How do you address your mother-in-law in your own culture?
May 27, 2010 2:32 AM   Subscribe

How do you address your mother-in-law in your own culture?

I am a Chinese living in Hong Kong. Traditionally when we speak to our mothers-in-law we have to address them as mom or mother.

Normally the word "mom" is only reserved for your biological mother but in here you apply that to your in-law mother as well. Sometimes I still find that totally unnatural and inappropriate to call someone "mother" merely because you happened to marry her daughter.

Are we the only culture in the world to do that? In your culture how do you call your mother in law in person?
posted by mchow to Human Relations (59 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's very common in Pakistan. Though it's more common for older women to address their mothers-in-law so, thanks to weird cultural ideas about women belonging to a new family after marriage. Amongst younger women and men, 'Auntie' seems more common.

As to whether daughters-in-law resent it or not -- it seems to depend on their relationship with their mothers-in-law which can be ridiculously fraught.
posted by tavegyl at 2:42 AM on May 27, 2010

i'm from the US - my mom called her mother-in-law mom and my dad called his mother-in-law [first name].
posted by nadawi at 2:46 AM on May 27, 2010

From New York and this was actually always uncomfortable because mine wanted me to call her mom, but I didn't want to because she wasn't my mom nor was she very motherly. I called her by her first name.

But I did call my father in law Dad.
posted by dzaz at 2:49 AM on May 27, 2010

USA here; I call my MIL by her first name. For the first few months we were dating (we were university students when we met), I called her "Mrs. D------," then "Mrs. D," as his friends did.

My husband, I think, never got comfortable calling my mother by her first name (he's weird), so he would just clear his throat to get her attention. :) Now that we have children, he calls her by the nickname our children use.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:49 AM on May 27, 2010

It's certainly not required in the US, but it's common enough when mothers-in-law and their children-in-law are close. (A good male friend of mine in high school even habitually called my parents mom and dad because he was so close to my family - this, too, is not terribly uncommon here, in my experience). So - based on my observations - it seems to be primarily a function of closeness and mutual affection, not cultural requirement.
posted by bubukaba at 2:50 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Greece you sometimes hear it, more among older people, but it is often used ironically, or for comedic effect.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:50 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm British and I call her by her first name. She's Moroccan-Israeli and doesn't seem to mind.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 2:52 AM on May 27, 2010

In my circles in the US, if talking about your mother-in-law in the third person, you would say "my mother-in-law" the first time, and possibly their first name for subsequent references.

Talking to your mother-in-law it would be normal to use her first name.

Regional practices in the US vary. This would be at the liberal / progressive / nontraditional end of the spectrum.

I would be surprised, however, to hear my friends or relatives call a mother-in-law mom unless it was used ironically or extraordinarily affectionately.
posted by zippy at 2:57 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm English and my parents called their respective mothers-in-law mum, but with my brothers' and sister's partners first names seem to be the rule.
posted by Abiezer at 3:03 AM on May 27, 2010

In Germany I called my first MiL by her forename, at her own suggestion, and addressed her as Du. Most people in our circles seemed to be following the same pattern. In Italy, I called my second MiL Mamma E* (E* being her forename), following the family tradition, although just "Mamma" seems to be more prevalent here.
But I never used the tu form when addressing her; I opted for the rather old-fashioned voi, which won her approval - not quite as formal as Lei, but less informal than tu (see the Wikipedia article on forms of address). This seemed to solve the discomfort the OP is experiencing by combining a "family" feeling with tokens of respect.
posted by aqsakal at 3:15 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

My parents would call their in-laws "mom" or "dad", of by first names. Maybe first names were more used when being extra serious. I myself am gay, and wouldn't presume to use those terms with pseudo-in-laws (American) or in-laws (European). But my European in-laws are not much older than myself, which is weird enough. My American pseudo-mother-in-law was an Italian-American monster-in-law, an evil, manipulative bitch (but that's an understatement).
posted by Goofyy at 3:27 AM on May 27, 2010

I (from Pakistan) call my mother-in-law the equivalent of Mom (Ammi), but my elder sister in law (as in husband's elder brother's wife) calls her Auntie. A lot of people get around the "but she's not my mom" by using alternative words - Ammi/Amma/Ma, for example. It helps when the couple originally called their parents those different alternatives. I've seen many desi American couples where one mother is called Ammi (i.e. Mom in Urdu) and the other is called Mom. Interestingly, my husband and brother-in-law simply do the reciprocal of what their wives do; mine calls my mother Ammi, brother in law calls his MIL Auntie.

Then there are the MILs who were relatives even before the couple got married and therefore already have titles, since there are separate words for maternal and paternal aunts and uncles, and aunts and uncles by marriage, etc.

Uncle and Auntie in this context is a distinctively desi usage. When you hear someone in Pakistan (and India, I'm pretty sure) call someone Uncle or Auntie, odds are 10 to 1 that they are not, in fact, related. Which can give the whole MIL as Auntie thing an added twist. Some feel that it is exactly appropriate (term of respect used for one to whom one is close but not related), while other feel it is far too distant (term of civility owed to just about anyone clearly of a generation above your own, but to whom you do not feel related or particularly close).

I know NO one in Pakistan who calls a parent-in-law by first name.

Perhaps a more convoluted answer than OP was looking for.
posted by bardophile at 3:33 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

My (Bangladeshi) sister's (British) husband calls my mum Ammu, the Bengali word for "mother". I think that was more their attempt at getting him to be part of the family. With the rest of the family tree it's some variation of "Ma" though I think there are actual specific words for that kind of relationship.

I tend to call my (White Australian) boyfriend's mum by her first name, though had I still been in Asia I'd call any older female family friend "Auntie". I don't think my boyfriend calls my mum anything specific; it's an odd question to ask! (They get along awesome, but the topic's never really been broached...)
posted by divabat at 3:44 AM on May 27, 2010

My mum and dad called their parents in law "mum" and "dad". My wife and I call our parents in law by their first names. My family is anglo-australian/scottish (I'm the anglo-australian half). My wife can't remember what her parents called their in-laws.
posted by singingfish at 3:46 AM on May 27, 2010

French, living in France, and i call my (french) MIL by her first name.
posted by vivelame at 3:47 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm in the U.S., and I call my MIL by her first name, as does my husband with my mom. But my sister often calls her MIL "mom" when addressing her, and her husband sometimes calls our mother "mom" as well. They are much closer, geographical and emotionally, to the in-laws: sister's MIL currently lives with them, and they had also lived in MIL's house when they were first married, and they live about a mile away from our mom. Me, on the other hand--I live 1200 miles from my MIL and have only seen her when she's visiting here or we're visiting there--maybe a total of 12 visits? Probably a similar number of times my husband has visited/we've had visits from my mom, who also lives about 1,000 miles away.

I'm amused by the "related questions" listed below.
posted by drlith at 3:54 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm English and call my MIL-to-be by her first name, my Scottish parents do/did the same.
posted by ellieBOA at 4:00 AM on May 27, 2010

In the U.S., either the first name or "Mom" is customary. The latter is a sign of respect and deference. In the U.S., respect and deference is not as common as it used to be.

In the southern states in the U.S., it is (or was) customary for children to append a "Miss" to a first name when addressing a familiar adult - viz, "Miss Rachel", whether or not she is married - as a sign of respect. I have never heard of that custom being followed for an in-law, but it would seem to work as a midpoint between first name and "Mom".
posted by yclipse at 4:12 AM on May 27, 2010

I suppose that "as little as possible" would not be a viable answer to "how do you address your mother-in-law", right?

Anyway: I'm Italian and address my mother-in-law with the formal "lei" (the singular third person). Not by first name or anything. She addresses me with the more informal "you". This is normal when there's some age difference.
posted by _dario at 4:29 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm in the Midwestern U.S. and I've always called my in-laws by their first names. My current MIL would probably prefer "Mom" but I'm not comfortable with that, even though she is a darling and treats me like a daughter.

My first father-in-law, I never knew what to call him. His first name was Duane but his wife and friends called him Mac, but nobody ever formally introduced him to me by name (my ex said "this is my dad") so I never knew which one to use. In three years I never called him anything. I don't think I ever spoke to him directly unless he spoke to me first. This wasn't a problem as they were very formal people and a visit meant that we all sat in the same room and conversed for an hour or two, so all comments were pretty much directed to the entire room.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:45 AM on May 27, 2010

I call my Japanese mother in law "okaasan" (mother) just like her own kids do.
posted by gomichild at 4:45 AM on May 27, 2010

On both sides of my family my generation (20s and 30s) and my parents' generation (50s and 60s) almost always call their in-laws by their first names (or nicknames), as far as I've ever noticed. We are all from New England in the US.
posted by mskyle at 4:49 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm from Indiana, live in Georgia, USA and I call her by the name she asked me to use: "MJ". She's from Queens and now lives on Long Island.
posted by donpardo at 4:53 AM on May 27, 2010

I (Guatemalan/Spanish american) call my (white Southern U.S.) in-laws by their first names. My husband calls my mum "Mother", both out of affection and because she prefers it. I tried "Mama" and "Daddy" with the in-laws (as hubby and his sister call them), but I haven't quite gotten used to it. It helps that they have a very laid back attitude, unlike my rooted-in-tradition mother.
posted by arishaun at 4:57 AM on May 27, 2010

Anecdotally: my parents are from New York, and both called their mother-in-law Mom after they were married.

My brother-in-law is from New Zealand originally, and Australia for the past fifteen years; he calls my parents by their first names.
posted by punchtothehead at 5:10 AM on May 27, 2010

My family lives in the US, but we are originally from Tamil Nadu, India. The specific word for mother-in-law we use is "Atthamma." It is specifically the word for people to use for their mothers-in-law; you wouldn't call your mother-in-law the Tamil word for mother. Some people use "Auntie" as well, but I think that's just because it's an English word so it doesn't sound as weird here in the US.
posted by bluefly at 5:12 AM on May 27, 2010

The latter is a sign of respect and deference. In the U.S., respect and deference is not as common as it used to be.

My parents called their inlaws Mom and Dad, most likely because they were nineteen years old when they got married.

I was a grown woman when I married, so I call my inlaws the same thing I call every other fellow adult in the world: their first name.
posted by padraigin at 5:29 AM on May 27, 2010

In the U.S., either the first name or "Mom" is customary. The latter is a sign of respect and deference. In the U.S., respect and deference is not as common as it used to be.

I disagree. I think the latter is a sign of familiarity and comfort with the other person. A sign of respect would be to call the MIL Mrs. X. I have never felt comfortable calling my MIL 'mom' because, simply, she's not my mom. She's not particularly motherly, either. I call her by her first name. My mother is very motherly toward my husband (the family joke is that she likes him better than she likes her own kids) but he calls her by her first name.

To be quite honest, I think I'd be a little hurt if my children call their MsIL 'mom.' I am their mom.
posted by cooker girl at 5:57 AM on May 27, 2010

I call my American in-laws Mom and Dad (although I have to admit that I'm still not comfortable doing it - it's only been 6 mos) and my husband calls my Indian parents Mom and Dad (he's more comfortable with it than I am).
posted by echo0720 at 6:00 AM on May 27, 2010

you wouldn't call your mother-in-law the Tamil word for mother.

Interesting. The Urdu/Hindi saas or saasu ma didn't even cross my mind as something anyone would actually *address* their MIL with. Never heard the former except as "my saas," etc. and never heard the latter except as a joke or in really cheesy movies.
posted by bardophile at 6:11 AM on May 27, 2010

The Urdu/Hindi saas or saasu ma didn't even cross my mind as something anyone would actually *address* their MIL with.
I'm not actually sure that "atthamma" is the word you would use in general speech for mother-in-law outside of actually addressing her. I don't actually speak the language that well. Of course, every family is different, and now with globalization people might use Mom ("amma") or Auntie.
posted by bluefly at 6:22 AM on May 27, 2010

As a Brit I called my MIL "Mum" as opposed to her first name. I considered Mum more respectful than using her first name.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 6:24 AM on May 27, 2010

Another South Indian data point: my Malayalee dad calls his Tamil mother-in-law amma (the Tamil word for mother). So does my mom of course. They both call my dad's Malayalee mother mom. This paralleled my use of Tamil (Patti) and English (grandma) words to address them. We were a hodge-podge of different traditions so not representative in any way, but these things seem to vary from family to family anyway.
posted by peacheater at 6:27 AM on May 27, 2010

Response by poster: My husband, I think, never got comfortable calling my mother by her first name (he's weird), so he would just clear his throat to get her attention.

I must say sometimes I use the same tactics to get away with it.
posted by mchow at 6:43 AM on May 27, 2010

In the US, I call my MIL by her first name. My parents both called their in-laws by first names as well, beginning in the early 70s, and they're both pretty conservative/traditional. Calling my MIL "mom" would actually strike me as rude due to overfamiliarity; there is the (very) old-fashioned usage in the U.S. of calling one's mother-in-law "Mother Smith" or "Mother Baxter" but I don't think I've ever heard that outside of very old people relating stories from their youth, or novels.

Once grandchildren arrive, in-laws might be frequently called "Grandma" or "Nana" or whatever, if the majority of interaction is within the family context, but if just adults were there I think that would probably sound odd.

Sometimes people have family-only nicknames and the new in-laws might be invited to call their mother-in-law or father-in-law by that nickname, which is sort-of a midpoint between their "real" first name and using "mom" or "dad."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:04 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm American. I call my MIL and FIL Mom and Dad.

My husband had a hard time calling my parents Mom and Dad at first, so he called them Mr. and Mrs. but that seemed too formal. They told him to call them by their first names but that seemed disrespectful. He ended up calling them Mom and Dad when he got more comfortable with them out of default.

BTW my husband and I were both raised not to call adults by their first names, it was always Mrs. So-and-so or Mr. So- and-so. It got kind of confusing for me in Junior High when a lot of my friends' parents were divorced and remarried with different last names, so I resorted to calling my close friends' parents Mom and Dad. They usually thought it was funny, and so it was really easy for me to start calling my in laws Mom and Dad.

My husband calls his own Mom "Mama", so it's different than the normal "Mom" that he uses for my mom. I think it makes a difference to him. The name for his mom is more of an endearment and the one for my mom is more of a title.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:38 AM on May 27, 2010

This is normal in Korean culture.
posted by smorange at 7:47 AM on May 27, 2010

In the US. I call both my mother-in-law and father-in-law by their first names. I am completely comfortable with this. My husband would like to call my mother Mrs.X, out of respect, however she insists that he use her first name and has even suggested various nicknames. He is very uncomfortable with this situation and usually avoids having to use her name at all.

My Mother calls her mother-in-law Mom out of respect. Of my maternal Grandparents five children, every one they married called them Mom or Ma and Dad or Da respectively. I am not sure how much of it was a respect thing or just that that side of the family was always really close. As far as can recall my mother's siblings also called their in-laws Mom and Dad as well. They are all from New York.
posted by citizngkar at 7:57 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm Mexican. My MIL is kind of traditional, so I call her Mrs. (Señora) and speak to her using the formal mode (usted instead of , for example). Sometimes I refer to her using her family nickname, but never directly: "Have you seen Nana?"
It's exactly the same for my FIL. We get along very well, but there's a big age difference.

My sister in law's boyfriend is 15 years older than me and met SIL through them, so he uses the informal mode and calls them by their first name.
posted by clearlydemon at 7:58 AM on May 27, 2010

My husband calls my mom "Mom", mostly because we're all really close. He calls my dad by his first name though. We're not that close to his family, but when we were around his mother I don't think I ever called her anything. When I refer to her, I use her name (or "your mother" or "your grandmother"). So short answer, for us it depends on the relationship with said relation.
posted by Kimberly at 8:23 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm American; Mr. Ant is French Canadian. I call his parents by their given names. They've never asked me to call them Mom and Dad (or Maman et Papa) so I don't. My husband calls my mother by her given name, as well. Everyone seems okay with this arrangement.
posted by workerant at 8:42 AM on May 27, 2010

Brazil here. People in their 50s or older call their MILs by first name preceded by "Mrs" , as in "Dona Maria." Younger people just use the first name, but this also depends on class, region, etc. "Mom" is quite rare, but I've seen it.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 8:44 AM on May 27, 2010

My parents are from China/Hong Kong, but I was born in USA: Chinese family labels are already more involved than anything I've seen so far: You've got specific names/titles depending on if your aunt is younger or older than your father, and a different name for "aunt" if she was on your mother's side. I'm not married, but I'm to refer to my sister's parents-in-law as "yun baht" and "yun baht mo". I don't recall what my sister's husband call my parents, but just illustrating that we have a specific title/name for what seems like every living leaf of the family tree. Either way, family ranks are simplified in American culture to just "uncle", "mom/mother/etc" if proper names are not used.

I also hear my boyfriend's brother's Chinese wife call her Japanese mother-in-law "okaasan". If I were to marry my boyfriend, I would likely end up calling her "okaasan" as well. I'm inclined to think that you should call your mother-in-law whatever she wants to be called, likely based on her own cultural norms. You'll get used to it.
posted by Seboshin at 9:18 AM on May 27, 2010

Response by poster: Permit me to generalize, but what I see so far here is for people from the Asian / Eastern traditions would address MiL as "mother / mom" out of requirement. People with western cultures seem to have more freedom to choose depending on relationship / situations.

Any Jewish people here? I wonder how they call their MiL.
posted by mchow at 9:28 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm American and I call my MIL by her first name. Sometimes I and her daughter's husband call her Mama D. (D being the first letter of her last name.)
posted by chiababe at 10:27 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm not sure I would call it requirement. Certainly in South Asia, people don't tend to call people of their parents' generation by first names. But for me, and for most of the women I know in Pakistan, they chose what they were going to call their mothers-in-law...

I think the Eastern/Asian culture divide is in the fact that many/ most? of them still venerate age, and would regard it as rude to use a first name for someone much older. I mean, most people don't call their elder siblings by their given names in Pakistan, let alone parents-in-law.
posted by bardophile at 10:33 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm Jewish, everyone in my family (and it's a big extended family) uses first names for their in-laws when they are speaking among adults.

When speaking to kids, everyone will use the name in relation to the kid - "your aunt Jane," "your grandma Jane," your bubbe Jane" (bubbe = grandma).
posted by insectosaurus at 10:36 AM on May 27, 2010

Truthfully, US culture really doesn't have an optimal answer to that question. I call my own mother in law by her first name when speaking with her, but usually what happens is that you ask the in-law in question what they prefer and go with that. It still feels weird no matter what word you wind up with.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:02 AM on May 27, 2010

Another vote for first name.
posted by willpie at 11:23 AM on May 27, 2010

posted by bryon at 11:48 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm from NY and grew up never ever addressing adults by their first name. Pre-marriage, I called my now FIL, Dr. Future Dad. Now I just call him Dad. I try to address my MIL as "Mom" most of the time, but it's still awkward. When they call me they always introduce themselves as FirstName LastName.

Mr. Shotty calls my mom Mom, but calls my dad Mr. LastName because he's never really liked my dad.

I have some older cousins who live in the states and their spouses call my aunt "MILaw" pronounced MeeLaw. Personally I find this fairly disrespectful but my aunt seems to go with it. Or holds her anger in pretty well.
posted by mrsshotglass at 11:53 AM on May 27, 2010

I'm American and call my in-laws by their first names.

But... I'm the only daughter-in-law who does this. My sisters-in-law (husband's brothers' wives) call my in-laws Mom and Dad. So I'm the only one in the family who calls my in-laws by the first names--to everyone else they are Mom and Dad or Grandpop and Gram.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:51 PM on May 27, 2010

My parents have insisted people not use honorifics for them since I was a little kid. My friends were always horrified that they were supposed to just refer to them by their first names. (I grew up in the South. That sort of thing is just not done in the genteel South.) But that is my own family's culture and so I still choke on the saccharine "Miss/Mister [LastName]" that is so common around here.

I called my ex's mother "Mrs. Devers" for years until one holiday when, in what I think was an awkward fit of familiarity, she demanded that I start calling her "Mom Devers." I would have been more comfortable if she had asked me to call her "Stinky Jane" or "Susan Sarandon's Butthole." I just want to call people by their first names. Weirdly complex titles are just so unwieldy.

I consider that a lesson learned, and I'm not going to make myself crazy if I ever end up in a long term relationship with someone who has living parents again. Whether the parents like it or not, I'm calling them by their first name.
posted by greekphilosophy at 12:59 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

American- Midwest, It's weird, but I don't think I really ever use any form of address to them at all. When talking with my wife about them, I'll say "Your mom" or "Your dad" but in talking directly to them, I can't think of any specific instance that I've used their names and certainly not "mom" or "dad". Weirdly, to my memory, my wife is the same with my mom, but calls my step father by his first name, as have I since I met him as a kid.

Now I'm going to have to spend some time pondering how weird this is.
posted by quin at 1:03 PM on May 27, 2010

US (currently Massachusetts), first name.
posted by languagehat at 5:59 PM on May 27, 2010

My sister's husband is Malay-Chinese and they both call his and my parents Mum and Dad. I think this is common in Malaysia and he does have a very traditional relationship with his parents (they will be moving in with my sister and b.i.l when they retire). It does creep out my other sister and I though. I call my boyfriend's parents by their first names, as he does mine.
posted by Wantok at 7:02 PM on May 27, 2010

mchow, I was raised Jewish in the US and in-laws were called by their first names, at least in the generations still alive today, even those of us who also used "tante" for aunt or "bubbe" for grandma.

In my very mixed Southern Catholic/Jewish/atheist family, thinkingman and I both call our inlaws by their first names.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:36 PM on May 27, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks all. You guys are great.
posted by mchow at 7:03 AM on May 28, 2010

My family is Jewish, and my parents always addressed each others parents by their first names. (I grew up in California)

As insectosaurus said, we always referred to our grandparents as "Grandma Wini" or "Grandpa Ted." I think sometimes we also addressed them as this as well? But I never had any nickname-y names for my grandparents, like Bubbe or Nonnie.

I live in the South now (Louisiana) and people here are very fond of the "Miss Firstname" or "Mister Firstname" for a variety of situations. Actually I think it works out really nicely, because it bridges the familiarity/formality gap. My coworker always referrs to her MIL as "Miss Pat."

I intend to call my in-laws by their first names, and I would expect that radiofiance will do the same with my parents. However since both sets of parents are in CA and we are in LA, we don't have any of the familiarity that would incline towards "Mom" or "Dad." Then again, I just think it's kinda weird. They're not your parents! I wish I had some kind of middle ground for our in-laws but I don't see that happening.
posted by radioamy at 7:50 AM on May 29, 2010

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