Did She Really Just Say That?

Dear Helena,

We are going to my wife’s parents’ home for Thanksgiving, and I am dreading it. They are good cooks and there is plenty to drink. The problem is my sister-in-law. She always drinks too much. One time she tripped over the dog and had to be put to bed with an ice pack on her ankle. Another time she cornered me in the kitchen and gave me a wet, sloppy kiss on the lips, almost like she was trying to make out with me. At the dinner table, she makes inappropriate remarks and slurs her words, but no one does anything about it. What’s the best way to deal with a friend or relative who gets too drunk? Should you just hide the booze and cut them off altogether? —Tingling with Embarrassment

Dear Tingling with Embarrassment,

When family members get drunk, you need to consider their history with alcohol in deciding how to respond. If they are recovering alcoholics, a glass of wine at dinner could turn into a full-blown binge, and you should intervene “at the first sip,” says Craig Nakken, author of Reclaim Your Family from Addiction. It may be awkward to get a word in private with someone in the middle of dinner. But it’s far better to risk embarrassment than relapse.

Try not to get angry, since this could backfire. “If you get in a fight,” Nakken says, “they’ll feel like they don’t have to pay attention to you.” Plus, he says, “pain creates entitlement.” Instead, “come from a place of compassion,” Nakken advises. “Tell them, ‘It’s really hard for me to see you hurting yourself.’”

But if the drinker doesn’t have a problem with alcohol and isn’t actively hurting you, himself, or the other guests, you should consider letting him have his fun. Family gatherings can be tense, and sometimes it’s better for relatives to be too drunk than not drunk enough. Take my Aunt Millicent (not her real name), who likes to knock back a few at holiday gatherings. She begins with a slug of whiskey on her porridge (for medicinal purposes, she claims). On Christmas Day, she has champagne too, and by lunch she’s singing nursery rhymes and making lewd remarks. It’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s better than Aunt Millicent sober, when she lobs passive-aggressive insults at everyone around her. (As an added bonus, when drunk she usually falls asleep for an hour or two after lunch.)

But if your soused relative becomes offensive, don’t just sit there. Gerard Jones, a San Francisco writer, says: “My mom used to drink too much and would make everyone uncomfortable with bitter soliloquies that no one knew how to respond to.” The discomfort was palpable as the rest of the family stared at their plates.

So what should you do? Duggan McDonnell, owner of the San Francisco bar Cantina and veteran handler of drunkards, advises: “Use a distraction technique.” McDonnell asks drunks if they will “help watch the bar.” “This doesn’t really mean anything,” he explains, “but it makes them feel important and normal. It puts their mind on the task, not on the next drink.” At a family dinner, McDonnell suggests, you might ask your befuddled relatives to help you in the kitchen. This isolates them from the other guests and may prevent them from imbibing more. Says McDonnell: “You can’t drink a martini while you wash the dishes.”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.