Seat vegans, vegetarians and turkey eaters around a table (or even a Zoom screen) during a global pandemic, following a contentious presidential election, and with the holiday’s usual baggage of colonial oppression wafting in the air, and 2020 could go down as the year Thanksgiving broke the family.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. De-escalation techniques can steer the conversation away from political debates and personal inquiries about why you obviously hate the family since you won’t eat a slice of dead bird.
Should things heat up, the first step is to stay cool (which can be easier said than done when confronted by accusations that the roasted vegetable dish you carefully cooked is “cardboard food”).
“It always starts with checking in with yourself,” said Emily DaSilva, a de-escalation expert with Opportunity Alliance who wrote HospitalityMaine’s new COVID-19 de-escalation curriculum for restaurant and hotel workers. The class reflects the new normal faced by front-of-house restaurant employees dealing with customers upset by mask mandates and other pandemic-related changes.
“Really remembering to stay calm,” DaSilva advises students. “Taking those deep breaths is really the best way to stay calm or enter into a de-escalation situation.”
DaSilva, herself a new vegetarian headed to her first Thanksgiving since going veg, knows to be aware of words, actions and people who trigger her own heightened emotional response.
“For instance, remember that Uncle Johnny always has something to say about the vegan dish,” DaSilva said. “So when he does say something, you’re fired up.”
A few deep breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth) before sitting down to eat can remind us not to take the comments personally, even when directed straight at our food choices. It also helps thicken our skin.
Many local vegans and vegetarians rely on humor to get them through the inevitable questions and comments when dining with omnivores who’ve never examined their own attitudes about carnism.
“I went vegan 10 years ago at age 14 and took a lot of teasing for the first few years from the cousins, aunts and uncles,” said Krista Marble of Scarborough. She advises vegans to bring vegan dishes to share and to “laugh at the jokes until they get bored of them.”
Don Kimball of Brunswick also uses humor. At one memorable Thanksgiving, the guest seated next to Kimball asked why he passed the turkey platter without taking any.
“When I said that I was a vegetarian, he said in a loud voice, ‘Well, what about your shoes?’” Kimball recalled. “I retorted, ‘I don’t eat my shoes!’ The whole table broke up laughing.”
The laughter reflects a quirk of human behavior. We take emotional cues from the people near us.
“Humans have these things called mirror neurons,” DaSilva said. “It makes us more likely to yell when the person in front of us is yelling.” Or laugh.
DaSilva said “a joke is an excellent way to de-escalate.” However, she cautions that in some de-escalation situations a “joke could escalate the person further because the person might not think you’re taking them seriously.”
Should the jokes fall flat, DaSilva said “it’s OK to admit when you’re wrong. We’re all human, and none of us is batting 100. Say, “I didn’t mean it to come out that way. I’m sorry.” And move on.
People who have escalated into anger – whether over mask mandates or a relative’s love of tofu – lose their ability to use logic. DaSilva said we can counter by lowering our voice, which keeps us in our “thinking brain.”
“When we’re escalated, we can be in our fight, flight or freeze mode,” said DaSilva. “Trying to have a conversation with someone in their flight mode – they can’t be reasoned with.”
Because of this, DaSilva knows sometimes you just have to call it quits. “Never be afraid to tell someone when the conversation is done, when someone is either being offensive or you’re talking in circles,” she said.
If you’re not ready to shut it down, DaSilva has a final strategy to try.
“There’s this thing called nonviolent communication,” she said. “You start by naming an observation. Stating what you’re seeing, nonjudgmental. Then you name your feelings. Then you name your request.”
“For example, if Uncle Johnny says, ‘This vegetarian meal you brought over is looking really gross.” You would say, ‘When I see you poking at my food choice, it makes me feel bad. Can we talk about this in a more respectful way?’”
We can also dig for the cause of the questions.
“It’s about reflecting the things they’re saying to you,” DaSilva said, “and asking an open-ended question, such as ‘I can see this is really important to you, and I’d love to hear more about why this is important to you.’”
Such a question could be the start to an interesting conversation rather than a shouting match. And in 2020, meaningful communication is something we all can give thanks for and celebrate.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at