Tips: Setting a table with conversation in mind

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gathering today with your nearest, dearest and others? Holidays, much like relationships, can be "made, maintained and broken" through conversations, says Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, who has written many books on analyzing conversational styles.

Here are Tannen's suggestions to improve communication at the Thanksgiving table and beyond.

-- A round dining table is best for promoting a lively conversation because everyone faces one another.

-- Avoid seating grandparents at the ends of a rectangular table, even though it is the traditional place of honor. Elderly people may feel stranded there because they often have hearing problems and will be unable to keep up with a conversation. It could be a lonely vantage point.

-- Women prefer facing each other and looking eye to eye when they talk. Men might avert their eyes to something else. "Guys may be more relaxed keeping their gaze on the TV as opposed to you," says Tannen. "They'll still be listening, though."

-- Be aware that people have different senses of intonation, rhythm, timing and how long a pause is normal between turns in conversation. Be aware of people who seem left out. If you feel you are doing all the talking, hold back to give others the space they need to chime in. If you feel you aren't getting a chance to speak, try pushing yourself to start talking before it seems natural or polite.

-- Some families find gatherings go more smoothly if they participate in an outdoor activity. Going to a park for a walk or playing football or Frisbee may be more enjoyable than sitting around chatting.

-- Board games are a holiday tradition in some households because they provoke discussions of a wide range of topics. Tannen's family sometimes played anagrams, although not everyone in the family enjoyed it.

-- J.K.

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