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NEW YORK, Nov 26, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- The seemingly never-ending series of holiday office parties, family gatherings and social obligations can test anyone's limits of manners and civility, but experts say a few gentle but well-known reminders can help keep the season full of good cheer.
"A delicate balance of humanity has to be struck when the holidays come by, as a general rule, so it's a good idea to be prepared and to have one's social skills as honed as possible," said Pier Massimo Forni, professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and co-founder of the school's Civility Project.
The happy faces many people wear to hide their stress during the holidays often increase holiday stress for others. The smiles perpetuate the myth the holidays are a stress-free time, explained Laurie Mintz, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia and a licensed psychologist in private practice.
"I think a lot of times people don't realize how stressful they are," Mintz told United Press International.
Holidays can be sad or lonely reminders of loved ones lost through death or divorce.
"On top of that, they're just a busy, high-pressure time, with different parties and functions and trying to get just the right gift," Mintz said. "The first thing I would tell people is that it's OK to feel stressed around the holidays. People often think, 'What's wrong with me? I'm dreading rather than looking forward to them.'"
She advises anticipating what aspects of the holidays might cause stress and prepare accordingly. Adjust plans, if possible, to avoid stress. For instance, buying a pie at a local bakery can save a little cooking time.
At an office party, Forni said to drink in moderation. Gossip and holiday cheer don't mix -- say or do nothing that would be embarrassing in retrospect.
"The office party allows levels of informality that are higher than in normal office time, Forni told UPI. "This in a way is good. On the other hand, people who are confronting a situation of unexpected informality can lose their sense of professional boundaries. Always remember, whatever you do and say, you're going to see these people every day of the year for the rest of the year and years to come."
When staying with someone else, bring an appropriate gift -- neither insignificant nor too valuable, Forni said. Offer to help with chores, such as doing the dishes or shopping for groceries, and be as autonomous as possible. "Remember, your hosts are not your chauffeurs," he advised, adding they also are not maids -- so keep things tidy.
For hosts, "the first rule is to not feel bad if you feel ambivalent about guests," Forni said. "Having houseguests can be both enjoyable and taxing, an expenditure of physical and nervous energy. If you feel anxiety about your guests, you're not a bad person -- you're a normal human being."
Another essential, Forni said, is to plan wisely -- too many houseguests will increase fatigue and stress, preventing any host from offering the best hospitality. Ask in advance about guests' dietary restrictions, do not overschedule and offer ways out of activities. Also, a good host should not feel afraid to claim time for themselves and their commitments.
Holidays can prove tricky for relatives. Families are not always used to spending time with one another can find gatherings exacerbate old tensions or current issues, Forni said.
"Grown siblings at their parents' house can regress to the competitive behavior of their youth, vying for parental attention and approval. And in-laws with a history of unresolved contentious issues can use the holiday season to score points," he added.
At family gatherings no one should badmouth family members who are not present, nor embarrass family members who are, Forni said. People should not boast of financial worth, nor bemoan financial woes. They should not endlessly extol the talents of their children nor carp on their shortcomings and should not shift the burden of insecurities onto others in the form of hostility.
Anyone who accepts a dinner invitation should RSVP and then show up, Forni said. Guests should arrive on time and call if they are late, remembering that being late inconveniences others. Guests should not show up with a surprise guest but they should have a giving attitude and good cheer that contribute to the festive occasion.
Forni said another absolute for guests is to make sure their cellular phone doesn't ring at the dinner table.
"It has happened to me at a dinner party," Forni said.
Holidays can be a stressful and complicated time for children of divorced parents, said Marilyn Coleman of the University of Missouri at Columbia.
An expert on divorce and stepfamilies, Coleman said children might feel they are not able to please everyone because they cannot be in two places at once. If they feel they spend a major holiday with one parent, they worry the other parent will feel sad or left out.
"Both parents want the children for the entire holiday and so the children feel that no matter what they do, they are disappointing the people who matter most to them," Coleman said. "These children are in a no-win situation unless their parents agree, at least temporarily, to put aside differences and make a mutual effort not to manipulate the kids."
Coleman suggested having parents create a separate holiday that can be theirs and theirs alone, in addition to Christmas or Hanukkah, to help keep the holidays merrier for their children. Coleman said this can be a less popular holiday such as St. Patrick's Day, or the family can create an entirely new one.
Mintz said she also encourages routines that help people manage stress year-round, including taking time to pamper themselves and exercise, or simply to eat and sleep right.
"Whenever I hear people don't have time to take care of themselves, that's when I know they need to take care of themselves the very, very most," Mintz said.
Charles Choi covers research and technology for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com
Copyright 2003 by United Press International.