Humorless sister-in-law!
November 18, 2008 5:33 AM   Subscribe

Background: My brother & his wife live in her South American country. My parents and I live in the same town in the USA. My sister-in-law is visiting us as part of a business trip to America, and staying with my parents. The energy between myself and her could not be worse.

She is one of the most humorless people I have ever met, and spends a lot of her energy saying how stupid Americans are, and how great she is. (She is a very high level climate change policy representative). The last time I visited them, it took weeks to recover emotionally and physically from the stress. It took every ounce of will-power to contain the string words I would have liked to unleash in her general direction. But I feel this nagging family obligation to spend time with her during her visit--fully knowing that it would be awkward and painful. There is a similar feeling from my parents about her general unpleasant personality, and I feel terrible that they have had to have her as a guest for a week. Do I have an obligation to be a part of her visit? Any tips or stories would be helpful.
posted by tarantula to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Meh. Make an excuse to be elsewhere.

Or, drop in and take her out for a drink one night as a favor to your parents (get her out of their hair for a night)
posted by ian1977 at 5:38 AM on November 18, 2008

Say, as politely as you can, how you feel about her to her face. Point out her negativity to her directly.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:57 AM on November 18, 2008

Yes, you do have an obligation to be there. Not because she's your brother's wife and you should like her. It's because you know your parents feel the same way you do an you should at least save them for a while.
posted by theichibun at 6:00 AM on November 18, 2008

No one can force you to be there, but certainly it would be nice to at least stop by and take a little pressure off your parents as noted above.

I think, though, that you have a good opportunity here to actually improve upon your relationship. You have her on your home turf and outnumbered three to one. You live in a city with a lot of great stuff - take her out one day or night and give her the full tour-guide treatment and show her that all of America is not "stupid" (this is more effective (and fun) than arguing the point). Best case scenario, you improve your relationship. Worst case scenario, you have a bad day or night. Either way, you demonstrate to your brother that you care enough about him to give it a try.
posted by mikepop at 6:11 AM on November 18, 2008

Are there things you can do with her that will occupy you enough that you can mostly avoid talking, or talk mostly about what you're doing -- take a guided tour of some neighborhood site, for instance?

Failing that, the standard obnoxious in-law tactic is to talk about your brother. Your mutual affection for him should provide you some common ground to stick to if things get rough.
posted by fidelity at 6:30 AM on November 18, 2008

Truly "great" people don't waste time telling others how inferior they are.

My cousin married a French gal. She never "took" with the rest of the family - I could tell her actions were mostly a result of being overwhelmed, fish-out-of-water, but everyone else thought she was a snob. It's something like a cultural Napoleon syndrome - the US is such a huge effector, culturally over the whole world, that to compensate and feel *any* self worth of one's native culture, one might feel the need to cut down Americans. I'm pretty sure she thought I was one of the antagonists, until my wife and I had them (my cousin and his wife) over for that most American of culinary treats, barbecued pork.
posted by notsnot at 6:33 AM on November 18, 2008

I've heard it said that going to the movies, and other passive entertainment activities, is a terrible "date" because you're just sitting there watching, not really interacting with each other. Might be something to keep in mind. Of course, you have to get the transportation over with, but maybe you can solve that problem.
posted by amtho at 6:34 AM on November 18, 2008

You don't say anything about your brother's attitude. Does he say "I know she gets bitchy when she's visiting but there's nothing to be done about it, try and cope/understand" or "She's perfect, and I'll never forgive you if you show any sign that you think otherwise"? (Deliberately extreme examples, but you get the idea.) It makes a difference to what would be a good approach to the situation. (My own advice, based on what you've said, would be to spend as little time with her as possible and advise your parents to do the same. You have no obligation to spend weeks recovering from someone's company.)
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on November 18, 2008

Thanks everyone. About the brother--he is fully aware of her passive-aggressive behavior, and it is not reserved only for visits abroad. It seems to have devolved into an unhappy marriage, but one that might be more complicated to get out of than to stay in, due to economic, geographic, nationality, children issues -- and the collapse of economic/environmental systems....... O how I jump for joy at the simplicity of my life.

So I have initiated a get together this evening--after she and my parents attend a lecture on peak oil, and I will be in a post-yoga frame of mind. Ikkaaarrruuummba. She will come with more reason to be disgusted by the American empire. You see, we are all involved in environmental activism in one way or another--but it seems in her mind that the work she does, being at an international level, trumps us local I will just grin and bear it for another 48 hours!
posted by tarantula at 7:34 AM on November 18, 2008

I'm with notsnot. People do not behave the way she does - openly putting down and criticizing others' culture to their face - if they are secure in themselves. Right or wrong, educated and powerful or not, she most likely feels somehow inferior to you as an American. I would totally call her on it. Either sarcastically agree with her to the point that it's obvious you think her comments are rude and ridiculous or just say to her that putting down your culture to your face falls squarely in the zone of stupid and perhaps she should rethink her oh so sophisticated position. Perhaps have a brief conversation with your brother about it first, so that he knows to brace himself for the fallout, but there is no reason an outsider to the family should have this sort of alienating influence between all of you. He brought her in to the family and he needs to be the one responsible for damage control now that she's there. You are under no obligation whatsoever to suffer her rudeness but it is very gracious of you to offer to make her feel welcome as a guest. I'd let her know that that offer to spend time with her still stands if she can get her act together.
posted by smallstatic at 7:35 AM on November 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

If she bugs you that much, plan 1 event with them, preferably something that involves a performance, like music or theater, or a movie. Go out afterward for food & coffee. The event gives you all something to talk about and may help keep the focus off her. Family obligation fulfilled; limited exposure to her obnoxiousness.
posted by theora55 at 7:39 AM on November 18, 2008

Well just be polite, and show her what is worthy showing in your particular area of the country. Then having had your nice evening, and endured politely and with a smile her attacks on our horrible country and it's awful inhabitants (myself included), send her on her merry way back to the paradise from which she hails where they have cannot flush toilet paper and malaria is still a very real threat.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:33 AM on November 18, 2008

I'm with smallstatic here -- screw dancing around the whole thing. She's a shitbag and she's treating her hosts like any shitbag will if they can get away with it, and there are plenty of 'terrible, stupid, American hotels' that she can stay in if she wants to continue teeing off on everyone in the family, not to mention Americans in general or anything of the sort.

Do you go off on her little dirtbag country, do you clap your hands howling in laughter at how they eat dogs and chicken gizzards and beat their women and fuck their cattle, all the while wearing festive colors and straw hats and dancing a marimba or some shit? Do you go on about their high holy festival, which revolves around begging The High Holy Virgin to cleanse their filthy, scummy, flea-bitten cattle-fucking souls? Of course you don't, because you're a citizen. You're kind, you're considerate, you're an American, polite to a fault, warm and gracious unless of course that little dirtbag country has oil, in which case we'll kill them with a song in our hearts, a smile on our faces, a full tank in our SUV on our way to watch dancing with the stars. But she's alive so they probably don't have oil. Too bad.

Okay, enough fun. Stand your ground. As smallstatic recommended, give your brother a heads up, tell him that there will be fireworks if she comes parading in on some high horse, and then set off those fireworks yourself, help your family by jumping into her like a buzz saw, set the standard. She won't have her stiletto -- they'll not have let her on the plane with it -- so the worst you'll hear is a bunch of swearing in her wacky little language, which you can tease her about as she packs her shit and heads out the door. Then you and your parents can go out to dinner and have some good American fun, laughing at the outlandish idiot who's missed out on your warmth and love.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:01 AM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Practice the fine art of Minnesota Nice

As a Minnesotan I have had the privilege of studying the fine art of being "nice" to outsiders. Let her talk, encourage her, let her get it all out, let her fill the room with her hot air, listen, engage, be attentive, it's all about your guest right?

Then when she leaves, laugh amongst yourselves, it’s a game. She leaves satisfied at first but then upon further thought realizes you never opened up, you never expressed anything, she has no idea who you are or what you think, she did all the talking. Maybe you're not as nice as she thought. Sure she did all the talking and you politely listened to all her views, but did you agree? She'll never know unless she engages you, if she cares, maybe next time she'll try to tone it down and listen to what you have to offer. If not, then who needs her anyway? She's not from here, and only people from here can truly appreciate it anyway right?

posted by thewalrusispaul at 9:39 AM on November 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

i have a few family members who are insufferable. Minnesota Nice is my mantra, along with deep breathing and an effort at interested detachment. i look at them as a cultural/character study: how do they live? how exactly do they say the horrible things they say? i try to remember it all so i can write it down in scathing detail later.

this along with opportunities for limited lengthy discussion are excellent. arguing about her negative qualities is pointless.
posted by RedEmma at 9:55 AM on November 18, 2008

Wow, I grew up in Minn., and have in the past used Minnesota Nice as described above: it's like judo, only with bad coffee!

So when you see the bad atiitude coming, turn it on its head and ask her *more* questions about her opinions, request *more* suggestions for implementing her ideas & principles in your area (handy you're inthe same field -- though on such different scales!), and generally wear her out talking. She'll go to bed early, wearied of you, and you can all sift through her ideas for something to pass off as your own at work next quarter.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:25 AM on November 18, 2008

I'm not sure if the order you listed things in (or if the title of your post is trying to emphasize one complaint over another) but is your biggest problem with her the fact that she isn't funny/isn't funny enough/have the same sense of humor you do?
posted by Brian Puccio at 4:11 PM on November 18, 2008

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