There’s an unwritten rule in the wedding vows: marry a guy, and you accept his parents—or at least, try to get through a family reunion without killing each other before dessert. Here are some ways to impress your in-laws and even lay the foundation for a healthy and even enriching relationship.
1. Relax—they can smell fear.
Okay, that’s easier said than done. However, getting all wired up and rattled is counterproductive. You’ll only make everyone in the room uncomfortable, and are more likely to say something stupid.
If just the thought of visiting your in-laws send you into a panic, try the usual relaxation techniques: deep-breathing, meditation, yoga. Then, when you’re there, avoid the typical signs of nervousness: fast, high-pitched voice, bunched up shoulders. And say, again and again to yourself, you already secured the approval of the most important person in the room—your partner. Hang on to that happy thought, and repeat it to yourself like a Zen mantra.
2. Be sincere.
Everybody can smell a fake. So be yourself, and don’t force yourself to say things just because it’s the ‘proper’ thing. For example, you don’t have to lie that you love baseball just because their whole family does. However, you can honestly say, ‘It’s not my favorite sport but I think it’s great that you guys bond over it!’ Then give your own version of participating in their bonding ritual, like fixing them a bowl of salsa and chips for them to eat while watching the game.
3. Pitch in and help.
You’re not there as a guest, no matter how many times they (politely) tell you that. You’re a member of a family, and so you’re expected to pitch in like everybody else. If they won’t let you wash the dishes, at least offer to clear the table or keep them company in the kitchen. Then, at the next meal, say: ‘Hey, I didn’t get to wash the dishes last time. It’s my turn now.’
You can also offer to run errands, especially when everyone’s busy. Little things like buying extra ice for a big reunion, or offering to pick up the dry cleaning on the way to visiting them, go a long way.
4. Observe what they like.
Look for little clues on your in-laws’ preferences and personality, and give little but very personalized, and very thoughtful, gifts. For example, if your mother-in-law mentions that she loves the bread at a particular bakery, bring her some the next time you drop by. Or if your father-in-law loves playing opera music, find a concert video of Paul Potts or Pavarotti.
5. Send thank you notes.
This seems like an old-fashioned gesture, but it speaks well of you and strikes a strong chord in a generation that grew up without cell phones or emails. The fact that you took time to write a note, mail it, and even send an accompanying bouquet of flowers, says a lot. Besides, they went out of their way to cook for you and prepare your room—you can spend 15 minutes to say how much that meant to you. You can also leave a thank you note on the kitchen table before you go.
6. Follow the family cues.
Observe how affectionate, formal or honest they are with each other and adjust to their particular family dynamics. You and your brothers may hug each other at a drop of a hat, but if they’re not that touchy-feely than respect their space.
Psychologists also have a handy-dandy term called ‘mirroring.’ Basically, do what they do. Do they gesture a lot when they talk? Do that. Do they lean over when they listen? Do that, too. Subconsciously they recognize that you’re ‘one of the pack’ because you have similar body movements.
7. Mind your manners.
Don’t forget the please, thank yous, and standards of polite conversation and public behavior. Don’t swear, don’t get drunk, don’t whine. Conduct yourself with the same kind of decorum if you had to spend a weekend with your most important business client.
8. Ask a lot of questions.
People love talking about themselves. Besides, asking a lot of questions means you get to know your in-laws personality and can be better prepared for the next visit.
And, as most in-laws will say, they need to know that you’re a caring person who’ll understand, support and accept their beloved child. If they see that you’re not narcissistic or selfish, you’ve already addressed their biggest fear.
9. Avoid public displays of affection.
Of course they know you’re a couple, but you don’t have to treat the family to a free show. Don’t get too touchy-feely and for God’s sake don’t have loud sex. Wait until you get home.
10. Talk about what wonderful parents they are.
All moms and dads like to know they’ve done a good job, and hope that they’ll be part of their kid’s life. So rave about your partner’s great qualities and somehow make it look that it’s all their doing. ‘Wow, he’s so driven and passionate about his work. He’s always said that you were so encouraging from the start. It really built his confidence.’ Or, ‘Did you really make that flower arrangement yourself? Now I know where he gets his creativity!’ Or, ‘He talks about you guys all the time. One of his favorite stories is…’
These observations not only show them that you’re an excellent judge of character, but allay any fears that you’re stealing their child or replacing their role in his life.