Letters from the dorm: two simple rules to surviving a family holiday

Talise Tsai
Talise Tsai |

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You want to see historical sites and make the most of your three days in Athens. However, your grandparents are tired from walking, your aunts want to go shopping, and your sister refuses to ask for directions when she’s lost.

Going on a family vacation can be taxing, but it can also be a great opportunity for everyone to break out of their comfort zones and reconnect with one another. The key is to understand why and how “unfamiliarity” can cause trouble – and then work around it.

Unfamiliarity causes trouble for two main reasons.

1. Being in an unfamiliar situation often causes families to interact with each other differently and momentarily causes power dynamics to shift, which can be uncomfortable.

At home, people may naturally fall into certain roles: Mum’s in charge of family entertainment. Dad’s in charge of cooking. The eldest uncle always organises the reunions.

But when you travel, things get disrupted. The kids suddenly lead the itinerary. Mum picks the restaurants. The eldest aunt can’t speak the local language and someone else takes charge.

This shift can cause stress as people are uncertain of how to interact with each other. The eldest uncle isn’t used to having to play the follower. Mum doesn’t trust the kids with the GPS. You get the picture.

2. Being in an unfamiliar place also makes personality differences more obvious, making clashes more likely to occur.

We all react to situations in our own way and we may not be able to understand why others take a different approach.

Take navigating for an example. Some people are more naturally inclined to ask for directions, whereas others might prefer figuring it out themselves. Person 1 might misinterpret person 2’s unwillingness to ask for directions as a sign of laziness or stubbornness, when in fact person 2 is just shy, or enjoys being independent. Neither response is wrong; it’s just a result of a difference in personality. But this can be enough to drive some people crazy, especially if they believe their way of doing things is best. And if conflict arises, it can open another can of worms altogether, as everyone reacts differently to confrontation.

Unfamiliarity can seem like a curse, but it can also be a blessing. Being in a new place and having to rediscover how to relate with members of your family means that you have an new opportunity to define that relationship. Maybe you’ll discover that your brother is brilliant at uniting people and organising events, which you wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t been given the chance. Instead of letting personality differences get in the way, maybe find the chance to have a genuine conversation with your youngest cousin and let this be the start of a beautiful friendship. The first step is to be aware of the potential dangers of unfamiliarity, avoid it, and then embrace its beauty.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge