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Meet the pa-rum-pum-pum-parents

Posted by Robin Abrahams  December 3, 2008 06:32 AM

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The good folks at boston.com are doing a "Meet the Parents" guide to the holiday season, and asked me to pass along some tips. I've done an article on overall holiday survival here, but what about that special little circle of ... specialness that you're in when the stress of meeting your significant other's parents coincides with the stress of the holidays? These 16 tips will help!

1. Get the intel from your significant other. Really, you can consider this Tip 1 through 10, it's so crucial. Your sweetie should be able to tell you where their family falls on the sacred-to-secular and formal-to-casual continuums of holiday observance. Find out, also, if there are any behaviors or conversational topics that must be avoided at all costs, or idiosyncratic traditions you should be prepared for.

2. Don't shoot yourself in the foot. Regardless of how thoroughly your sweetie may have debriefed you, there may well be a bit of wackiness that got left out of the 411. Also, people are gloriously inconsistent--the poshest Brahmins might break out truly hideous Rudolph sweaters on Christmas day; the most resolutely secular families might still have a longstanding cultural tradition of midnight mass. So don't snark on any holiday practice until you are positively sure that your sweetie's family doesn't participate in it: the kind of sureness only several years of joint holiday festivities can give you.

3. Bring a tradition of your own to share. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, they say. Well, Mr. Improbable and I are in a big ancient Rome kick at the moment, and one thing the Romans did was to trade customs and household gods like mad. It's one of the reasons their empire lasted so long. So don't just be a meek little conformist--really do like the Romans do, and share one of your own holiday traditions. Bring your recipe for latkes or your DVD of "It's a Wonderful Life" and welcome your sweetheart's family into your world.

4. Be prepared for the basic questions. Given your particular givens, you can expect certain questions to crop up, from "What are you majoring in?" to "How did you meet?" to "Do all your children have the same father?" Talk with your sweetie in advance about how to handle any sensitive questions--including questions that might not even sound "sensitive" to you but have a lot of family baggage attached to them. And you'd better both have the same answer if you're asked if you plan to get married.

5. Pay attention to everyone.
If it's a big family gathering, it might be tempting to spend all your energy impressing the potential future in-laws, or hanging out with siblings and cousins your own age. Big mistake. Make sure you pay a lot of attention to the older generation, the little kids, and the household pets. Not only will this make a good impression on everyone else, but the elderly, children, and animals are a lot less likely to be judgmental or pass on gossip about you, so time with them is both well and safely spent.

6. Ask for holiday stories. The best way to get out from under the microscope is to turn the focus of attention around. Ask about the antique angel statues from Europe, the plaster-handprint ornament, the Israeli menorah. Ask about best and worst Christmas presents, New Year's parties, Thanksgiving recipes. Play Studs Terkel and get the stories flowing.

7. Be loyal. If the stories start to become embarrassing to your sweetie, say, "Oh, dear, I think I'd better let Sweetie tell me these kinds of stories in his/her own good time" and then change the topic. Unfortunately, many families enjoy cutting their members down a peg when said members show up with a new love interest. If your honey has ever implied--or straight-up told you--that their family doesn't treat them with respect, find out how they want you to deal with that before you enter the fray.

8. Don't get involved in intrafamily disputes. Aside from loyalty to your sweetie, you are Switzerland. You have no opinions about the election, the appropriateness of oysters in stuffing, the season finale of "The Shield," Sarah Palin, or the latke-hamentaschen debate. Not if any of those topics are the source of bitter internecine warfare, you don't. Smile, stay above the fray, and when urged to pick a side, make it clear that you have well-informed opinions--and a well-informed ability not to get sucked into others' longstanding family dramas, too.

9. Be gracious about accommodations. If you'll be staying overnight, and you aren't married, and the parents want you to sleep in separate bedrooms, go along with a smile, even if you're in your 50s. And no sneaking into each others' rooms, either. Show some respect, and let the enforced separation stoke your Yule log for when you're safely nestled in back home.

10. Get some alone time with the sweetie. Make a run down to the grocery store together to get the half-and-half that Mom forgot, or take an after-dinner stroll around the block, or some such. If you're with the family for more than a couple of hours, you'll definitely want to check in with your sweetie to make sure that you're doing okay and they're doing okay, and to reaffirm said sweetie's identity as a desirable grownup person.

11. ... for the purposes of conversation only. Affirm your sweetie's desirability verbally. You do not want to get "caught." You really, really don't.

12. Bring a shareable gift. There's usually no need to bring gifts for every single person--if that's really expected, sweetie should inform you and help you shop. Bring a nice gift that the family can share--a DVD or CD, a board game, a basket of homemade baked goodies, whatever your personal style is.

13. Help with chores, but remember no means no. Pitch in when it seems appropriate, but if you are shooed out of the kitchen, stay shooed. Some people are territorial about their kitchens, and "help" around the house can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth. If it turns out that your sweetie's mother is the kind of person who will volubly insist that she doesn't want help, and then turn around and badmouth you for not helping ... well, you needed to find that out sooner or later. Now you know. Merry Christmas.

14. Don't drink too much.
Drink slightly less at your sweetheart's family Christmas dinner than you would at your office party. You do know you should never have more than one or two at the office party, right?

15. Don't eat too little. This is not the time to be dieting. Breaking bread with others is a primal way that humans signal social acceptance and conviviality. Nibbling lettuce is not.

16. Have fun.
For all this advice--be yourself. Either the relationship won't work out and it ultimately won't matter what these people think of you, or else it will work out and they're going to have to get used to you as you are. So don't put on an act or contort yourself into someone you're not in order to fit in. Be kind and helpful, tolerant and a good sport. But don't feel the need to be a pathological pleaser or put your personality on hold for however many hours or days the celebrations last.

Now, everyone: what are your tips for--and even better, stories about--surviving a holiday-season first meeting with the parents?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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13 comments so far...
  1. Latke-hamantaschen debate? Do tell! (The link doesn't work, unfortunately.)

    Posted by Allstonian December 3, 08 07:25 AM
  1. All excellent advice, Miss Conduct! The one thing I would add on the gift front, is to ask your sweetie how much suitcase space you should leave. The first time I did Christmas with my husband's family, we had gone shopping together for his parents, his siblings, and our impending first nephew. My husband is one of five children, three of the others are married, so this seemed like a lot of shopping because of the number of people. I figured that since we were just dating at the time, they might get something for both of us to share in addition to whatever they got my husband, or maybe get me a book or something else token and small to make me feel included in the Christmas Morning celebration, but not really go all out.

    Boy was I wrong! My then-future m-i-l got me a stocking (I don't have my own since I'm Jewish) and got me almost as many presents as she got her own children! This led to some difficult packing since I had left room for a book or two. I had no idea that his family went so all-out on Christmas gifts. This led to some awkwardness where we had to ask them to ship some stuff back to us in Boston and also almost missing our flight when I happened to be picked for a random bag-check and they dumped out my backpack (after waiting in the security line for two hours) and almost couldn't get everything re-packed in time to make it to our gate.

    Don't get me wrong, it was a wonderful way to be welcomed and I definitely appreciate all that my in-laws did to make me feel welcome, but it would have made it a less stressful experience to have known ahead of time about the level of gift-giving involved :)

    Posted by Mira December 3, 08 09:10 AM
  1. The flip side to Miss C's advice about not getting drawn in to longstanding family debates is to get a preview from your sweetie of which common hot topics his/her family likes to discuss. My family *never* discusses politics, religion, or money, and my sweetie's discusses all three openly, not as a debate, just as legit topics of conversation. I was stunned and at a loss for words when the subjects first came up, unsure of whether this was a litmus test. It wasn't, but it took me a while to realize that.

    Posted by Kellie December 3, 08 11:52 AM
  1. Wonderful advice- and I agree that it is most important to be yourself. If you put on a show, then you're going to have to keep that show going for however long the relationship lasts.
    Find out fro your sweetie if their family likes to dress up for the holiday or if your casual clothes will do just fine. Otherwise, you'll agonize over what to wear.
    Be on your best behavior, but let your personality shine through.

    Posted by Noel December 3, 08 12:14 PM
  1. Good advice. How about another questions?

    How would you suggest dealing with food allergies/intolerances and preferences? I have a few things I cannot eat, and some that I just avoid out of personal preference -- I can't drink milk, and I choose not to eat red meat. At most gatherings, I'm fine with picking only things I can eat, and friends or acquaintances generally don't questions it, but in a family setting, being "picky" is much more noticeable. Should I approach the host myself? Ask my SO to speak to his family? Say nothing and keep my fingers crossed that no one thinks I'm rude for not trying Aunt Mae's hazelnut dressing?

    Posted by bluemoose December 3, 08 03:32 PM
  1. Despite all the bad press that in-laws get, show up prepared to like them. After all, they raised your sweetie, and he probably picked up at least a few of his endearing charms from his parents.

    I think my inlaws are great, but I was worried and tense at the first meeting. Wish I had known better!

    Posted by BlondMaggie December 3, 08 03:56 PM
  1. Can I just add that the burden of making the first-holiday-the-sweetie-meets-the-family work shouldn't all fall on the new person. If you are the new person, you absolutely should do your homework (and I've never enjoyed reading a homework assignment as much as I enjoyed Miss Conduct's!) and if you are the sweetie, bringing your new main squeeze into your family at such an emotionally-charged time as the holidays, think about what you can do to help make the connections and create the moments that will permit your family to get to know this new person and help the new person feel a little less stressed.

    Having gone through this with mixed success recently, there are a few things that I found helpful. When you are making introductions, try to include something we might have in common ("This is my aunt Sally and she once saw Tracy Chapman live in concert, too!"). Avoid getting cornered by a relative and not being able to check in with the new person for hours. Very important -- tell the hosts ahead of time if your new person has any food allergies or doesn't drink or is a vegetarian and do whatever you can to ensure that there's something for the new person to eat or drink and it doesn't become a big deal for everyone to discuss and question the new person about. This is YOUR responsibility, so that the new person isn't marooned at the dinner table with little or nothing to eat and lots of questions to answer.

    Most of all, be ready and willing to take an active role to make sure that everyone is as comfortable as possible and that everyone gets a turn, even if you are used to your parents or grandparents being in charge. As our parents and grandparents age, sometimes they simply cannot do what they used to do (get up early, put on the big meal AND be sparkling conversationalists) and it's up to the adult kids to pay attention and step in (as gracefully as possible) to help make the visit or get-together work. Remember that the new person will only see your family as it is, not as how it once was, so you need to see things clearly, too.

    Happy holidays and good luck to all!


    Posted by JP Gal December 3, 08 05:28 PM
  1. @Allstonian:
    The Latke-Hamentashen debate is an annual event to (unsurprisingly) debate the various merits of latkes and hamentashen.
    If you're interested in actually attending a debate, MIT Hillel holds one every year, usually in the spring. They invite professors as participants (usually three to a side) and the professors argue for the superiority of their chosen foodstuff using principles from their academic field--usually a ~5 minute "presentation" each, and then a few minutes each for rebuttals. It's all in good fun, at least at the MIT version. Afterwards, latkes and hamentashen are served.

    Here's a URL:
    http://www.mit.edu/~hillel/life/holidays/latke-hamentashen-debate.html

    Posted by S December 4, 08 01:05 PM
  1. Thanks for the wonderful blog post!

    I have a small comment on #15 though. While it's necessary to eat and be social, you do not have to over eat at a holiday gathering either.

    My trick is to carry around a glass of water once I've had my fill of food. People tend to stop asking you if you want/need any food if they see something in your hand already. Also, you get to really enjoy the party and not be wishing you didn't feel sick from eating too much of *insert delicious homemade food here*.


    Posted by Danielle D. December 4, 08 02:56 PM
  1. I can tell you that when our college kids have a romantic visitor, it’s always a test of moral judgment. Whether or not the invitation is there to sleep together, the guest is always held in high esteem for choosing discretion. I do give points, however for unobtrusive quickies. After all, what’s good for the Christmas Goose…
    Where appropriateness is concerned, I can only recall a situation some 15- 20 years ago when my younger stepsister (24 & fit) and her boyfriend engaged in a marathon of Victoria Secret gift giving that embarrassed all. I can not imagine what could have been going through the guy’s mind with the girl’s mother right there. We were hoping for a catwalk/runway moment, but we had to use our imagination instead.

    Posted by jkstraw December 11, 08 01:27 PM
  1. What I did when I met my wife's parents, I talked about old tv shows like Happy Days, Mork & MIndy, and Angie which starred Donna Pescow

    Posted by kbonzy December 11, 08 02:16 PM
  1. Having lived on both coasts, the Midwest, and a couple of European cities too, I have to say that only in Boston would one read an article in 2008 advising unmarried fifty-year-olds not to have sex under a parental roof. It's just so New England. Or maybe Ireland fifty years ago. In fact, one reads that nobody should have sex at all, because they might "get caught". Is it any wonder that so many people dread the holidays?

    The tips are largely a great idea, so here's another: how about an etiquette guide for the IN-LAWS? Things like, knock BEFORE you go into a bedroom where adults are staying, even if they are your children. Don't put your kids' significant others on trial, and especially give them a free pass on their politics and religiion.

    Remember that you are the HOST for the holidays, not the camp commandant. Don't embarrass your guests by making them unwilling participants to your family disputes. If you plan to use a holiday visit as an occasion to resolve arguments with your children, better to stay home, make a video of your debating points, and send it out as a gift so they can cherish it through the years.

    Posted by Traveling Guy December 11, 08 06:03 PM
  1. To bluemoose and anyone else wondering how to deal with dietary restrictions: As a vegetarian for over a decade, I have learned that the sooner I tell my hosts, the better. People are generally very willing to accommodate. For a first meeting of a sweetie's family, better to have the sweetie pass along the information and answer questions for you.
    "Mom, you should know that my sweetie is a vegetarian and allergic to grapefruit. (S)he didn't want you to think (s)he's a picky eater."
    "Great, I'll make my special salmon dish for Christmas."
    "My sweetie doesn't eat fish, either. No animal products. How about if we bring a vegetarian loaf to share?"
    As dietary restrictions become more mainstream, this conversation has become much easier.

    Posted by vegetarian December 24, 08 11:35 AM
 
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

Need Advice?

Curious if you should say "bless you" to a sneezing atheist? How to host a dinner party for carbophobes, vegans, and Atkins disciples—all at the same time? The finer points of regifting? Ask it here, or email missconduct@globe.com.

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