10 Guaranteed Ways to Ruin a Family Reunion

By: Maria Trimarchi
Starting a brawl is an obvious way to ruin the fun at a family gathering, but there are so many other ways to destroy the festivities.
©iStockphoto.com/Jennifer Steck

People often complain (or maybe it's not a complaint) that they see family members only during holidays, and extended family only at weddings and funerals, so the idea of getting everyone together for a family reunion may sound like a great idea. You'll share stories, maybe learn a little about your family history or genealogy, eat some food and go home feeling loved. Until reality sinks in. Everyone has their role within a family, and families all have entertainers, for example, or historians, but they also have chronic complainers. They have distant family members and friends of family who haven't seen you in years, or maybe ever, who want to catch up -- or worse, get a little too friendly (is that even legal in your state?). And then you've got your blabbers; no secret is safe. Reunions are tricky events because we're talking about family, and family dynamics can squash a good time in the blink of an eye.

No matter what role you play within your family, from social butterfly with a thick skin to shy introvert hoping no one wants you to give an impromptu speech or a toast, you might be the one to ruin your reunion despite figuring on one of your uncles to take the award for that achievement. Everything from not planning ahead to too much time at the open bar can turn what should be a fun gathering into just another story for those chronic complainers. With a dash of etiquette and a whole bunch of self-control, maybe we can all get along -- or at least not fight over the last slice of pie.


10: Eat All the Pie

Who doesn’t love pie? Whether you’re bringing some or just indulging, it’s a good idea to check on how many people will be sharing the dessert.
©iStockphoto.com/Sandy Jones

Maybe it's not your fault -- the one strawberry rhubarb pie on the dessert table was the only one of its kind, to be shared among dozens, but you didn't know that when you went back for a second slice. Nor your third.

While you'll have to rely on guests to control their love of seconds and thirds, if you're the party planner, take advice from the most seasoned party throwers out there. Estimate how much pie -- and food and beverages -- you'll need for each of your guests as soon as you have a solid guest list to avoid running out of food. In general, plan that every adult will eat about a pound of food (and about half that amount per kid), including everything from appetizers to the main course to condiments and dinner rolls.


If you're serving alcohol at the reunion, you'll want to plan on each adult drinking two drinks in the first hour and one drink every additional hour they stay at the party. Figure on pouring one bottle of wine among eight people, and if mixed drinks are on the menu, figure one gallon will serve 10 guests one drink each.

9: Don't Plan Ahead

A good reunion is a delicate balancing act. If you’re sloppy with your planning, an idyllic scene like this one could turn to mayhem.
© Aladdin Color, Inc./Corbis

If you're thinking about planning a family reunion this year, think again. Putting together a reunion can take a considerable amount of time and effort, and may take several months -- if not longer -- to plan. Consider the location and its proximity to where family members live, the time of year and weather, as well as the type of facility that would best suit your family's size and style (for example, indoor or outdoor, if permits are required, pot-luck or catered, and so on). And then there's the food. And the activities. And then there's the cost, and how to keep things affordable for all family members. There's one thing planning experts agree on: Communicate early, communicate often, and don't be afraid to spread around the responsibilities.

Neglect to organize the reunion properly and your mistakes will become legend at future family gatherings.


8: Accidentally Make Everyone Sick

That potato salad (and any other food) is a perfect home for bacteria if you leave it out in the sun.
©iStockphoto.com/Denise Bush

Your odds of a bout of food poisoning this year are about one out of six, and if you're not careful, you could be the cause of foodborne illness at your family reunion's feast.

Food that's been left at room temperature is a bacteria-generating factory. As soon as the temperature rises above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius), bacteria begin to grow, rapidly. At room temperature, the amount of bacteria in that food doubles every 20 minutes, multiplying even faster as the temperature continues to rise [source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services]. Keep hot foods hot with portable burners, cold foods cold with trays of ice and don't let leftovers linger. Be sure to refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking -- that holds true for both indoor foods and outdoor foods -- and cut that time to just one hour if the summer temperature rises above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) [source: WebMD].


In addition to keeping hot and cold foods separate and at their proper temperatures, be careful when working with meat and produce. Raw meats and unwashed fruits and vegetables may be contaminated with bacteria such as e.coli, listeria and salmonella, among other bacteria, and may cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, headache, fever, chills and weakness [source: FoodSafety.gov]. Wash all produce well, don't forget to keep your hands and cooking utensils clean, and use a meat cheat sheet to figure out whether ort not your beef is done. Beef should be at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71.1 degrees Celsius), chicken and other poultry at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82.2 degrees Celsius), and fish to at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) [source: MedlinePlus].

7: Let the Button-pushers Push Your Buttons

Do you have a relative who always seems to be spoiling for a fight? You’re not alone. The key is to prepare for confrontations ahead of time.

How does that saying go? You don't have to attend every argument you're invited to. Probably good advice for family reunion attendees.

We all have our buttons, and we all know at least one person who knows just how to push them to elicit the worst in us. Whether it's questions about life decisions or passive jabs aimed at destroying confidence, the very idea of these social interchanges makes you feel anxious, and your body releases a hormone called cortisol, the flight or fight hormone. But instead of anticipating how you'll panic or lash out, anticipate how you wish you could react when being confronted by the button pushers. Mental health professionals recommend role playing different scenarios and practicing your reactions, rehearsing how you'd like to respond to certain situations and setting boundaries before you go to the reunion. The theory is that instead of allowing your anxiety and insecurities get the better of you, you instead stack the odds in your favor ahead of time.


6: Ask for Money

What’s more awkward than a relative asking for money at the annual family picnic? Not much.

Asking a family member for a loan may seem like a great idea -- after all, they may just give you the money and not expect repayment, a deal you'll never get from any bank. And as it turns out, luck may be on your side: More than three-quarters of baby boomers (Americans born between 1946 and 1964) feel obligated to financially support their adult children if their kids ask them to, from helping with health insurance payments and rent to allowing adult children to move back home, according to a 2011 TD Ameritrade survey [source: TD Ameritrade].

But the family reunion is not the place to make the request -- a loan is a business transaction, not something you ask about between karaoke songs or swapping stories about your Uncle Bob. Loans are not to be taken lightly, whether the amount is $5 or $50,000, and financial experts warn against getting into a lender/lendee relationship with a family member without arranging some sort of contract -- a written, signed contract that states at the very minimum the amount loaned and the repayment schedule. Without one, would you be comfortable taking legal action against a family member who hasn't paid back your loan?


5: Ask Pointed, Uncomfortable Questions

You dear aunt probably means well with all her questions about whether you’ll ever get married, but even if you suspect her intentions are more nosey than supportive, try not to let her queries put you on the defensive.

No matter how curious you might be about whether or not your cousin's children are a result of a sperm donor or how concerned you are that it looks like your niece has lost -- or gained -- weight since you last saw her, remember this: Family members tend to lack consideration for each other because they're so, well, familial. We no longer consider each other's feelings, and we overstep or ignore the boundaries of our relationships.

Experts recommend we try not to take such questions as personal attacks, and that most of the time this sort of inquiry into your personal life (or secrets) is more an act of concern than anything malicious. Remember that when you find yourself cornered by your aunt who wants to know when you are going to get a better job, get married, and get started on that family of your own.


4: Drink. A Lot

Alcohol is a common attendee at family gatherings, but it can cause all kinds of discord and embarrassment if people don’t drink responsibly.
© Simon Jarratt/Corbis

Chances are good that if you haven't seen your family in a long time (or even if you have, depending on your family), the idea of attending a college years is true -- alcohol loosens you up in social situations. Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol at group events helps to stimulate conversation and makes people feel they're having a good time; drinking alcohol also makes us smile [source: UPI]. If you don't drink very often (and even if you do), be careful; one too many glasses of wine can turn a fun evening into an embarrassing event.


3: Bring Up Politics

Nothing can create a rift between two people – even people who normally get along – faster than a political discussion.
© Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Corbis

You said yes to peach cobbler as your Uncle Bill served you a scoop of his famous dessert, but you didn't expect it to come topped with commentary about the state of health care in the country. Or maybe you did, but regardless, there's not much that is (or seems) more polarizing in family relationships than politics and religion.

How you handle those differing -- sometimes dramatically differing -- opinions without hurting feelings, bruising egos or kicking off long-term personal grudges matters. If you're going to get involved in arguing about the sequester this and the president that, be sure you know your facts first. And instead of the annual family fight, mental health experts recommend you be respectful by asking where they found their facts, or how they came to that conclusion -- and agree to disagree rather than arguing the issue.


2: Spill Family Secrets

Blabbing other people’s private information is never a good idea.
©iStockphoto.com/Factoria Singular

In 2011, Oprah Winfrey spilled a family secret, not at a family reunion barbeque but rather on a televised special -- a secret that family members had kept hidden (even from Oprah) since the early 1960s: Oprah's half-sister.

Most secrets aren't kept that long. In fact, tell your sister a secret and she's likely to spill the beans in just 32 minutes, according to a survey conducted for the skincare company Simple. The study also found 85 percent of women are gossip hounds, and 13 percent admit they intentionally tell secrets [source: Daily Mail].


Family secrets, though, sometimes do stay quiet for years. Stories of affairs, abuse, abortion, adoption and even lifestyle choices can remain skeletons in the family closet because they involve feelings of shame, anxiety, fear and other intense emotions. While sharing secrets may relieve a burden you're carrying, others may not share that feeling; experts recommend before spilling those secrets at a family gathering, consider whether some secrets may be better kept secret, or if maybe there's a better circumstance to bring them up.

1: Bring Up Old Resentments or Fights

If there’s resentment brewing between you and a family member, the best you can do is focus on your end of the problem and try to just let go of it.
©iStockphoto.com/Luba Nel

Being around family can bring up your childhood memories, good and bad. A comment from your mother, for example, sounds harmless enough to your cousin, but leaves you feeling and acting like your 12-year-old self. Those family patterns are easy to fall into without even realizing what's happening because they're ingrained behaviors; and when you're in those situations, you feel like your inner child has taken over, and she's upset. And it's not just the stuff of childhood that bother us; that 12-year old is also fanning the flames of fights long ago (and that fight between your brothers from just a year ago). Instead of indulging in those resentments and arguments, mental health experts suggest we practice letting things go -- something your teenage self might not have been able to do.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Ways to Ruin a Family Reunion

I've never attended a family reunion, and I'm actually not sure that I'd recognize most of my extended family members, beyond aunts, uncles and cousins if I saw them at a family gathering or at the corner store. But I made a few mental notes while researching and writing this article: Plan ahead, logistically but also and maybe more importantly emotionally, and have just one glass of wine.

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