MCLEOD: Are you an additive person or a subtractive one?

Lisa McLeod

Lisa McLeod

It started with stuffing. But then, as Southern family fights tend to do, it went from stuffing to sweet potatoes to full-fledged character assassination.

It's the kind of fight that sears into your soul, because you know that it's about a lot more than just stuffing.

It's about them discounting your traditions and belittling you every chance they get.

Happy holidays.

For every person who is thrilled to be with their family or in-laws, there are others who are bracing themselves for criticism, sniping, and simmering tension.

The conflicts often seem trivial: Stuffing -- cornbread or white? Sweet potatoes -- marshmallows or caramelized nuts?

The way people approach seemingly small disagreements about food reveals a lot about the way they approach life, and whether or not they're additive or subtractive thinkers.

Here's how the Southern Sweet Potato Wars played out.

My friend Shellie was about to spend her first holiday with her new husband's family. It was a second marriage for both of them. Shellie had two children so she was used to hosting her own holidays. But this year, they were going to be part of the husband's family tradition.

Ever the gracious guest, and excellent cook, she called to ask what she could contribute. She offered to make her grandmother's favorite stuffing recipe. No, she was told, "We don't do stuffing, we do dressing."

OK, then how about a sweet potato souffle? She had a great recipe with a caramel glaze on top. No, one of the sisters always makes one with marshmallows.

The attempts went on until Shellie gave up. There was not one single thing she could add to the dinner. You can imagine how welcome she felt.

Another example of how subtractive thinking puts a barrier between you and other people.

How hard would it have been for the mother-in-law to say, "Great, we'll have two kinds of stuffing and sweet potatoes this year?"

I don't know about you, but I have yet to attend a holiday dinner where people complained about too much food.

But subtractive thinkers assume that new traditions and ideas will detract from their plans and traditions.

"Let's go here" or "Can I bring this?" is often interpreted as an assault on the original plan, rather than adding to it.

Additive thinkers take the opposite approach. The more ideas, the better. Got a new tradition you want to add? Great, we'll work it in. We can do Hanukkah and Festivus this year.

Do you have some suggestions for improving our processes? Fabulous, we're always looking to make things even better.

Additive thinkers like their own ideas, but they're also open to additional perspectives.

Subtractive thinkers interpret new ideas as an attack on their own. They don't just like their ideas and traditions, they're emotionally attached to them and will defend them against all potential interlopers.

If you're reeling at the horror of Shellie offering to bring marshmallow-less sweet potatoes to a holiday dinner, it might be a sign that you could be a bit subtractive in your own thinking.

And, dare I say, if someone extends a holiday greeting to you that doesn't match your ethnic or religious views, just go with it. They're not attacking your tradition, they're just trying to enjoy their own.

It's a big planet. There's more than enough room for all the goodwill, sweet potatoes and stuffing that anyone wants to bring to the party. Peace on Earth.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of "The Triangle of Truth," a Washington Post Top 5 Business Book.