us a bubble of shared opinion while our universities have become zones of institutional conformity. Even our communities have become increasingly homogenous in a process called The Big Sort. So your neighbors — if they accept your vaunted invite — are very likely to share your views. Thus, it has become rare for the average American to interact with people of different viewpoints in real life, except maybe at work.

It’s telling that these how-to essays always use the conceit of the “one weird uncle,” and not the 50% of America who probably pulls the opposite presidential lever. If your family and friends represented the philosophical diversity of the nation, your dinner table would look a lot different (and perhaps better, from my perspective).

This year may feel unique, especially with the turmoil around Israel’s war with Hamas terrorists, but it’s by no means an outlier. Every year, some political topic is the hot button, and every year people come up with increasingly insane frames of reference for how to deal with it. This year alone, Dr. Sunita Sah in the New York Times tells us we must speak up and challenge others because not doing so could be bad for our mental health. And in the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus declares her table an Israel Free Zone, ostensibly to avoid having to confront her inability to set boundaries and parent her dependent children.

If I had to define a thread for 2023’s pieces, it seems to be about bridging the generation gap between everyone and Gen Z, who writers think speak a different language. I find it telling that this genre’s protagonists seem overwhelmingly lefty/progressive. Perhaps this belies twin realities that conservative families are better at polite conversation and that progressive kids have been taught to agitate disrespectfully. Also, hilariously, these essays are usually written in the form of helping the meek progressive respond to provocations by the crazy, usually conservative, uncle. Not sure which universe the writers inhabit but if college campuses in 2023 are a guide, the shoe’s likely on the other foot.

While it’s never easy to deal with difficult situations, there are golden rules that can be readily deployed if you consider everyone at the table a “friend” and are willing to give them the grace of a Friend Forward interaction. That is, using rules of good friendship combined with smart EQ strategies to navigate meaningful discussion while prioritizing our relationships.

Let’s engage with everyone on Thanksgiving, Christmas and all the days in between as friends and follow these important rules.

Not Every Friendship Has 100% Values Symmetry

You don’t need to share all your values in order to be friends.

Start from the premise that your friends don’t agree with you on everything, and that’s ok. And consider that you might not know about their different opinions because it can be socially awkward to share them in a group dynamic. Don’t approach topics with the presupposition that they are in agreement — that is to say, smugly, or as a provocation. If you already know how someone feels about something, why are you bringing it up? If you don’t, consider a 1:1 setting rather than a group conversation as a better environment to discuss.

And don’t over-exaggerate the importance of a perfect values match with others. You can be great friends with someone of a different religion or political belief system, as long as they don’t believe you shouldn’t exist or have the freedom to do what makes you happy. This cuts both ways, and the same intolerance of opinion you express toward them may be what they are harboring toward you. The only way to overcome this is to start by not over-dramatizing or weaponizing your beliefs.

Read the Room

You may be feeling a certain way. But why do your feelings take precedence over the feelings of others you’re sharing space with? Everyone in the room has a right to enjoy their time. Your choice to hijack that energy is selfish, immature and counter productive. If the vibe isn’t to discuss tough topics, don’t be the person to change the mood. And if someone tries to shift the mood and you don’t want to participate, raise your hand and ask to move on to another subject.

Not every interaction, every moment, every space needs to be given to your cause or your inner emotional landscape. You are not a dictator, but a participant. And remember, no matter how justified, angry or righteous you feel, you are spending time with people you love. Make the most of that time, because you’ll quickly discover that you don’t have as much of it as you think. Don’t waste it.

Don’t Try to Change Others

Don’t try to change people to suit your worldview. Accept people as they are, or don’t accept them at all.

How do you feel when someone from a religion you don’t believe in rings your doorbell in the middle of a movie or lovemaking and insists on telling you about their vision of the gospel? Are you more or less likely to change your opinion if it’s an unsolicited attempt?

That’s exactly how others feel. Persuasion first and foremost requires context. If the other person isn’t in the right headspace to buy, you won’t be able to sell — and vice versa.

Be Happy/Redirect the Energy

Do you want to be happy? Justice and truth are critical, sure — people are dying and injustice is everywhere. But I’ll ask you again — do you want to be happy?

Do the people you’re spending time with at the holiday make you happy? If not, don’t spend time with them. If there’s even a glimmer of hope, why would you squander a precious opportunity with your friends and family by filling it with anxiety and dread? Have a list of happier subjects and activities you’d love to discuss and prioritize those.

And there are so many good (and juicy) things happening in the world right now!

Approach with Consent and Emotion

Ok, if you decide that you still really want to talk about tough stuff or you’re cornered into doing so, approach the conversation with empathy. Ask questions. Listen. Get consent before digging deeper by asking others if it’s ok to talk about something. Stay focused on your and others’ emotional state instead of arguing facts or futures. You can say how a situation makes you feel without negotiating the situation itself. Remember that when you feel anxious or worked up, and remember how getting mad or yelling doesn’t help your anxiety.

Consider Your Meds

You’re probably on some medication right now. Maybe you’re taking speed for your ADHD, hormone replacement therapy for your gender treatments/menopause/andropause, or anti-anxiety medication because…2023. Either way, just remember that your medication (and sleep habits) have a nasty tendency to affect your ability to engage with others in a happy, healthy and peaceful way. Own up to this fact and maintain self-awareness during the holiday. This will help you de-escalate if needed. And others really appreciate it if you can keep this real for them as well.

It is ok for you to be happy. It is ok for others to be happy. It is ok for you all to enjoy yourselves for one day without strife, and to allow the outside world to fade for a bit in a happier cocoon. You need this respite, and so do the people around you. Be part of the solution for yourself and others’ happiness.

Your destiny is the energy you manifest and put into the world. You may not be able to always choose your family or control their idiosyncrasies, but the one thing you do have control over is how you choose to act and respond.

In this moment, being Friend Forward with them — and yourself — is a win worth celebrating. Gobble Gobble.

This post written without AI
Headline curated with Chat GPT



Gabe Zichermann

Author and Public Speaker on Gamification, The 4th Industrial Revolution, the Future of Work and Failure. More about me: