Blue state family. Red state in-laws. HELP!
October 26, 2011 5:29 PM   Subscribe

How do you learn to get along with family members (blood-related and by marriage) with whom you apparently have nothing in common?

Going this weekend to a function that will involve my sister, her husband, and his entire family. My mother and brothers (both unmarried) will be there too. My interactions with these people in the past have been at best awkward.

Our two families probably couldn't be more different. My brothers and my husband and me are geeky, intellectually and academically-oriented, big into the arts and education. We all have professional or graduate degrees, except for my sister. We're agnostic/atheist/liberal Protestant and all liberal Democrats.

My sister got a B.A. and is in an administrative job in the healthcare industry. Her husband has an associate's degree (which we encouraged and supported--we cheered when he graduated and chipped in to buy him a nice leather portfolio). None of his other family members have gone any farther than high school--in fact, one dropped out and got his GED. They are Republican and evangelical and all attend an enormous nondenominational church outside of town. They're anti-science and resentful of anyone who has gone farther in the educational system than they have. During a family get-together right before the 2008 election they were making veiled racist jabs which we ignored in the interests of family harmony (it was a birthday party for one of the kids). They are very close-knit, with their father expecting them to obey his beck and call. All sports enthusiasts, all chain smokers (we are neither). The men are into golf, the women into shopping and celebrity culture. We like to go out for Thai and French; they loathe ethnic food and prefer Applebee's. I'm really, really sorry if I'm being a horrible snob, but to us they're perfectly awful and make me want to run screaming away. And it's been clear from the moment we met at my sister's engagement party that they don't think very much of us, despite some preliminary overtures on our part.

My sister's very smart, but she's always wanted a "normal" family, and I guess this is her definition of "normal." I'm not sure she's particularly happy with what she chose, but she still seems more comfortable with them than with us. This makes me very sad. I would like to be closer to her, but all the things in which she's immersed are just so repellent to me that I can't seem to bridge the gap, and I'm afraid she senses this. I just don't know what to do or how to overcome my dislikes. We have trouble keeping conversations going.

The thing that makes me want to stay in contact (and be on good terms) is my relationship with her children. They are incredibly smart, delightful kids who are already showing signs of shared interest with our side of the family (preferring books and music over sports, reading all the time, becoming doctors and teachers). My sister's ambitious for them, but she wants them to be popular as well and has in the past tried to stuff them full of pop culture. I'd love for them to come visit us sometime, but his family is very controlling and doesn't want them out of their sight.

So how do I fix this? I feel as though somehow I've got to change, but I don't know how. Get up to speed on the 2011 NFL season? I could do that, but I'm afraid my interest would be little more than superficial. Children seem like a safe topic, and I've used it in the past, but it gets exhausted quickly because I have none and therefore, in their opinion, have no business talking about children or child development, even though my undergrad degree was in elementary education. I don't like dreading these family gatherings, and I don't like thinking awful thoughts about my sister's in-laws, but I don't know how to change my attitude.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (50 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I play cards. Lots and lots of card games. And when we're tired of playing cards, I fix whatever they've broken on their computers. And then I go around and reset all the off clocks in the house to the correct time. And by then we're ready to play cards again. Conversations revolve around card games, smack talk related to the card games, and how-did-you-manage-to-shove-two-cds-in-the-cd-drive. Anything to avoid issues like why I'm not going to church and how many weekends I spend at my boyfriend's place.
posted by phunniemee at 5:36 PM on October 26, 2011 [26 favorites]

I have this issue when I visit my family. I have very little in common with my family. My one sister is married to a bohunk/redneck. I realize that he loves my sister and that he means well, but he can barely articulate anything beyond, "I'm hungry". I nod and smile. A lot. At one family dinner, we had an interesting conversation about Bridget the Midget (not something that I normally discuss and/or think about). But to keep the peace, I nodded and smiled. (I also learned some things I didn't necessarily need to know, but it does make for somewhat interesting trivia)

Don't talk about anything sensitive (science, politics, etc.). Instead of trying to invent topics of conversation, ask questions. If they talk about a stupid chain restaurant, ask them what about it they like. Just be polite, realize that you don't pick your family, and nod and smile for the time that you are there. Return to normal after you leave. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and pretend. And phunniemee's suggestion of cards is great.
posted by bolognius maximus at 5:40 PM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

It helps a lot to assume good faith and try to be open minded. These people are human beings like you; they just have different interests. You are not better than they are. This is very important. You actually have to believe it.

Personally I'd take this as an opportunity to practice techniques found in books like How To Win Friends and Influence People or Since Strangling Isn't An Option.
posted by SMPA at 5:43 PM on October 26, 2011 [13 favorites]

I was also going to say games--cards, dominos, and Settlers of Catan have gotten my family through a lot. When politics or religion come up, the ONLY way to deal is to refuse to engage, which is SO hard. We've found that a simple, "I love you, but we're never going to agree on this. Can we agree to disagree and not talk about it," can go a long way. It acknowledges the dissension, while allowing everyone to agree to ignore it.

I've also sat in front of many a football game with a book or a handheld video game.
posted by Mavri at 5:47 PM on October 26, 2011

Smile and nod is also a great technique. I'm way left, grew up in Texas, and "smile and nod" got me through a lot.
posted by Mavri at 5:50 PM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I married into a family that loves sports. My husband isn't into football or basketball, but his brother, father, and brother-in-law all are. Most family get togethers are "come on over and watch the game." I started asking questions and found out that I actually really like football. (Still don't care much for basketball, but I used to play and never needed instruction.)

Think of it as a learning opportunity. So many otherwise open minded people will dismiss different aspects of their own culture. You have a unique opportunity to see how other people live and function. Aren't you even a little curious? There are similarities to visiting a new country. Think of this as your vacation from your culture and a foray into theirs. Maybe you can get some new recipes, maybe you'll learn something new, maybe you'll find out interesting things about the family history. Ask lots of questions and really listen to the answers.
posted by TooFewShoes at 5:57 PM on October 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Before things get rolling can you ask everyone to forgo discussion of politics? I know it may sound like an odd request but I have had to make that request of my uber-conservative sister before.
posted by dgeiser13 at 5:58 PM on October 26, 2011

I guess I must be odd because I don't expect my social circle to be an echo chamber. Talk to them about the kids, sports, what's on TV, what are they making/crafting/knitting. Do they like to drive in the country? What's the best way to make pickles?
Family history and genealogy is always a good bet--got old photos to look at?
Ask them to explain what's going on in the NFL--rather than trying to present a superficial interest, maybe you'll learn something you don't know.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:59 PM on October 26, 2011 [11 favorites]

Food. Talk about food: dishes, recipes, restaurants you've each enjoyed. Hey, even Appleby's will have had something you once liked.

Family history. Ask them about theirs. Where are/were they from? Who died where? Who lives where now? Every family has some off-the-wall character folks love to tell funny stories about.

Shopping. Where can you get the best deal on x in this town? Better than y?

Only recently have I been able to politely introduce the book-in-lap, but magazine-in-lap is more easily acceptable. Gotta be somewhat mainstream, though.

Nthing games, board, card, hell I've even managed charades a time or two. Oh, and jigsaw puzzles!
posted by likeso at 5:59 PM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Food? Disappear into kitchen with the kids that you love, bake some cookies together or something. Creates familial feeling, easy to agree on.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:00 PM on October 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

jinx likeso.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:00 PM on October 26, 2011

smile. ask questions about things they seem interested in. if someone does say something racist or repeating tea-party talking points i think it's ok, and you should, politely "confront" them, or let them know your take on it.

remember, it's not about you, and it's not your job to change them. but, you have a right to be yourself at the same time.
posted by cupcake1337 at 6:04 PM on October 26, 2011

I also say: games.

This reminds me of when I went to my high school reunion. I was really, really worried that it would be awkward because I was "different" than other people - I had gone away to college, gone to law school, left town, gotten married, bought a house in the burbs, etc etc etc. Lots of them had not. I worried a lot about how not to sound like a snob. I worried about having nothing in common with them. I worried they would think I was looking down on them, or that they would resent my success.

But the reunion was at a place where we could play cards and corn hole and boccee and whatever, and that broke the ice. They're just people, and yeah, we had different opinions and attitudes about the world, but I didn't need to be best friends with these people. Turns out we did have some things in common - maybe it was music, or movies, or people we knew. Turns out they were genuinely happy for my success (or at least faked it). Turns out they don't actually resent people who left town (that was my own worries being projected on them).

So, maybe, try not to think of them as being perfectly awful people who resent you and your education. Think of them as people who are different than you who have been vouched for by the people you have in common. You don't have to be best friends, you just have to survive the time together. Play cards. Get "apples to apples" and bring it along. Or crainium. or pictionary. NOT trivia pursuit. Games are great ice breakers.

And if none of that works or applies to you: smile and nod, I guess.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:04 PM on October 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

You describe these people as "perfectly awful" and your sister's lifestyle as "repellent." I'm sure they can sense those attitudes you have and might explain why they're not that interested in spending a lot of time with you.

Do you really know these people beyond superficialities? Try actually getting to know them. Ask them questions about themselves, their habits, their interests and why they like what they do. You might find out that you have more in common than you thought, or at least that they're more interesting than you thought. But you have do it with an attitude of actually wanting to learn more about them instead of with the attitude that you're better than they are.

You don't have to become best friends with them, but it might benefit you (and them) to get to know each other better. And it might be a good lesson to your sister's kids that you can get to know people outside of your comfort zone.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 6:44 PM on October 26, 2011 [19 favorites]

Since her kids are into books, maybe you could take some age-appropriate books along and read to them. Or teach them old-timey games like dominoes and card games. Or take along photos to show to the family.
posted by jabes at 6:45 PM on October 26, 2011

HGTV. I am serious. Gardening and decorating shows have really helped me fill hours of time with relations with whom I have little in common and opposing views on a lot of things. I can deal with Home & Garden TV because even if we disagree, whether the couple should choose the house with the huge en suite bath or the hand built playhouse is hardly worth fighting over.
posted by pointystick at 6:49 PM on October 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

and people wonder why Democrats in Congress are such wimps when liberals won't stand up for themselves in their own fucking families. My father watches FOX News 24/7 and my brother in law would bring down the median IQ of any Tea Party gathering and I can't remember a family gathering in the last decade where we didn't go at it tooth and nail. Stand up for what you believe in! You know why they don't respect you? Because your face cannot hide your derision and they can see it. Be honest with people and let them know exactly where their political views stand with you, then sit down and have a nice meal in clear air. I love my father but he's an absolute moron when it comes to politics and I know I'll never change his narrow mind but at least I can make his tongue bleed at family gatherings because he knows I'll call him out anywhere, anytime.
posted by any major dude at 6:55 PM on October 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Your post focuses on the differences between you and your sister's inlaws. Maybe it would help if you decided to make an effort to find similarities and common ground?

Set yourself a challenge - to find something in common with each of your sister's inlaws. People are people - you may find this easier than you think! (And that's a good thing, by the way)

The only way you're going to achieve that is by expressing a genuine interest in their day to day life and asking questions. Actively look for common ground - you may have very different jobs, but bosses are the same the world over; you may disagree on how to raise children, but when nephew X says something funny, it's funny for everyone...

Good luck. It sounds as though this is a change that may take some time, and may involve a fair bit of smiling and nodding along the way, but hopefully it will be worth it.
posted by finding.perdita at 6:55 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Often when I'm in situations like these, I just pretend that I'm in an indie film and I marvel at the perfect awkwardness of it all. It can actually be kind of fun.
posted by seriousmoonlight at 6:58 PM on October 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

How do you communicate in normal life with people who aren't big nerds who fancy themselves intellectuals? Try that. Don't talk politics and don't offer child raising theory advice. I could be wrong, but I get the sense that your problem is you're disappointed that they (particularly your sister) aren't who you want them to be. That will be a problem until you move past it and just start thinking of them as people.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:00 PM on October 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

Music! Who doesn't like, or at least respect, Johnny Cash et al.?
posted by skbw at 7:02 PM on October 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't have to change. Not at all. As my husband likes to say, "Families, everybody's got one." Or in our cases, as adoptees, many more than one. You can do the "Do as the Roman's do" thing, or you can set yourself kind of apart and be the listener. Every family is always in need of one of those. Ask questions and listen truly to their answers. All the best to you.
posted by emhutchinson at 7:03 PM on October 26, 2011

Second the suggestion for card games or other games. (Though in a game of charades when you put in "The Torah" as a draw option for a book and one of your family members has never heard of it before... yeah) Better to argue over things that don't matter, like who won what, than world issues.

Also, smile and nod. My relatives who turn on Fox News the moment I walk in the door know exactly what they're doing -- they're pissing me off and inviting arguments. If I act not in the mood for it, it's fine.

Ask about their kids. Ask about their jobs. Ask about the local sports teams. Ask if they've been apple picking yet this year and what they want for Christmas. Ask the kids what games they like to play, and play with them.

I am and always will be associated with the very few family members who leave the midwestern town that everyone else lives in, who dares to own a passport and enjoy her education and aim for a big-deal career. I'm the only woman on that side of the family who has lived on her own for more than a year (everyone else just lived at home until they got married). I'm the only one who votes Democrat. I'm the only science geek. They don't understand me, so I try to understand them. It's hard, but consider it an anthropological study.

And in many ways consider yourself lucky to understand how the other half thinks. Half the country votes for Republicans. Many of my friends who have grown up in New England have literally never met anyone who voted for Bush and can't understand why anyone would. If you are politically active, if you do ever hope to change someone's mind, it will help you to understand how and why they think the things they do and what their life experience has brought them -- and to respect how they arrived at their conclusions, and work from there, rather than starting from the standpoint that "they're wrong."
posted by olinerd at 7:07 PM on October 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm really, really sorry if I'm being a horrible snob

Too late.

But, anyway, you can avoid being together by citing the smoking as a valid reason.

Continue to focus on the children. That is good for everyone.
posted by jgirl at 7:10 PM on October 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

If they're obviously not that into you, either, then all you have to be is cordial.

But honestly, a member of my extended family married into a family that's the polar opposite of her branch of the tree, and I have always taken it on faith that she did it because her immediate family of origin are such insufferable snobs. Watching them treat her husband so badly, and worse, watching him turn more and more inward, a little more bitter every year, is painful. And her kids are old enough to notice. It's shocking and shameful to witness and I work really hard to be more than just cordial when I'm around him, even though I've got as little in common with him as anyone else. It seems clear enough to me that the two of them really like each other, and she enjoys his family immensely, and that's enough for me, the rest of the family can go to hell. So, I don't know, food for thought.
posted by padraigin at 7:26 PM on October 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm really, really sorry if I'm being a horrible snob, but to us they're perfectly awful and make me want to run screaming away. And it's been clear from the moment we met at my sister's engagement party that they don't think very much of us, despite some preliminary overtures on our part.

It's totally okay to not get along with your sister's in-laws and did not find them to be people you really want to be friends with. I do not want to be friends with about 99% of the people I interact with on a regular basis.

I will just say, though, that your in-laws might be incredibly intimidated by you. Incredibly. I mean, you have graduate degrees. 70% of people in America- 70%, that's the vast majority- don't even have an undergraduate degree. To them, you and your brothers and husband probably seem astoundingly smart, overwhelmingly sophisticated and probably incredibly rich (it's usually very easy for well-educated people to ape the habits and tics of wealthy people, to a certain extent without realizing it. Part of your college education is learning what wealthy people enjoy and value and learning to enjoy and value that, too, even if you genuinely enjoy and value those same things to begin with.)

So, when I recognize this imbalance in values and tastes between myself and others, I do a couple things. One is to remind myself that, as much as I want to establish myself as the smarter, more deserving person, as much as I want to prove how great and sophisticated I am, I've consciously chosen to have a different set of values, and that is to make other people feel comfortable, to acknowledge and celebrate our differences, and to encourage other people to contribute to our discussions or interactions in ways that allow them to show their value. When I start feeling, "Seriously, we're talking about Selena Gomez again?" I just remind myself that that is a feeling I have, but I have a set of values that are bigger than that feeling.

The way that I put those values into action is by, a, letting other people show their value to me by teaching me something, b, approaching interactions as expressions of interest and not judgments on taste, and c, doing activities that don't require discussions about differences.

C. is well-covered above. To stuff like card games and board games I would add going for walks (with animals if they are available), helping to prepare food, helping to clean up after a meal, playing with animals (fetch with family dog, etc), and low-key sports games (think tossing a Frisbee around in a circle, horseshoes, bocci, not, like, touch football).

A. Learning things from others. This is where I am going to give you SPECIFIC things to talk about and ways to approach conversations.
-On Monday (that is when this "Monday Night Football" business you have heard of happens!), a good team, Jacksonville, lost 12-7 to a bad team, the Baltimore Ravens. Usually, NFL games have higher scores (that means they have more offense- more touchdowns are scored). You could introduce this topic by saying, simply, "Hey, did you see that Ravens game? 12-7 or something? That's crazy!" Then one of your in-laws might say, "Yeah, Baltimore didn't even get a first down until the third quarter!" What happens next is key. You say, "Huh, really? You know, I don't really know much about football- is that really rare?" Then let them teach you about football. Ask questions. Think of it as an investigation you're doing, if you have to, or a job interview. Your goal is to put your family member at ease and make them feel intelligent.
-The baseball World Series is happening right now. The St. Louis Cardinals possibly lost a game a couple days ago because their manager called a coach somewhere else in the ballpark and couldn't be heard over the phone, so the coach sent the wrong pitcher out. You should make jokes about this- "Get them all iPhones, right? Where was that Verizon guy, huh? Hey, we should send SISTER'S KIDS over there to text back and forth, they're attached to those things!" Then do as above with football, "Geez, you can lose a game on one pitch- that's so strange, I don't follow baseball, really. How do they decide what guy to bring in to pitch next? I would use a dartboard, because I don't know anything about that stuff!" Then listen. Ask follow-up questions.

OH. And AVOID ANY POLITICAL DISCUSSION. If you CAN'T avoid it, just say something non-committal. "Boy, everyone seems so angry lately!" "I don't know, I'm waiting until the election to decide." "Oh, I can't talk about politics, I get too worked up!" If they say something RACIST, don't get angry, get curious. "What makes you say that?" "Oh, gosh, really? That hasn't been my experience." "Oh, I don't know about that. My friend/coworker/professor is that race, and he's a great guy."

B. Talking about matters of taste. Books, movies, music, etc. Here is the key. YOU ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT VALUES NOW. I repeat: THESE THINGS ARE NOT VALUES. So, let's say your in-laws like to go to the movies. They say, "We saw SHOOTEMUPZOMBIES V this weekend, it was awesome! Have you seen it?" You do not say, "I abhor zombie movies, they are for dumb people." You say, "Oh, no, I saw INDIEFLICKWITHSUBTITLES. Have you seen that one?" You are just exchanging information. Acceptable questions include, "Did you like that?" "Is there anyone good in it?" "Do you like that actor?" "Do you go to the movies a lot?"
-You can lie if you need to here, white lies. "I don't go to the movies that often [because mainstream cinema is trash!] because tickets are $11 now, and they don't even serve alcohol!" "I don't know much about sports [because they are bread and circuses for the masses!] because I was SUCH a klutz as a kid, I couldn't catch a ball to save my LIFE!" "I don't know much about celebrities [because they are vapid airbrushed twits!] because there are so many magazines and websites now, I just can't keep up! I don't know who most of the people in PEOPLE even are!" Don't ever indicate that there is something wrong with your family; be self-deprecating. My usual route is that I am lazy, like to nap, can't cook, and am cheap. Your route might be that you like gadgets a little TOO much (you'll buy anything!), don't know much about machines, (the mechanic told me I needed to refill my headlight oil and I believed him!), and will be paying off your student loans until you die (for the last semester, they just told me to let them know when I had my first-born child, what's that about!)

Okay, that's Snarl's not-so-brief guide to interacting with people who value different things than you do. And, dude, it's just one weekend. It'll be all right. It will probably help if you think of it as your job to make your sister's extended family feel comfortable, because you have many advantages they don't have. You have more education. You very likely have more money. You scare them, a bit. Show them you are nothing to be afraid of.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:34 PM on October 26, 2011 [95 favorites]

My relatives who turn on Fox News the moment I walk in the door know exactly what they're doing -- they're pissing me off and inviting arguments.

Yup. I have relatives that do similar things as well. One guy in particular takes great delight in being provocative and getting everyone upset. (I loathe him.) I try to look at it as an opportunity to be neutral, not take the bait, and control your facial expressions. These are good skills to have for negotiating, work, etc. It's no fun but it can be if they keep trying and you keep being politely calm (I've had people who agree with him say, "Give it a rest!"). Besides that, having a family get-together at which everyone gets upset/mad is no fun.

Oh, and food and games. Good luck!
posted by sfkiddo at 7:35 PM on October 26, 2011

We like to go out for Thai and French; they loathe ethnic food and prefer Applebee's.

Clearly you value your family's being open to new cultures and diverse ways of seeing/tasting/experiencing the world. That value -- to reach without judgment across borders -- doesn't have to stop at the proverbial railroad tracks.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 7:43 PM on October 26, 2011 [9 favorites]

McPuppington the Third has it. You connect by getting to know them. Asking tons of questions has always worked for me - better to be remembered as that interesting person who didn't add much to the conversation. If the want to be extremist dullards, fine - let them, and don't waste too much of your energy on it.

Since that is already covered, I'm going to briefly take a different tack. Why on earth are you going to this gathering? I live in the same city as my sister's in-laws and I like them, but I hardly go to events involving them. It might be worth asking yourself if this is even a situation you have to be in. If it's a major once-a-year kind of thing like a graduation, wedding, or baby shower, grin and bear it and follow McPuppington's advice - one day/evening of ridiculousness isn't that bad. But if it's the annual family picnic and you feel like you have to go because you were invited, don't go.

Finally, the "I'm smiling, but you know I disapprove" has always helped me keep my sanity, thought it's a decidedly negative move. It's similar to "bless your heart." It's that reserved smile, the one that is clearly painted on your face over your disapproval. They'll know that you're humoring them, and they'll hate you for it. And if you go that route, you'll certainly be a snob. But sometimes, it's the only thing that prevents a really negative confrontation.
posted by Tehhund at 7:50 PM on October 26, 2011

Have you read this classic comment by salishsea?

"Most opinions are shallow, and the holder of them guards their superficiality with outrage and emotion to prevent you from getting close and discovering nuance. People hold opinons out of fear or loyalty. But when it comes to something you really care about, it's less about an opinion and more about the nuanced, many layered, complex fabric of knowledge, practical, theoretical, aspirational and emotional..."
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:08 PM on October 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

olinerd has it -- this is a learning experience. It can also be soothing, in its own way. I am a difficult, miserable writerly type, and it can be a positive relief not to discuss or consider the things that occupy my time -- instead, simply to "be sweet," and to listen to the rhythms of conversations among humans who function far more actively in their respective societies than I do.

My go-to topic of neutral conversation is animals, particularly dogs. I'm crazy about dogs and pets in general, and I can listen to any amount of nonsense about it. It's built bridges over deep canyons before.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:10 PM on October 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I come from a very intellectual lefty family full of advanced degrees, but both of my parents grew up in somewhat upwardly mobile blue collar families, plus I was raised in a very conservative Midwestern city. So I've grown up being friends with families like your sister's. And I gotta put in a word for SPORTS.

So my mom was a huge baseball nut, and I grew up listening to and attending tons of Cincinnati Reds games. I'm far from #1 sports fan, but seriously, being able to at least carry on some kind of conversation about at least 1-2 sports has saved me from many, many awkward moments with a lot of people I have NOTHING in common with. It doesn't matter if your interest is superficial - I think most people who like sports like it on a superficial level, and frankly it's kind of fun to live through a very participatory sports experience, as anyone who has ever been in Boston for the World Series or New Orleans for the Super Bowl can tell you.

Okay, so you wanna know one of my #1 pet peeves with a lot of lefty intellectual types? Sometimes I'll be in a group of those people (and trust me, these people are my tribe), and I'll be like, "Uh, did someone catch the score from last night's game? Because I didn't see it." And someone will say "UGH I HATE SPORTS. SPORTS ARE STUPID!!!" Well, you know what? Not only did that person totally shut down the conversation, but they also made me feel shitty for caring about a sport. A lot of people like sports, including lefty intellectuals like me. And unfortunately carrying around this attitude about sports makes you lose a lot of potential social currency and capital that you can use to grease the wheels of goodwill.

This doesn't mean you have to start watching Monday Night Football every week. But next time you hear something about some kind of sports news, you can use it as a question, like, "Hey, I don't know as much about football as you do, but I heard Carson Palmer got traded. What do you think about that?"
posted by mostly vowels at 8:38 PM on October 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

Or basically, what snarl furillo said
posted by mostly vowels at 8:48 PM on October 26, 2011

Snarl's comment is right on.

Here's the thing. I do child protective services, and have walked in the front doors of hundreds of families over the years, often into pretty grim, unpleasant places. And I decided long ago that I could choose to hold myself above, or I could look for something, no matter how small, that we have in common. Something nice to say. And once you set your mind on that, it isn't that hard. Talk about the new construction down the road, the gorgeous flowers in their yard, the crazy price of groceries, the effort they've made to fix up their place. My father in law is a republican who likes to stir the pot when we come over. So we don't talk about politics, we talk about timeshares and where he likes to eat in Hawaii.

You will not always be surrounded by people just like you-and that's a good thing, not a bad thing. You all live your sister, you all love her kids. There's a lot here to work with.
posted by purenitrous at 9:32 PM on October 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

Or think of it this way: they're not your family. But they're your sister's family now. Make the extra effort for her.

More perversely: wouldn't you be secretly happy if the most freaky relative later said about you, when talking to one of his friends, "Yeah, I thought that Anon. was just a stuck-up asshole, because, like, they don't want to eat at McDonald's and they have like a billion college degrees, but then we were just hanging out, talking about nothing, and I was like, this person is actually pretty cool."

You can do it! Also, in times like these, you never know when you'll need an in-law's help.
posted by skbw at 10:00 PM on October 26, 2011

Okay, so you wanna know one of my #1 pet peeves with a lot of lefty intellectual types? Sometimes I'll be in a group of those people (and trust me, these people are my tribe), and I'll be like, "Uh, did someone catch the score from last night's game? Because I didn't see it." And someone will say "UGH I HATE SPORTS. SPORTS ARE STUPID!!!" Well, you know what? Not only did that person totally shut down the conversation, but they also made me feel shitty for caring about a sport. A lot of people like sports, including lefty intellectuals like me. And unfortunately carrying around this attitude about sports makes you lose a lot of potential social currency and capital that you can use to grease the wheels of goodwill.

I copied this whole thing just because I agree with it so much. I also am a lefty intellectual who likes sports and I cringed when I saw your "geeky intellectual" juxtaposition with your sister's family's sports interests. I had a group of women over regularly last fall to watch football and it was so fun, and then one evening someone brought another mutual friend who didn't like football and the whole time we had to get earfuls of "this is so boring, everyone runs around and falls down." UGHShuts down the conversation, and it's a missed opportunity for you.

Sports are great conversation common ground. You don't have to religiously follow in order to have a viewpoint, but you can learn a little to get along and I think it's something you can use to make things a little easier with the family. People care about their sports teams, but in most cases it's friendly ribbing and all in fun (unlike politics, parenting, finances, etc).

I agree: make the effort for your sister. And don't divorce "sports" in your mind with "intellectual pursuits."
posted by sweetkid at 10:15 PM on October 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Wait, wait, this is not just a generic Johnny Cash/Carter Family SLYT. Seriously, I am making a point that I hope will reach the OP, because the situation you describe hits home for me, no joke.

So that ("Daddy Sang Bass") is JC's remake of/tribute to the Carter Family's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?," which is their remake of a folk song, obviously. It is so overplayed that even the most hardened redneck can barely hear it. But listen to his first verse/intro.

"Just poor people, that's all we were,"
he sings, and EVERYBODY involved, from actual poor people, to successful present-day non-organic small cattle farmers, to exiles like myself, to major celebrities, laughs inside. Because it is both 100% true and 100% not true--and to put it in a song--you see how he doesn't sing it, just tosses it off--is both schmaltzy and new every single time.

Another suggestion: is your entire family bluestocking liberal intellectuals all the way back to first landing on their present soil? If not, talk about your grandparents, etc. Show pictures--show your niece and nephew. Everyone loves Grandma, right? Or FIND one that everyone loves.
posted by skbw at 10:35 PM on October 26, 2011

I talk about computers and food. Everyone dislikes computers [but often likes the internet] and loves food [but probably has some food they don't like] and usually you can chat about all of that stuff for a good long while without coming up on pokey topics or digging too deep.

Basically if you've decided there's a reason you want to make this work [your nieces/nephews] then it is your JOB to find common ground with these folks both so that you can genuinely enjoy time with them but also so that you can get their kids freed up to spend more time with you. You are a secret agent and this is your assignment.

I usually do what purenitrous talks about and work to find some common ground or something I can sincerely compliment someone on. It usually starts things off on a good foot if you can genuinely say something nice about someone, especially if they are suspicious of you and/or think you don't like them. I often teach people how to use computers, people who come from very different places from where I come from, and they're often sort of put off by my computer knowledge, so I spend a little bit if time trying to figure out what their crazy knowledge area is [everyone has one, yes everyone] and then we spend some time talking about that as well so that computers just becomes a skill you can be good at [like they garden, or fix cars, or whatever it is] and that's what they're trying to do.
posted by jessamyn at 10:44 PM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Home renovations. Everyone has to work on their house, shop for a house, etc., and we all have interesting stories about the challenges faced while doing so.

Keep track of what the conservative "talking points of the week" are simply so you can say, "you're just saying that because it's what was on O'Reilly/Rush/etc. this week" if they attempt to steamroll you in an attempt to indimidate you (don't start fights, but end them, swiftly).

Also, going out as a family to an American family dining restaurant isn't that bad. I don't know why TGIFriday's, et al. get such a bad rap. Your affection for ethnic food is not a value system. The fact that they will make you steak and mashed potatoes does not make them repellent people.
posted by deanc at 11:52 PM on October 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hi, OP. I really love the answers that you've gotten in this thread. I have a very similar divide in my family, but your condescension and borderline-contempt really come through here. And that's not going to end well. As intellectual lefties we talk a LOT about valuing diversity and inclusion, but we aren't as good at living it.

I think our Red State brethren have a really good point when they complain about elitism and snobbery. This is something I struggle with myself, and I love Snarl's practical approach. You don't have to fold when it comes to political points -- you can calmly present your case and then disengage -- but you don't need to judge other people. For me, it comes down to living all the values I so loudly espouse.
posted by lillygog at 6:28 AM on October 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

My sister is a genius. As far as I can tell, her husband has the IQ of a turnip. A turnip who enjoys fart jokes, loud vehicles, and making inappropriate racial comments. I am not a fan. But he is married to my sister, so I employ the old "smile and nod" routine frequently. Spending time with his family isn't so bad because most of them don't speak English, so all we can do besides smiling and nodding at each other is watch the kids play.

Smile and nod, play with the kids, offer to help with food, and try to escape as quickly as is polite.
posted by crankylex at 6:31 AM on October 27, 2011

As gently as possible, I think it would help if you left your judgements at the door. The fact that you have better degrees, appreciate the arts and are an Applebees snob does not make you a better person than all of them. Their children are not more worthwhile humans because they share your interests. If you'd like to look at this situation from outside your own narrow little worldview, perhaps considering theirs, you sound like a liberal elitist. And I say this as a liberal elitist.

Try taking an interest in them. How are the kids doing at school? What do they make for bake sales, because you have one coming up and by the way, do they have any good pie recipes? What are their plans for Thanksgiving this year? Are they looking forward to Christmas? Is your brother in law working? You can ask him about his job and the hours and the commute. Does he do anything with the kids like coach or go to their games or build thing with them?

It really, really isn't that hard.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:46 AM on October 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

I don't know how to change my attitude.

For your own personal development, it might help if you identified where your attitudes are coming from. In my experience, it's the people who come from working class backgrounds themselves or were otherwise surrounded by people from those backgrounds who are the most determined to differentiate themselves with their degrees, taste in food, lack of interest in sports, etc.

Maybe part of the problem here is that you have so much of your identity invested in eating Thai food and having a Master's degree that you've lost sight of what's really important. The difference in value systems between your family and your sister's in-laws might be pretty significant for various reasons, but it is clear that you're bringing a LOT of your own baggage to the table with this.
posted by deanc at 7:10 AM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

You know, one other thing I thought about, re-reading your question. You mention that they haven't warmed up to your family "despite preliminary overtures" from yours when the two families first me. Think carefully about how those "overtures" might have been received. "Hello, new family! We've heard so much about you. Why don't you come over this weekend so we can watch indie subtitled foreign films and go out for Ethiopian food?" I can assure you that might have been about as exciting to them as "Hello, new family! We've heard so much about you. Why don't you come over for our superbowl party and then we'll go get a few beers at Applebee's?" would be to you, and those early gestures may have come across as patronizing and intimidating rather than welcoming, as you intended.

I mean, even the best of gestures can backfire. Among my fellow misfit relatives are two second cousins who have lived all over the world following his finance career, and they just live in an entirely different frame of reference than the rest of the family. At one big gathering my cousin was trying to compliment my aunt on some chip dip she had made and she politely asked for the recipe, and then she mentioned that she's always looking for recipes to use the mayonnaise she makes. At that point my aunt, realizing she didn't know mayonnaise existed outside of Miracle Whip, and my cousin, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and would never eat mayonnaise that came out of a jar, hit a wall in their polite attempts to find things in common and my aunt just ended up feeling defensive.

So -- you're the liberal elitist, let's be uber-tolerant. Maybe the next overture your family makes shouldn't be "come join us for something we like to do." Make it "Join us for a drink at Applebee's." Again, consider it cultural anthropology or something, learning to understand and appreciate the strange and foreign culture of the American red-state tribe. Don't be condescending, don't be patronizing, don't make it obvious that this is something you would never do otherwise. Just embrace it and learn to enjoy it in small doses, just as you would any other culture's customs or food.
posted by olinerd at 7:34 AM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

You have to find *some* common ground, at least superficially. Whether it's talking about the Real Housewives or the World Series or whatever. This is how I deal with vapid coworkers.

Also I always try to steer the conversation away from any hot topics.
posted by radioamy at 7:57 AM on October 27, 2011

It may have even been here on AskMe that I read this originally, so forgive me for aping the comment in a far less eloquent way - but sports are just as geeky as any kind of pursuit like tracking down every film in some obscure foreign director's oeuvre, or comic book collecting - the same basic human desires are driving the action.

Think about sports fans who know every statistic of their favorite baseball player, or who collect bobbleheads of their basketball team's members or jerseys of their favorite player. It's not all that different from any other obsessive hobby. There's the same kind of special edition memorabilia for sports as for special releases of films or comic anthologies, and people stand in line to get them for the same reasons. There's also a lot of gathering together in person (at the theatre, at the comic shop or convention, at the park), as another example. Look for similar drivers of behavior in the things each side enjoys and you'll feel a lot more comfortable.
posted by lhall at 11:38 AM on October 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, a lot of "liberal elitsts" -- including myself -- can be giant sports fans and occasionally crave a Blooming Onion. A lot of what you don't like about these people ISN'T repellant (racism is repellent, being interested in football is not). I do think, gently, that you need a little bit of an attitude adjustment around them -- I suspect your self-admitted snobbery isn't a secret to them.

So I think you go in there and act interested in stuff they're interested in. Not the politics -- I am with you on that -- but the sports, for example. If they've got a football game on, ask them to explain it to you. People LOVE to explain sports, in general, to non-fans, because sports fans like to talk about sports. You don't need to BECOME a sports fan, but I think if you look at it as a learning opportunity, you might find that knowledge valuable in other social situations.

That being said, I do sympathize with you and I think the suggestion of games is a great one. My family plays a lot of Jenga (and we actually get along well anyway). Charades might be fun, or perhaps Celebrity. Although I suspect they might beat you at that one.

All y'all having fun families events will make the holidays and life easier for EVERYONE, which I'm sure you know, or you never would have even asked the question. I think the fact that you want to change this situation means that actually CHANGING it won't be nearly as hard as it seems, theoretically.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:58 PM on October 27, 2011

>Don't divorce "sports" in your mind with "intellectual pursuits."

Yes to this and all similar remarks! And I speak as a liberal Democratic English major who owns a 25-year-old TV, has a basic cable package, and prefers reading to almost any other free-time pursuit. To top it all off, I lack hand-eye coordination and associate sports with the trauma that resulted when I served a volleyball into the back of a teammate's head during gym class in high school.

I also work in an industry (journalism) where a majority of my colleagues qualify as lovers of one or more staples of the elitist life -- books, indie movies, locally grown food, travel, vegetarianism, violin and piano study, bicycling, etc., etc.

Many of these same people are also sports fans. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis. No matter what time of year, there's always some competition that somebody wants to see on the office TV. I've learned to absorb sports data by osmosis. This has become convenient for me, since I live in New England and a comment about the roller-coaster fortunes of the Red Sox is never a bad ice-breaker at a social gathering.

A superficial knowledge of the world of sport has also helped me with my extended family. My uncle in New Orleans and I are 180 degrees apart on religious and political topics, but we can talk about his shrine to the New Orleans Saints (not kidding) or about Peyton Manning. (And thankfully, in N.O. there's always the distraction of excellent food and copious drink as well. Any adversarial energy can be diverted to discussions of gumbo recipes or whether One's Favorite Ancient Landmark Restaurant has or has not gone downhill.)
posted by virago at 1:07 PM on October 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is a subject that each of them knows that you know nothing about. Find out what it is and learn something!
posted by kamikazegopher at 4:56 PM on October 27, 2011

I've been thinking about my previous response, which on reflection may read as mean when that isn't how I actually intended it. I come from NYC. I was raised with liberal values, which I hold dear and for which I advocate. I also lived for seven years in a culture very different than my own, among people who were racist, embarrassingly middle class aspirational, tanned as a pastime, did not read, had little educational drive, and hated immigrants but only if they were not white (except for the man who ran our convenient local corner shop.)

My mother's advice was to look at this as an anthropological field trip. This was possibly the best advice ever. My role was to withhold all judgements, enage with the natives, in no way attempt to change or challenge the culture, and discover interesting things about what what different and what was the same about the people around me. This worked well. As much as any outsider was, I was liked, embraced, and looked after. While I kept my personal viewpoints to myself, this experience was deeply valuable to me. It radically changed my ivory tower world view which could only imagine that, for example, racists were distant and inherently different and evil caricatures. This was easy to imagine as I had never met any. Surprise: they are not. They are people exactly like me with a different and disturbing (and yes, evil) point of view on a single topic.

So my suggestion is basically: go forth, Margaret Meade. Samoa awaits.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:22 AM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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