Are You An Additive Person Or A Subtractive One?

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 carmelized 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.

Every 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 soufflé? She had a great recipe with acarmelglaze 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 Hannakah 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 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 it, 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 good will, sweet potatoes and stuffing that anyone wants to bring to the party.  Peace on Earth.

Lisa Earle McLeod helps organizations win the hearts and minds of customers and employees. She is the author of three books included the best-seller, The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small, A Washington Post Top 5 Book for Leaders.

She is an international keynote speaker and consultant who has been seen on The Today show and featured in Forbes, Fortune, CEO Read and The Wall Street Journal.  You can reach her at

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    My favorite Simpsons’ episode was Thanksgiving.
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    “I have laryngitis, so I’m only going to say this once: everything you do is wrong.”
    That’s what all the motherly comments boil down to – which is why it’s easier to accept the fact that your food offering will not fit into his family dinner, as you will never be part of the family. Remeber, it’s their loss.

  • Lisa…enjoy a little something I picked from a presentation I once did.

    Gun Cabinets

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    Then I ask you to build another for me.

    The Question: How much effort will you put into the next gun cabinet you build for me?
    To be sure, it won’t be as good as the first one you built.
    Question of the day…..
    Are you smashing gun cabinets or building them?

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