How to Keep Thanksgiving From Being a Family Tech Trainwreck

Thanksgiving is almost here! Pass the turkey. Cut the pie. Oh, ugh, and somebody bring me a USB cable! Being the family gearhead often means you take on a new role as unpaid tech support.

When you arrive home for the holidays, suddenly you're everyone's Bill Nye. You may find yourself fielding questions about everything from Facebook to QuickBooks. And don't plan on being able to Google your way out. Is that Bing in your parents' search bar? And will your XBOX even work on dialup?

Look, rather than curse the darkness, turn on the lights. And install an LED bulb or two while you're at it. Here's how to negotiate a tech-challenged family's gathering.

Heal Thyself

Helping out your folks with their tech problems is all well and good. But you won't have the time or the energy if you're constantly troubleshooting your own stuff. You love your folks, but everyone'll end up better off if you go in looking out for number one.

What, you've never been home before? Most of your tech problems at your parents house are your own fault. You know what you're likely to encounter. Bring your own damn gear. And I'm not just talking your laptop. Of course you don't want to use that old XP machine set up in the closet under the stairs. I'm talking cables, power strips, Wi-Fi routers. Are they on dialup? Maybe you ought to pick up a 4G card at one of those fancy gadget vending machines in the airport. Don't plan on being able to talk to your folks about this over the phone. They can't tell you what you don't know. Just roll like you're traveling back in time to the 1990s.

Fix Their Sh*t

Your mom went to a lot of damn trouble to cook that bird. Return the favor, buttercup. Spend some time working on your parents' tech set up. Make sure their computer software is up to date. Uninstall IE6 and set them up with Chrome or Firefox or Safari. (Advanced tip: If your folks are visually driven, change the new browser icon to an Internet Explorer one.) Set up automatic software updates. Get them on Webmail. (And for God's sake, if your parents share an email address, do them each a favor and set up individual accounts.)

If you're really a good kid, you can even bring them new gear. It doesn't even have to be brand new. Odds are the old 802.11b router in your closet is faster than whatever the hell they've got now.

Not only will improving their setup help them, it benefits you in the long run. It means things will be that much better the next time you come home, and reduce the likelihood of your having to field tech support calls about how to make the thing on the internet do that thing with the videos.

Answer Questions For Them (Not You)

Should your mom get an iPhone? Should your dad buy a 3DTV? Should they get a new computer? Buy a Blu-ray player? Invest in Groupon? (They should not invest in Groupon.) Your parents have questions, and of course you want to be helpful and answer them. Remember that the needs of a 65 year-old retiree in rural New Hampshire are quite different from those of a 20-something product manager in Boston. For example, can they afford the monthly bill that goes with a smartphone? Does your dad really need a Foursquare account?

Make sure to consider future proofing; your folks are probably less likely to upgrade than you are. So suggest stuff that lasts. And anything you do tell them to buy? Be prepared to support it.

Educate Rather Than Advise

Look, you need to teach your mom to fish. Sure, she might prefer you just show up with trout. But that's not helping anyone. Insist on giving them some basics on how to negotiate the tech landscape, just as they helped you learn to negotiate life—like how to make sure devices will be compatible with their current equipment, how DRM works and what it means for future purchases, and to never, ever, ever listen to the sales guys at their local cell phone store.

Teach them universal principals that they can apply to future purchases and actions. Show them how to do an effective Google search, and how to find answers for themselves. They'll appreciate the education. And the time you save could be your own.


User Manual is Gizmodo's guide to etiquette. It appears as if by magic every Friday.

Original artwork by Christopher Hartelius. For more of Chris's work and other true news stories, please check out his website, True American Dog.

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