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Ron Orozco McClatchy Newspapers, Published December 20 2011

Experts offer advice for avoiding taboos

When you gather with family and friends for the holidays this month, be careful with your conversation.

If someone’s picked up weight, don’t go there.

If someone’s favorite political candidate is dropping in the polls, don’t rub it in.

Best-selling author Debra Fine writes in “The Fine Art of Small Talk” that some topics are off limits at the dinner table for a safe and sane holiday season. December packs in Hanukkah, which begins at sundown Dec. 20, Christmas on Dec. 25 and Kwanzaa, which starts Dec. 26.

In her book, Fine lists conversation “landmines” to avoid. Some are not-so-subtle digs, such as “Are you two ever going to get married?” or “Aren’t you full yet?” Even if they’re not delivered with malice, they can lead to hurt feelings, awkward moments and uncomfortable silences. Other topics can ignite family feuds, such as “No, thanks, I gave up drinking when I saw the toll it took on you.”

Ron Climer, a licensed clinical psychotherapist with Counseling Resource Center, part of the Mid-Valley Southern Baptist Association in Clovis, Calif., says holiday gatherings run into trouble when conversation oversteps its boundaries.

“The problem is, when you get together with family, you have a sense of anything you say will be OK and they’re going to love you anyway,” he says. “We have a tendency to turn our filter off. We say things without thinking first.

“We often will put other people down in front of others and say it like a joke. We don’t realize how painful that is. We don’t want to get our cover blown; that’s why we disguise it. Jokes aren’t funny when they’re about personal issues.”

His advice? “Make sure you say what you mean and mean what you say — and don’t give double messages so it can be misconstrued. Be loving – that’s what the whole season is about.”

The Bee asked Valley clergy and counselors to talk about conversation killers they’ve encountered at holiday gatherings and how they were diffused.

Rick Winer, new rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Fresno, Calif., recalls a Hanukkah gathering he and his wife hosted for another rabbi and his family. Laura Novak Winer served a plate of latkas – the traditional potato pancakes that Jews eat during Hanukkah – but got puzzled looks from the other rabbi’s children.

Rick Winer remembers, “Their kids looked as if to say, ‘Something’s wrong. These are not the same as Mom makes.’”

Dead silence.

Then, the children’s mother spoke up: “This is because Mrs. Winer makes latkas from scratch — and not from a box.”

Rick Winer says, “It was a sweet thing for her to say.”

Connie Clendenan, chief executive officer of Valley Teen Ranch, frequently counsels youth about the danger of just blurting something out.

Valley Teen Ranch uses group homes in Madera County, Calif., to help troubled young people and their families rebuild their lives, including practicing a faith.

It was Clendenan’s mother, however, who blurted out something hurtful at a holiday gathering. Clendenan, who has remained single, has three siblings who have all married and divorced. The latest divorce was on mom’s mind when she turned to Connie and said: “Well, at least you never married!”

“It made me feel awful,” remembers Clendenan, adding that being single isn’t something she prefers.

She responded by trying to understand her mother’s situation, a parent working in Christian ministry with three divorced children. Clendenan said, “Mom, I know this is about your pain.”

Clendenan says she still felt hurt, but it helped to get her mother’s pain out in the open.

The Rev. Jymme Foote, president of the West Fresno Ministerial Alliance and pastor of Breaking Free Revival Center in Fresno, remembers a holiday gathering when he was asked before the meal to give the blessing.

Someone spoke up: “We’re Jews. So don’t pray in Jesus’ name.”

Even though Foote normally ends prayers by saying the phrase “in Jesus’ name,” he chose to refrain from doing so at the gathering.

“Jesus is in me,” he says. “I don’t have to say his name, especially if it’s divisive to a Jewish family.”

Later, Foote gave a special blessing to the same Jewish family, asking in his prayer for them to feel a sense of peace.

“We have the ability to bless others – and not be offensive,” he says. “With a kind word, you can diffuse something.”