Ten top Christmas conversation killers

As families and friends get together over the holidays, here’s our guide to 10 hot-button topics to avoid if you don’t want a bloodbath over the turkey

Photograph: Purestock/Getty Images

Photograph: Purestock/Getty Images

Thu, Dec 19, 2013, 12:48

It’s almost that time of year again: the time when we get together with loved ones, off-duty colleagues and friends we haven’t seen all year to indulge in too much food and wine, to laugh, to reminisce and to brawl. We’ve all been there: one injudicious remark about stay-at-home parents and you’re suddenly at the centre of an incident that makes the aftermath of the Arab Spring look like a game of pass the parcel. So here’s our cut-out-and-keep guide to the top 10 hot-button issues guaranteed to turn the most serene Christmas gathering into a bloodbath.

1. Breastfeeding in public


The opening gambit “There’s a time and a place for everything. I know this isn’t very politically correct, but I saw a woman whip out her breasts in a cafe the other day to feed a child who must have been at least two – and, yes, I was very uncomfortable. I don’t see why she couldn’t just have found a more private place. It’s like some of these women are using their children to make a political statement.”

The comeback “Whipped them out, did she? Stood up on the table and ripped off her shirt while gyrating to Rihanna? Let me guess: by ‘private place’ you mean the filthy toilets. Or maybe you’d prefer her to let the baby scream. This society is obsessed with breasts: we have 12ft breasts plastered across billboards advertising crisps and perfume, breasts in newspapers and breasts on airline calendars – yet an inch of exposed chest and the back of suckling baby’s head is offensive? I find it offensive that you think a mother should let her baby starve lest you be put off your vanilla slice.”

Fight factor: 6/10 It’s always amusing to watch your elderly Uncle Frank make a boob of himself trying to talking about nursing mothers without using the word “breast”, but this can be a very polarising issue. Avoid it unless you’re very sure of your audience.

2. Abortion

The opening gambit “I don’t think I could have an abortion myself, but does anybody know what they would do until they’re in that situation? It’s rarely black and white. I think, in the end, the woman has a right to choose whether to continue with a pregnancy.”

The comeback “I’ll be honest. I’m disgusted by the idea of abortion, yet the Savita case forced me to accept that there are some very limited circumstances in which it is morally permissible: where the mother’s life is in danger, where she has been the victim of rape or where the baby has no possibility of life outside the womb. But outside those circumstances I don’t think it’s ever justifiable.”

Two hours later “Her body, her choice. Nobody has the right to force anybody else to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term. And less of the hysteria: we’re not talking about the destruction of a human life here; we’re talking about the removal of cells from a woman’s uterus to prevent them becoming a life.”

Four and a half hours later, after the turkey has gone cold “I’m sorry, but on this issue it is black and white. The wilful destruction of another human life is wrong in all circumstances.”

Fight factor: 10/10 We couldn’t even split the arguments into two sides: this is one issue that’s guaranteed to produce a huge bust-up. Avoid at all costs.

3. Private schools

private schools

The opening gambit “Private schools are outdated bastions of classism and elitism, churning out generations of unbearable, entitled, rugby-playing brats. Survey after survey has found that the highest points courses in universities are populated with children from private schools. Even if I wanted to – and I don’t – I couldn’t afford to send my children to one of these ‘top feeder’ schools, yet I’m expected to subsidise the education of all the little Tiernans and Chloes whose parents can. How is that possibly fair? The State is supporting educational apartheid by funding private schools.”

The comeback “ ‘The highest points courses in universities are populated with children from private schools.’ Thank you. You’ve just made my argument for me. It’s not just about educational advantage: it’s also about the culture of the school, the facilities and the extracurricular activities – and, yes, even the rugby. While we’re talking about fair, how is it fair that my child gets less State subvention than yours? It is not the State subsidising my child’s education: it’s me – as a taxpayer and as a parent, supplementing the cost of my child’s education – who is subsidising State-funded schools. Oh, and if the State withdraws funding for private schools, you’ll be paying 100 per cent of my child’s education. Happy Christmas.”

Fight factor: 7/10 We can wallow in the illusion that Ireland is a classless society until the subject of fee-paying schools comes up. Watch the festive mood disappear in the time it takes to say, “Mind you, the traffic on the Rock Road is so atrocious we briefly considered Clongowes.”

4. Homeopathy


The opening gambit “I don’t care what science says, homeopathy cured my eczema” – or food allergies, or sexual dysfunction – “and that’s proof enough for me. I’ve heard all the arguments about homeopathic medicines being diluted to the point where there are no molecules of the original substance left. But ultramolecular dilutions work by storing nanoparticles of information on substances with which it has previously had contact. There are plenty of things in science that we don’t really understand, but we manage not to scorn them. Oh, and don’t bother lecturing me about the placebo effect – unless you can explain how the placebo effect works on a teething six-month-old.”

The comeback “Congratulations. In one little outburst you’ve managed to include the words ‘nanoparticles’ and ‘ultramolecular’ and to claim water has a memory. Does cheese have a personality, too? Does cake have consciousness? I believe you are sincere when you say you feel better when you take a homeopathic pill. Trial after trial has found that a sugar pill works just as well as reassuringly expensive, natural-sounding, magical, happy-clappy homeopathic pills. The placebo effect is still perfectly valid for children and pets, because a baby will respond to its parents’ expectations. Sorry. Here’s some arnica cream for your bruised ego.”

Fight factor: 4/10 Few things are as entertaining as a decent brawl over homeopathy, and, unless your cousin Saffron the faith healer is joining you for Christmas this year, we reckon the risk for real offence is moderate to low.

5. Vegetarianism

The opening gambit “Vegetarians are just fussy eaters trying to make a virtue of it. They’re all ‘tofu is so versatile’ and ‘quinoa is a superfood’, but we all know the truth: that stuff tastes like warm cardboard, and that’s why they eat it. They bang on about animal rights, but really they’re the kid at school who struggled for 17 years on a diet of potato waffles and bananas before he discovered he could call it ‘vegetarianism’ and no one would laugh at him any more.”

The comeback “That’s amusing, really it is. Let me share a few more amusing facts with you. Vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease. Vegetarians are less likely to develop colorectal, ovarian and breast cancer. Vegetarians are less likely to become diabetic or obese. Sure, some teenagers opt for vegetarianism as a cover for faddy eating or a food disorder, but the vast majority of us are adults making an intelligent and health-based lifestyle choice, who enjoy a rich and adventurous diet based on all the food groups. Anyone for nut loaf?”

Fight factor: 6/10 As a recent flurry of correspondence to The Irish Times showed, this is a deeply contentious one. Avoid it at all costs if you’ve vegetarians coming to your party. (Then again, there’s probably no point going there at all if you don’t.)

6. Children at music festivals

The opening gambit “Why should my fun stop just because I’ve had kids? I take my kids to Electric Picnic every year and make a lovely family weekend of it. I’ll strap the baby on to my back, and she’ll have a lovely time, dancing away. I always get lots of lovely compliments on how well behaved my children are – and they just love the music.”

The comeback “Sure, if you want to bring your children along, go ahead. Personally, I can think of few more pointless ways to waste €500 than to fork out for tickets to a festival and then spend the weekend queueing for a Portaloo or a bouncy church. But don’t just ruin your own fun: you might as well try to sabotage mine, too. So be my guest: hoist your little darling and his filthy nappy into my face while I’m trying to listen to the acts I paid to come and see; bore me to tears with your moans about the lack of sterilising facilities; shoot me daggers as you pass me swearing, smoking or throwing up on your way to the recycling bin, then wake me at dawn the next morning to the sound of Barney emanating from your tent.”

Fight factor: 5.5/10 It’s an unwise person who underestimates a parent’s ability to take offence at the suggestion that there are occasions at which their little treasure should be neither seen nor heard.

7. Arthur's Day

Arthurs Day

The opening gambit “Arthur’s Day? No, sorry. Don’t think I’ve heard of it. Oh, perhaps you mean Diageo Day, that entirely fabricated ‘national holiday’ dedicated to celebrating the doubling of our liver-disease rate over the past decade. It is a huge national embarrassment and should be boycotted.”

The comeback “What does it matter whether it’s a marketing ploy? I’ll tell you what’s embarrassing: it’s our inability to unite behind something harmless and fun without turning it into an excuse for a national outpouring of self-flagellation at our fondness for drink. You don’t see Germans up in arms over whether Oktoberfest gives them a bad name, do you? Like it or not, Ireland is famous around the world for its Guinness. We should all just relax, make the most one of the few genuine tourist attractions we’ve got, and have a bit of fun in the process.

Fight factor: 3/10 Unless Mr Diageo himself is coming around for Christmas lunch, it’s unlikely anyone will take this personally enough to lead to a brawl.

8. Did the over-65s have it easy?

Over 65s

The opening gambit “I’m sick of hearing how my generation had it easy. We struggled with record tax and interest rates and huge unemployment throughout the 1970s and 1980s. But we didn’t give up on our country: we’re the ones who stuck it out and worked hard to get Ireland back on its feet. Then the younger generation got greedy and destroyed it for the rest of us. We worked all our lives; now we’ve had our pensions wiped out, the family home is worthless, and we’re watching our grandchildren grow up on Skype. And all we hear in the media is how we have it easy and how they should take away the few benefits we do have.”

The comeback “Yeah? Well, I’m sick of this vulnerable-pensioners shtick. My neighbours are a retired teacher and a retired bank manager. They have their mortgage completely paid off, and they take six holidays a year – only some of them in their ‘little place’ in Spain. They are pensioners, but they’re not vulnerable unless you’re talking about the risk to their health from all that expensive wine and exposure to the sun.”

Fight factor: 9/10 Few issues are as liable to spark intergenerational warfare over the turkey. Steer well clear.

9. Mortgage-debt forgiveness

The opening gambit “We bailed out the banks – so why not me? I bought my apartment at the height of the boom because I wanted a foot on the property ladder. Now it’s worth half what I paid for it, I can’t make the repayments and I’m trying to bring up three small children with two bedrooms and no garden. Almost 100,000 households are in the same situation, stuck with arrears of three months or more. How is saddling us with debts we can never repay in anyone’s best interests? I’m waiting to see how the new personal insolvency arrangements pan out, but if we want to get the property market moving again, then the banks are going to have to engage in some form of meaningful debt forgiveness too.”

The comeback “So you want to write off a portion or all of your debt and walk away while your neighbours, who bought at the same time as you but made more responsible decisions – even put off having children until they were in a better position – have to go on paying the full amount? And what about the people who weren’t greedy and settled for a one-bedroom apartment that they could actually afford? Great idea. I’ve got a better one. Why don’t we all just give up paying our mortgages?”

Fight factor: 9.5/10 The property market and personal debt are a toxic mix at any time of the year.

10. Stay-at-home versus working parents


The opening gambit “I made a huge sacrifice in giving up my career so that I could stay at home to raise my children. It was an agonising decision, and there have been many times when I was made to feel like a nonperson by working parents. But I wouldn’t change a minute of it. I don’t think my children would be the confident, polite, bright and beautiful little people they are if I hadn’t been there for them in the early years – and knowing that makes it all worthwhile.”

The comeback “Are you seriously crediting your children’s intelligence and good looks to your decision to stay at home and look after them yourself? I couldn’t afford to give up work to look after my children full time even if I wanted to. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to. I think they benefit from being in a good childcare setting and interacting with other children, and they definitely benefit from having parents who are happy and fulfilled in their working lives, and excited to see them at the end of every day, instead of bored, resentful and able to talk only about stools and schools. And mine are pretty good-looking too.”

Fight factor: 10/10 They’ll say “each to their own” and “we should all be allies”, but inside they’ll be seething. For its ability to boil up resentment and ill feeling on both sides, this is unbeatable.

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