It’s just like you imagined: the metallic gift-wrapped gifts shine in the twinkling red and white lights. The air is briskly sharp beyond the windows, but inside, the fire pops and crackles. People graze between hors d'oeuvre tables, ladling holiday punch into their crystal glasses. It is both festive and cozy — perfect. Moving from observer to guest, you hop into a conversation happening to your right near the food table:
“Oh, I just submitted our TLE. Hopefully it will come in pretty quickly this time,” says the first person.
“Yeah, it took about two months for us to be reimbursed earlier this year,” remarks the second.
Slightly shocked, you pause. You’d rather talk about something else besides the humdrum paperwork of the military. You jump to the next conversation, and it’s the same. You tilt your head as you hear two spouses comparing homeschool programs here and at their last duty station. Being one without kids, you exit the conversation quickly. Surely someone is talking about something more festive … more meaningful?
Creating true connections
As much as marketers (like myself, as a writer) want us to believe, the setting and the stuff make the occasion. To some degree, it does make a difference. I attended a spouse gathering at a seasoned spouse’s home recently, and her hospitality shined in every carefully considered detail. The flannel-patterned napkins, tablecloths and blankets matched the fall-themed menu of chili, s’mores, cornbread and more, as we all chatted by the fire. The setting helped to create a relaxed atmosphere conducive to building friendships.
But as you’ve likely experienced time and again, even a lovely setting can fall flat if conversation centers around what is immediately common in military life — paperwork challenges, moving, work. It’s the stuff everyone has experienced, but in terms of creating true connections, these topics won’t usually cut it.
If you find yourself at a holiday gathering with fellow military colleagues, spouses or families this year, consider keeping one or two new questions in your back pocket. You may or may not have many opportunities to meet and build relationships with people in your unit or most immediate military or civilian circles. If you want to find your people, one approach could be to make the most of every gathering opportunity. In the midst of holiday planning, shopping, cleaning, organizing, cooking and more, if you can add just a little bit more intention to your conversations, you might be surprised about the sense of connection you can foster.
For example, one rule I try to keep for myself in any relationship-building setting is to ask, “How do you usually like to spend your days?” rather than “Where do you work?” This is first, to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone participates in paid work. Many in the military community offer valuable service through volunteering, domestic care work and more. Second, it creates space for people to choose which part of their lives they’d like to talk about. In some settings, work might be an easy topic of conversation, but after hours, many would rather talk about other subjects: hobbies, family, ideas, etc. It’s nothing revolutionary — we just forget what a difference a new question can make.
'Let our true selves be seen'
Explore new perspectives on the world by slightly shifting your focus of conversation. It might be easier for some than others because in asking new questions, you’ll diverge from the normal expectations. People expect to discuss easy and non-vulnerable questions. But finding a deeper connection requires courage and a willingness to (wisely) reveal more about yourself than that.
As prolific professor, writer and vulnerability expert Brené Brown says in "The Gifts of Imperfection," “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
In most cases, this choice requires you to take the first step. In our digital environment, it is all too common for people to feel invisible and unseen by others. According to a 2022 Pew Research study, 42% of Americans feel lonely at least one or two days out of the week. This doesn’t take into account community challenges military people face. In taking time to slow down and truly listen, we can give and receive genuine connection. And who in the military community doesn’t need more of that?
You don’t need to be an expert conversationalist. Sometimes the first step can be as small as simply shifting your questions from the usual topics to those that feel fresher, more alive. The holidays and unit, family and friend parties are on the horizon. Phone calls, video calls and online group hangouts with family and friends will likely fill spaces on your holiday calendar.
Here are some questions to jump-start new avenues of conversation for you this year. There is a mix of lighter and more in-depth topics to match the occasion. Start with questions you feel the most comfortable with right now and grow from there.
Holiday gathering questions for New Year inspiration:
My hope for you this holiday season is that you would invest energy into truly seeing the people right in front of you — and that they would take the time to see you in return.
Aria Spears is a writer, communications professional and civic leadership enthusiast. With a master's degree in nonprofit and civic leadership, Aria can be found exploring cities, persuading people to join local civic boards and sharing her book The Community Mapping Journal. When it comes to active-duty military family life, she believes that joy makes us strong.
Editor's note: As part of CityView's commitment to filling gaps by providing reporting and information for the Fort Liberty community, our HomeFront initiative has added two columnists who will write regularly about issues military families face. Today: Aria Spears, who lives at Fort Liberty with her active-duty spouse, writes about gratitude. If there's a topic you'd like for our columnists address, let us know at email@example.com.