So . . . you like . . . stuff?
January 23, 2012 2:28 PM   Subscribe

How can I communicate with S.O.'s mother?

I would like to set up a way to send regular emails or phone calls to my MIL, but I have no idea what to say.

Background: I haven't known her for very long (perhaps less than 2 years). We have nothing in common. She doesn't seem to have any hobbies or interests outside of orthodox religion and her two sons. Previous attempts to have conversation have not gone quite well because I feel that she doesn't listen to anything I'm saying and that the exercise is futile.

I come from a family of overly book smart, artsy and rather insincere types who'd rather make jokes than indulge in schmoop (No hugging, touching, sentimental stuff, in other words. We talk about books or politics, not feelings. Or we just fight and armchair diagnose one another with mental illnesses. Yes, I was raised by a psychologist.) She's exactly the opposite, and it seems that emotional, sentimental topics are where she's most comfortable. For example, much of the conversation I've exchanged with her dwelled upon recollection of the things she's done on behalf of my husband. Not in a put-upon fashion, but more like reminiscing about making his lunches, taking care of him as a baby and so on.

My husband's father recently passed away quite suddenly. While my MIL has a large network of friends and isn't alone, I know it would mean a lot to my husband if I extended something to her. I would like to be able to find fairly neutral topics of conversation that we might both enjoy. She's of the generation that would still be considered quite racist and sexist and some of the things I've ventured forth as discussions have resulted in incredibly cringe-inducing discussions (i.e. why can't gay men just find the right woman, etc) that I prefer to avoid. Add the factor that I'm not at all of the race/religion she would have preferred for her son, though she claims to accept this, and it makes our common ground that much narrower. I also don't want to fake a lot of sentimental glurge because that really isn't me and I think it's somewhat insulting to be so blatantly insincere with that sort of thing.

So, what should I do? Is there a ready source of controversy-free and emotionally neutral items I could use as conversation starters?

Should I suck up my discomfort and obvious lack of material and call every week? (She calls my husband at least every 2 days, usually) What could I possibly talk about on these calls? Whenever I do talk to her on the phone it ends up sounding a lot like the headline from my end. Any and all tips for connecting with relatives with whom you have nothing in common are welcome.
posted by Kitty Stardust to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, I would send her weekly "catching up" emails. Here's what I did this week, here's what's going on with us, isn't the weather funny, etc. You can slowly change these to more closeness, more emotional, more specific, whatever, but I would start with just an "about our lives" weekly letter.
posted by brainmouse at 2:31 PM on January 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

Honestly? Ask her to show you pictures. If she likes to reminisce (spelling??), pulling out the old photo album ought to be a TOTAL score, and hopefully the visual aids will trigger some ideas about what to talk about. If she for some reason she doesn't have an extensive photo album, voila, you have a Christmas project.
posted by Ys at 2:32 PM on January 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah I'd also suggest emails or even letters if she's a letter writing/reading type. Feeling that she doesn't listen makes this even seem like a better idea. You can sort of broadcast what you're thinking about and feeling and then she can sort of broadcast back [if that's her thing] without that feeling quite as out-of-step as it does if you're talking in realtime.

Also if she's still mourning or grieving it might be better just to get regular communications from someone without the feeling of reciprocity and sometimes knowing that people care about you enough to stay in touch on a really regular schedule is a nice feeling when you're sort of lost in your own thoughts. Also sharing memories of the recently departed, especially pleasant ones, is often a great way to connect without having to share much of your personal feelings but also making a strong connection and opening the door for that sort of sharing in return.

So I'd suggest some nice stationery and envelopes and stamps and just plan a time for a regularly posted "thinking of you" note that can include little mementos [photos if you have them or other realia] and short notes that won't make you feel like they're homework assignments but that are also sincere attempts at communication.
posted by jessamyn at 2:35 PM on January 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ask for her advice on household things - cooking and such. People love giving advice (plus could be interesting for you).
posted by pyro979 at 2:42 PM on January 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

She may also be thinking about what her son's home life is like now. Maybe a little about ways you are "taking care of" her son (not in a bad way, just in a "we have this in common that we both love him" way), and sharing stories about humorously exasperating things he does, maybe ones that are like his dad.

So for example, invite her into small things about your household life: have you been cooking any new recipes? Are you thinking about changing up your household decor or putting in new shelves? Trying to grow basil but it just keeps wilting? Is there a bit of neighborhood gossip about the noisy neighbors?

Or: Does your husband get antsy when he's waiting for appointments? Do you always have to remind him to close the fridge door? or whatever. "I thought of [FIL] this week when [husband] spent two hours carefully re-organizing his toolbox.", that sort of thing. Also stories about how your husband did something sweet for you, and what a good guy he is and how pleased you are to be in their family.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:51 PM on January 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

FYI grandkids will be excellent for this if you are headed in that direction!

The thing you have in common is you both love your husband, so you might be able to talk to her about him, and what things you are doing together, or something he did recently that made you laugh, or that you thought was cute. Talking I. A loving way about someone's child is likely to be appreciated, and you don't have to be overtly sentimental or snoopy about it, breezy but fond is fine. "Mrs. S.O., I just wanted to call you to tell you a story about the funny thing S.O. did the other day. [story]. And then the plumber bent over again, and we both just laughed and laughed! Your son is absolutely brilliant at making me crack up!"

Basically describe ny incident of note that you can compliment her son about (that doesn't conflict with any of the danger areas you set out above), and try to relate it in an engaging way. I think she would enjoy it, and appreciate you for sharing it with her. Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 2:54 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding the asking for cooking tips.

SHes probably Italian. I know its weird to us hands-off-families types, but they do like to call every day or so. Its just the way they are. Shes also probably a Feeler on the Meyers-Briggs. And an extrovert. Her love language is probably quality time. You dont have to fake sentimental muck, just accept that for her, its entirely different than for you.

She probably talks her way to what she really wants to say, while you probably think your way to what you want to say. So, her important sentance is the last one; yours is the first (and probably only) Maybe 'unpack' your thoughts a little more. Three sentances instead of one :)

Politics, overly liberal things and religion are pretty obviously out. She will ptobably talk about her son & family as much as you let her. Are there any shows she watches? Books she reads you can tolerate? What do you do that you can talk to her about?

Personally, I like emailing in these situations. Texting can be good, but then she might feel the need to text a lot. Like everybody else, the occasional letter is muy good.

If all else fails, you can talk about how much her son means to you :)
posted by Jacen at 2:54 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Talking in a loving way, snoopy = schmoopy. Sorry about typos!
posted by onlyconnect at 2:55 PM on January 23, 2012

I would stick to email, for the time being, if you don't have a particularly great relationship and don't have much in common. Phone call, I think, would end up being awkward for both of you until you develop a stronger relationship.

Brainmouse's suggestion of just writing her about updates in your family life (and asking for updates about her) is a good one. This is a good way to strengthen your relationship with her. Eventually, you may even find that you do have things in common and can have conversations on the phone and in-person without it being awkward silences interspersed with cringe-inducing comments.
posted by asnider at 2:58 PM on January 23, 2012

My ex's mother was terribly conservative, religious and schmoopy. Also a horrible cook so that was out, as were discussions of clothing or decor (kittens anyone? maybe a duck in a kerchief here and there). So we communicated in the universal language of gossip. She'd tell me all about the foibles of the people she worked with, family scandal etc and I'd smile and nod.
posted by fshgrl at 3:00 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're the least bit interested in genealogical research, you can pique her interest with some tidbits from the grandparents-and-above level without spending too many hours at it. Dropping her a letter with a picture of an ancestor from her husband's family in it might be the talking point you can begin with.

Of course, if you discover that they all did horrible things, you might want to keep that to yourself.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:31 PM on January 23, 2012

You kind of need to actually do things with her. Take her shopping.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:43 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Things that went well with my M.I.L.: questions about her past. Work, family, travels, etc. She had storys to tell and I was interested. I even wrote some things down and now can tell her grandkids about her. I still regret I didn't write or remember more. (The same applies to my own parents). Whenever there was a good time I'd start with something she told me earlier (So, how did your mother meet your stepfather again? Which prince did you meet again?) and off she'd be.
My first reaction was: talk about her son, your S.O. However I sometimes had some minefields to navigate. Me: what about this good thing about S.O. She: Oh, yes of course he did that, he always does that. Why would you think he wouldn't do that? How can you be so ignorant of his Greatness? (not the last line obviously, though it was implied).
posted by oenzemain at 4:01 PM on January 23, 2012

Do either of you have pets? They're what I always talk to my, kind of mean, grandmother about and it seems to work.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:20 PM on January 23, 2012

My mother-in-law buys all the novels that get good reviews in the newspaper she reads. She reads them, then sends them along to me, together with the cut-out review. When I've read them, we chat about them. It's one of the few topics where I feel like we are both enjoying the conversation. We do this three or four times a year.

I'm sure there are variations on this sort of thing that could work too. Are there any TV programs you would both watch? Music or events you might both enjoy? (If your tastes are different for mainstream music, maybe opera or musicals, or something could work). You could both cook the same recipe occasionally and discuss how it worked out.
posted by lollusc at 5:22 PM on January 23, 2012

I think a project, like a scrapbook with her sort of "oral history" of her life and raising your husband, might be nice. You can play anthropologist, but do try very hard to keep your disdain for her from showing through. She raised the man you love, so she must have done something right. Her own husband is dead--compassion is never amiss.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:24 PM on January 23, 2012

Seconding the folks who've suggested cooking as a conversation topic; try asking specific questions, like "I'd like to surprise SO with his favorite dinner" or a recipe for a birthday cake. It'll give you something specific to ask in the first place, and follow-up questions (and maybe even a photo of your completed version!) will give you even more material for further discussions.
posted by easily confused at 5:49 PM on January 23, 2012

Seconding the young rope-rider. Emailed photos of your husband would be very well received. Bonus, you could talk about what was going on in the photo if you wanted to telephone as well.

Advice requests like "what's a good thing to make ahead for a dinner party?" or "how do you get soup to look nice and clear?" or whatever it is that she does well, are also good.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:25 PM on January 23, 2012

I have a similar relationship with my MIL--better, I think, because she is a good listener, but we still haven't really bonded.

This is a really silly thing, but I have signed up to receive coupons online for stores she likes to shop at. She does email but isn't really internet literate to this extent, so I send her the coupons and she tells me what she got or what she was thinking of getting.
posted by elizeh at 7:56 PM on January 23, 2012

Not clear how old y'all are, if she remembers JFK, WW II etc., but no shortage of old(er) people strike me as fascinating because they've experienced those sorts of things, and life in general well before we were born, and they're happy to share the recollections.

(In the time shortly before Reagan won the presidency, I loved hearing my grandfather talk about what Ronnie was like as governor of California and my grandmother was full of insights and observations about life during WW II.)
posted by ambient2 at 7:56 PM on January 23, 2012

Should I suck up my discomfort and obvious lack of material and call every week? (She calls my husband at least every 2 days, usually) What could I possibly talk about on these calls? Whenever I do talk to her on the phone it ends up sounding a lot like the headline from my end.

To some people, the point of talking isn't communication, it's talking. Talking just makes some (many? most?) people feel good. I don't understand this at all, but my interpersonal skills (especially on the phone) improved greatly when I realized that some people just want to talk even if the conversation is the most banal, repetitive, un-productive task possible. It sounds like your MIL might be a talker.

What I do is I give myself permission to have the most unabashedly god-awful banal conversation ever. I can't believe I do this, but I actually tell people what the weather is like where I am and ask them what the weather is like where they are. I tell people about what I ate that day, and hear about what they ate. But it's not as terrible and boring as I expected. Some days, there's actual news. Maybe they are doing something new, maybe I'm doing something new, or maybe one of us just has a friend / relative with news. On other days, the conversation is just very plain and no useful or new information is communicated. But a few minutes after hanging up, what we remember isn't how ordinary and repetitive the conversation was, but that "we talked to X, and she's fine."

So yes, call. Talk about the weather, or sports, or what you had for dinner. Eventually the connection you form will lead to more interesting conversations. Maybe something will remind her of a nice story about her kids. Maybe you'll hear some news from her. Or maybe nothing interesting will happen, and she'll just be happy that you called and forget that the conversation was really dull.
posted by Tehhund at 3:51 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

« Older Veggie Minced Lamb?   |   Help me stop being a MIDIot Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.