Tips for Intergenerational Conversation at Thanksgiving

Are you going to a Thanksgiving dinner where there will be children and youth? Do you struggle to find questions to ask beyond, “How’s school?” Here are a few suggestions you can use to foster deeper discussion with youth at the dinner table.

Bear in mind that I’m not promising a foolproof conversational kickstarter. We’re talking about individuals, here, not “youth” as a monolith. Just as with any people, some have interesting things to say, some are monosyllabic, some are self-absorbed, and some are tremendously engaging. Let’s face it, there are some youth you just won’t like. And some just won’t like you. That’s OK.

Nevertheless, it’s worth trying to get over the generational divide because youth are people with a perspective on things that is interesting to hear. The fundamental principle to apply, here, is that if we treat youth as we would adults, as individuals with opinions and perspectives who should be addressed with respect, we will be able to go far.

So here are some ideas on how to conversate with the youth at Thanksgiving – or any time.

One on one

Introduce yourself. This may seem obvious, but you would be amazed at how often youth are simply ignored in the introduction phase. If you know her name, be sure to use it when you say hello. It will blow her mind. “Hello, Beatrice. How are you?” is a great starter. If you don’t know his name, be polite, say hello, introduce yourself, and apologetically say, “I’m sorry I don’t know your name.” Shake hands.

Making small talk. You may need to carry the conversation to start because youth are often not yet practiced in the art of making small talk. Don’t start with the deep stuff. As with anybody, going from “My name is” to “Tell me about the state of your world” is invasive.

Some ideas for getting started: talk about the food, what your favorite hors d'oeuvres is, ask what their family brought, if the youth has any part in the cooking. Did you both watch the Thanksgiving Day parade? What other plans do you have for the weekend? Offer your own thoughts as well as listening. 

Tell a story.  Telling a story is actually a good conversation starter. If you know the youth’s parents and have a good anecdote to share, that’s always interesting. Share a Thanksgiving memory, which can lead into asking for an anecdote in return.

Introduce the youth to someone else. As with any gathering, it’s good to be able to incorporate new people.  Maybe you know someone else at the gathering who has a good tale to tell, or who hasn’t yet met the youth. Make the introduction, and explain the context of who each person is.

Graciously end conversations. You don’t have to commandeer the youth for the whole evening. If you feel the conversation has run its course, simply say, “It’s been a pleasure talking to you,” and continue on. Having someone else lined up to talk to the youth is helpful here, but not imperative. Another alternative:

Ask them to help. If you have to go to set the table,  mash potatoes, light candles, or whatever it is, you can always ask if they want to help you, making sure to have an out for them if they need it.

Don’t interrogate. If you find yourself asking question after question, and the body language you’re getting is that the youth is uncomfortable or reluctant, take a deep breath, stop asking questions, and say something like, “Forgive me for interrogating you like this. I’m just really interested.”


In a group/at the table

Invite youth to be part of the general conversation, not the focus of conversation. This is tricky to balance, but here’s what I mean.

Suppose the conversation turns to current events. Rather than drawing a halt to the conversation and turning the spotlight on youth to say, “And what do you think of X?”, it may be more helpful to say, “What are you hearing about X?” There’s something about forcing the expression of a personal opinion that seems to me a little coercive in a way that asking another question that solicits information is not. And soliciting information, giving the youth an opening to share, may open the door for them to share their own opinion in a way that’s comfortable for them.

Don’t worry about correcting “wrong” behaviors or opinions. Your great-aunt also has opinions you find abhorrent.  Your brother also belches at the table. If you’re not a parent, don’t step in to correct. This doesn’t mean don’t express your opinion, or why you disagree. But demonstrate respectful conversation styles – with all ages.

It’s OK if youth want to listen. Including them in the conversation may simply mean letting them watch and listen. They may be at the table, simply absorbing what is going on. Inclusion may be as simple as acknowledging their presence with a look or a smile – and being ready and aware if there’s an indicator that they would like to jump in.

Don’t interrogate. If you notice that a youth is being put on the hot seat, with questions thrown from all quarters, try to deflect this either by engaging the main questioner, or finding a story to tell or conversational thread to offer. If the youth is getting drilled on grades or where they want to go to college or what they want to do, you may want to step in with stories of a class you failed, or how wrong you were when you thought you knew what you wanted to do. Or ask the youth present if they have any questions for you. You may find that the best conversation will be when you are on the hot seat.

Remember: conversation should be mutual and shared!

As an overall guideline, pay attention to how the conversation is going. Are you only asking questions and not sharing any information? Are you doing all the talking? Either one is a sign that the conversation is not mutual. If, after significant attempts to engage in conversation, things are still flat, you know what? It’s OK to move on. It may simply be that this person doesn’t really want to talk to you and doesn’t know quite how to get out of it gracefully.

But chances are good that if you make the attempt, you're going to learn something new and have a good time. What may seem to be shyness or a wall of cool may simply be uncertainty in how to engage this adult (meaning you) in adult conversation. They're still learning the ropes, and if you help them out, they're likely to have lots to share.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!