5 Ways to Survive a Family or Class Reunion

Family and Kids

Summer is the perfect time for family reunions, class reunions, and various other gatherings. Do you look forward to them or dread them with a passion? Whether you enjoy them or merely tolerate going to them, here are some timely ideas to help you survive the experience. A little bit of planning can make any reunion a more pleasant experience.
1. Do the prep work. Consider the people who will be attending the reunion.
For a family reunion, refresh your memory about relevant family genealogy. No need to go back through many generations, but it helps to get it straight in your mind about the current players in the family. It can be a big help to draw a simple chart with the elders, their spouses and their children, if any. If there are certain branches of the family who usually come, add them to your chart. As you get to know the members, each reunion will get successively easier.
For a class reunion, dig out those old school yearbooks to scan the names and faces. Didn’t keep any of them? Ask a classmate to borrow theirs, or check out the school library. Of course, names often change with marriage and divorce, but even preferred names can change. For example, my given name, Elizabeth, offers many nicknames. Throw in three different surnames and the variations are seemingly endless. It has changed from Elizabeth C. to Liz C. to Liz D. (marriage) to Beth C. (divorce) to Beth LaMie (marriage) to Elizabeth LaMie at work, and, finally, Beth LaMie as an author and Personal Historian. Whew!
Keep in mind that faces can change considerably as we age and as we gain/lose social standing, gain/lose weight, and gain/lose facial & scalp hair, along with extreme changes in hair color and style. With luck, the reunion organizers will have name tags for everyone, perhaps even with a photo from the senior yearbook. Try to associate the “new” face with the old/new name as early as possible. After all, it may take some time before you can relate to who the person really is.
2. Keep an open mind. You never know when you might have fun.
At any reunion, you have the opportunity to meet new people and get to know more about someone you didn’t know very well. It helps to “advertise” a bit about your own interests, too, perhaps by wearing a t-shirt with your favorite team logo, tourist spot, or university.
We had a reunion this summer for the Lamie family, which I’ve been attending for over 28 years. In the course of a random conversation with one of the cousins, we discovered a shared interest in writing. With another, it was travel to various campgrounds. Now the next time we run into each other, we can pick up where our discussions ended.
A friend of mine went to her 25 year class reunion last year and happened to be seated at dinner next to a classmate she barely new. In the course of the evening, she discovered another car aficionado. In this case it was a love of old Camaros – he happens to own more than a dozen of her favorite cars. During the last year, they have become close friends based on many similar interests.
3. Find an ice-breaker. Get the ball rolling.
You know those silly party games that some hosts foist onto their guests? Well, they actually serve a useful purpose – to get people talking to relative strangers. They can be very helpful in introducing people to each other and establishing some kind of common ground, even as they also can be rather annoying. Get into the spirit of the game and meet someone new.
Not a game-playing person? Come up with your own suggestions on how to get people to mingle. As people arrive at the event, ask them to help set up tables, chairs, decorations, pass out drinks, etc. There are always lots of last-minute things to do; but be careful – if you do this every time you get together, people may start arriving later.
4. Ask questions. Use your detective skills.
People love to talk about themselves. Ask some open-ended questions that cannot be answered with just one or two words. In deference to the economy, you may not want to ask what someone does for a living. The odds are they may have been affected directly or indirectly by layoffs, cutbacks and uncertainty.
Depending how well you know the person, you can ask about where they live and respond with your own comments or questions about the area. “Oh, I love Milwaukee! We used to enjoy going to the Wisconsin State Fair. Did you ever watch a ‘newbie’ try to bite into one of those great cream puffs?” By the way, I enjoy trying local food specialties, so that always gives me another harmless yet interesting topic.
Remember, having a conversation is sort of like a ping pong match. You ask a question or tell something about yourself or your interests then give the other person a chance to do the same. Of course, there may be times when you get a terse reply that kills the momentum, but it’s always worth a try. You might just have to work harder to get them engaged.
For a family reunion, it is always interesting to find out how (or if) the person is related to family members you know well. As we get older and the next generation has children or even grandchildren, it can be more challenging to keep all the younger people straight.
My 91-year-old father-in-law had eleven brothers and sisters. When I started going to their family reunions, you can imagine how hard it was to keep all the aunts, uncles and cousins straight, let alone all their children. So the second year I went, I brought along color-coded name tags with a different color for the descendants of each sibling. That made it so much easier to get to know who belonged to which branch of the family tree. If I had been ambitious (and smart), I would have drawn a family tree and added to it every year. What a great idea for a Personal Historian, huh?
5. Listen, listen, listen. Don’t monopolize the conversation.
Finally, actively listen to the other person. Give them your full attention, not letting your eyes wander off to greener pastures. Respond appropriately by nodding or asking follow-up questions. When you see their eyes light up on a particular topic, you’ll know you have connected with them. File away that information for future meetings with them, along with their names and common interests. They’ll appreciate that you remembered.
One final thought about reunions. Your attitude will have a lot to do with what kind of time you have. If you expect to be bored, you probably will be. However, if you make an effort to talk to people and share something of yourself, the odds improve that you’ll have a good time.
What other ideas do you have for surviving a reunion? I’d love to hear them.