A behavioural guide to surviving the Silly Season

Some tips and tricks to see you through

Australians aren’t the only people dealing with the contradictions that the Silly Season presents, like singing about dashing through the snow when it’s 35 degrees outside. Or warning kids not talk to strange old men at the mall, unless he’s wearing red pyjamas and ringing a bell.

Billions of people around the world are currently preparing for the often-gruelling experience that is the festival of Peace on Earth. Together, we can get through this. We here at BehaviourWorks felt it was our professional duty to provide a behavioural guide to the many bizarre and unexplainable traditions that we all endure.

We do so with the knowledge that the following insights are not something you’ll find a research paper on, so don’t waste time looking for citations – look for the wisdom instead! Here goes… 

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Christmas lights

People are competitive. It’s hard to keep up with the Joneses when they have an actual waving Santa on the roof surrounded by illuminated snowflakes and all you’ve got is a dodgy ‘seasons greetings’ sign that repels people, but attracts mozzies.

Social norms can change this time of year, from ‘we live in a quiet neighbourhood, so keep it down please’ to ‘the house with the most lights wins, suckers!’

Suck it up, drive to Christmas Kingdom and spend $1,000 (minimum) on the latest lights, knowing the competition will ramp up next year.

The cheapest (and most environmentally sustainable) option is to actively concede defeat and leave a letter in your neighbour’s mailbox saying how much you love their beautiful lights (you might even get invited to drinks at their place, so win/win/win).  The most expensive option is to move to a suburb where the social norm is to literally go dark.

Christmas cards

Not so big a deal now that we can send those electronic ones that take forever to load, but the truth is a hand-written card can still bring a smile to  those you send it to.

Trouble is, you have to find the cards, write something and get them posted early enough that you get in first and don’t look like you’re shame-replying (that’s not an actual behavioural term, by the way). 

There are websites devoted to giving you ideas on what to write, so a little Googling can make it easy. Or, you could get some really silly cards and write touching little notes inside, which will give the recipient an emotional smile-tear knock out.

Research says the real reason we buy cards with printed messages inside is not because we like the message, but because we’re embarrassed at our own hand writing. If that’s you, find someone who writes in perfect copperplate (and then let us know who they are). You could start recycling cards from this year, starting a to-and-fro correspondence until there’s no more room on the card for messages.   

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Wrapping gifts

That badminton racquet seemed to be the perfect gift, but how the heck do you wrap it?  It’s too long sideways, longways it uses up half the roll of paper and whatever you end up doing, it will be ripped open in a few seconds. It’s shockingly wasteful when you think about it, but that’s the problem about so many Christmas habits – we don’t think about them.

What’s to be done?

A four-hour training workshop in wrapping skills might get you professional development points, but we can’t guarantee it. How about emphasising the benefits of not wrapping the gifts, just keeping them hidden till the moment arrives?

Or saving the paper (and trees) to use again next year – using ribbon instead of sticky tape is a great way to stop the paper tearing.  

Ambush gifts

These aren’t bow and arrow sets, they’re gifts you weren’t expecting and haven’t got reciprocal gifts for.

Reciprocity is a well-known method of influencing people – we feel obliged to give something to those who have given us something – but what do you do when you don’t have something to give in return? Gush and say ‘you shouldn’t have’?

This takes planning, but stocking up on generic gifts and signed Christmas cards can keep you obligation debt-free when it comes to ambush gifting.

This might mean cases of expensive chocolate balls/elephants/shells (Diabetes Australia might have something to say about that) or, possibly, an entire deck of $20 gift cards, so when confronted by the unexpected (and possibly unwelcome) gift, you simply count out the value of the received gift and hand it over. 

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Shopping for gifts

Crowds. Lines. Parking. When a lot of people try doing the same thing at once, it’s messy. Often, this can be put down to Optimism Bias – the (deluded) idea that we’ll somehow get it done in time.

There are concrete things you can do, however, to minimise the pain.

Making a plan and writing it down has a scientific name – implementation intentions.

Rather than dealing with that nagging feeling that you should get around to it, it means being specific about the objectives (e.g., an actual list of presents) and the time and place (e.g., CBD, Tuesday afternoon) and then putting the plan in a place where you won’t overlook or forget it. Seriously, research suggests it works.

If it’s the stress of shopping that is the main barrier, organise a shopping day with friends so that it’s fun, you’ve got a brains trust for ideas and a support team when your spirits are flagging. Of course, you could stay at home and shop online, although they haven’t yet invented online algorithms that recreate the full retail experience of being told ‘that colour is you!’, or ‘honestly, your butt doesn’t look big AT ALL in those stone-wash jeans’. 


You can choose your friends, but not your family. The idea that we can’t escape them is a kind of Sunk Cost Bias; we’ve been around them so long we have to put up with them.


But ancient tensions can erupt after that eighth beer and if your nephew flies that freaking drone into your head ONE MORE TIME…

So, as it turns out, one of the ways to invent new outcomes at Christmas is to break old habits. Habit disruption is actually a really cool skill and what better place to start learning?

Instead of doing the same old same old, look for a way to break up the usual routine; hire a holiday house so the occasion is on neutral territory.

Or, book a spot at the local park so that everyone does things that are different and novel, like games and activities. If relatives are competing for glory, they’re distracted from the old shared stories and memories that can trigger family grumbles. If that’s all too hard, you can heroically volunteer to do all the cooking (so you can stay in the kitchen and avoid personal contact).

Or turn up early before the crowd arrives; this good deed will be rewarded by being able to leave early to visit … that other friend or relative you have to see at Christmas. 

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This one’s tricky. We all know the health benefits of reducing our alcohol consumption, but we tend to give ourselves a free pass around Christmas and often look forward to it (as a go-to intervention to help deal with some of the problems listed so far).

Drinking at Christmas can be a powerful social norm, but this could be one of the habits you disrupt. And, this could be the year you do it.

You can use simple techniques to lull people into thinking they’re imbibing and control their alcohol intake at the same time.

For example, you could make an exotic-tasting punch that has more fizz than spirits in it, but call it ‘gelignite’ and talk up how strong it is. You can offer to get drinks for everyone, which means swapping heavy beer for light when you need to, or you can soak all the labels off the beer bottles the night before so no one really knows how heavy the beer is.

You can also set tasks for different people that require them to behave, like making a speech or being Santa when it comes to handing out presents.

And water, of course, is a great ally when it comes to slowing the drinking down – it helps prevent headaches and can be slyly added to wine and spirits along the way. Spring for some spring water, perhaps, and serve it in some fancy glasses (with a posh slive of lemon) – we’re more likely to enjoy it as a special treat.

And finally ...

2017 has been a big year for BehaviourWorks; we’ve made new friends and taken on more projects, partners and staff as we continue to grow. We look forward to more of the same next year, and sharing the journey with you along the way.

So our last intervention for the Silly Season is simply this – take it easy, in every sense. See you in 2018.