How might I have better conversations with my in-laws?
August 30, 2012 5:06 AM   Subscribe

How can I change the conversation dynamic with my in-laws? I'm so frustrated!!! Help!

So, I have a real problem with my husband's parents. Mainly his father. I don't see them very often, -which is a relief- maybe a handful of times a year. But every time there is an impending encounter, or after a recent encounter, I make snide remarks to my husband about them that more or less express my displeasure at spending time with them. These comments upset my husband but I still make them.

I was wondering why I am compelled to make rude comments about his parents when I know it upsets him. And I think to myself, why can't I just endure it a few times a year and be nice about it? Is that so hard? But I just always feel compelled to say something rude about them.

So I am thinking about this. And I realise I have some anger towards them, because of the way I feel when I'm around them, which is completely un-self-expressed. I feel like I have no freedom of expression around them at all. I feel stifled and frustrated by this and it makes me hate hanging out with them.

The reason for my complete lack of self expression when I am around them is that they are TERRIBLE conversationalists. (Maybe you are thinking, who are you to judge what is a good or terrible conversationalist? But I know I am a good conversationalist. I pride myself on this fact. I am a good listener. It's my thing, okay? I have been told it many many times throughout my life. I love listening and drawing people out. I love the give and take of a good conversation. I am interested in what people have to say. I enjoy exploring ideas with another. I am conscious of not interrupting. You know, basic human etiquette.)

I have many friends with whom I have conversations that are very satisfying. I am aware that a conversation works when people take turns to talk and listen.

My husband's parents seem not to be aware of this. They do not listen. They will ask a question and when you begin to respond they cut you off and just keep talking themselves as though they knew exactly what you were going to say.

My father-in-law is a very successful academic. He is a professor. He is very esteemed in his area. He is a man. (he is someone who has been listened to by all and sundry his whole life.) He converses with you as though he knows it all and has nothing to learn from anybody (or at least not me). He asks a question as though he is curious but does not give you any chance to reply.

So, having learned that this is how it is, I dont even attempt to respond thoughtfully to anything I am asked, I just give the quickest shortest response because I know I will get cut off regardless.

I refuse to be a competitive, aggressive conversationalist and talk over him and force him to listen to me. This holds no interest to me. I don't want to try and make someone listen to me if they don't want to.

So I find the experience of hanging out with them, and having my words cut off and interrupted hour after hour, completely … infuriating. And demoralising. I just feel so... un-heard, and it makes me feel kind of crazy. Because feeling un-self-expressed for hours on end makes you feel sort of powerless.

It is the same with my husband, who is a fairly quiet person, very smart and interesting and has a lot to say but will not say it unless somebody shows interest. His father does to him what he does to me – asks him questions and then cuts him off. It enrages me almost more seeing him do it to my husband than when he does it to me, because I just want him to fucking listen to what his son has to say for once in his life. My husband acknowledges that his father does this and is not a good conversationalist, but still defends his father when I complain about him and wants to see him and gets offended why I say rude things about him.

So, I know my father-in-law is not a “bad person”, I can see that he loves my husband, and me, and our daughter. But I just find his conversational arrogance extremely hard to bear and it really makes me resentful of spending time with him. I know that I should change the dynamic, I know I'm being a whinger, that I shouldn't be a victim, and I should take responsibility and stop complaining about feeling powerless and do something different... But I don't know what to do! I seriously don't know how to make it different! How do I break this pattern???

Has anyone ever felt this way with someone in your life and have found a way to change the dynamic?? I often fantasise about losing my shit mid-lunch and screaming “Just let me fucking finish a sentence for once!” but I don't know if I would ever do it or if it would even be a good idea.

Does anyone have ANY constructive advice here???
posted by saturn~jupiter to Human Relations (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I often fantasise about losing my shit mid-lunch and screaming “Just let me fucking finish a sentence for once!” but I don't know if I would ever do it or if it would even be a good idea.

Well you should say it more often so you don't feel like you have to yell it all out at once. You have to be more assertive with people like this ALL THE TIME and alternate every sentence of your argument with "Please let me finish my thought." "Please don't interrupt." "Let me get to my point." "WAIT A MINUTE THERE PRETTY BOY, YOU'VE HAVE YOUR CHANCE TO SPEAK, NOW IT'S MY TURN." Stuff like that.
posted by three blind mice at 5:30 AM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Suffering comes when you don't accept things as the way they really are. These people are never going to change. You keep hoping they will ask you something and then sit back and listen with rapt attention. Not gonba happen. Ever. When you stop hoping it will change or that it is different then you can build on the things that are ok about visiting them. And maybe make a game out if it, for your own amusement. Just answer "Zebra" to every question.
posted by dawkins_7 at 5:30 AM on August 30, 2012 [14 favorites]

posted by dawkins_7 at 5:31 AM on August 30, 2012

Best answer: You are describing two legitimate desires here. 1) you don't want to be marginalized in conversation and 2) you don't want your husband to be hurt by anyone, including his parents. You might, in addition, perhaps be a little jealous that he keeps spending time with them in spite of all this.

The problem, it's emotionally taxing for you, because of your expectations. Try to lower these.
Try to see the situation of meeting your in-laws as what it is: a handful of bits of your year spelled out in wasted time. Fill this time with whatever rich inner life you can summon, with observing, with leafing through their magazines, taking artsy pictures of their fish tank, whatever. But try to be mindful about the event in general. These are not the people to give you recognition in conversation, so don't expect any of that. You'll lose a few hours, is all.

And try not to make rude comments. Even if your husband negotiates these situations without openly showing his disgruntlement, he will know very well how it all feels, and he needs you in his side; he does not need any additional tension. I know this.
posted by Namlit at 5:33 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think this situation is hard for you because it sounds like you have a fair amount of your self-definition in being a good conversationalist - both in being a good listener, as you describe, but also in being heard, and getting recognition for being thoughtful and involved.

So in a situation where you're not getting to play that role, it's threatening to your self-definition and harder to walk away from. It's like you were a really good cook and they don't ever comment on your food, and put frank's red hot on everything, and add instant mashed potatoes to your carefully planned meal.

And in this situation, like that one, I'd advise you to examine whether you're cooking/talking to make the situation work, or for your own satisfaction.

I think you need to just accept that this isn't an arena where you are going to get to express the "good conversationalist" part of your personality. It's emportant to be able to edit your self-presentation to fit the situation.

And then nix the punitively short replies and snarky comments to your husband -- divorce this interaction from being about you, and your self-expression. This is a chance to support your husband and to give your child a relationship with his or her grandparents, so focus on functional relationship building, not expressive conversation.
posted by mercredi at 5:40 AM on August 30, 2012 [18 favorites]

So, I know my father-in-law is not a “bad person”, I can see that he loves my husband, and me, and our daughter. But I just find his conversational arrogance extremely hard to bear and it really makes me resentful of spending time with him.

So your in-laws are decent people, and love you and your child, but their conversational tics throw you into such a tizzy that you insult them to your husband before they visit?

Seriously, it sounds like you need to count your blessings. Try having an adult conversation about this with them. Perhaps, since your father-in-law is so well-learned, you could say, "I've found myself frustrated at times with the way we talk...can we try to talk differently?"

My husband acknowledges that his father does this and is not a good conversationalist, but still defends his father when I complain about him and wants to see him and gets offended why I say rude things about him.

Of course he does...that's his DAD. And if the worst thing your Dad does is talk over you sometimes, that's not really all that big in the grand scheme of things.

If you can't respect your husband's parents enough to not insult them to your husband, then that's something you really need to address inside yourself, not with them.
posted by xingcat at 5:41 AM on August 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

"Zebra" made me laugh. Such a non sequitur might just grab his attention, for a few moments. Alternatively, you could smilingly answer his questions, "Why don't you tell me?"

I've done this. And in one or two cases, made remarks like this a running gag. Affectionately. But it works best - scratch that, it only works if there's any way to honestly bring up the subject at some point. The teasing then serves as a reminder. Any way to say something like "FIL, I love you, but I feel I'm always being interrupted by you. This makes me feel ignored, stifled, frustrated, etc. What can we do to address this?"
posted by likeso at 5:42 AM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree with most of what the three posters above me said -

1. Lower your expectations - but also lower your exposure. If you can, bake some time into every day, every visit, for you, without them. With you and your husband, with just you, with a good book, with a friend. I don't mean avoid them completely, but find something else you can do for yourself to give yourself a break.

2. Don't expect them to change - but don't try to change them drastically in some instant lightbulb way. You can try mirroring their behaviour (they may expect it, or be surprised by it to be a little more tactful, but don't expect change), or accept it by just doing something else (see 1).

3. Do be more assertive on things they do need to hear from you. Might be about plans they have you guys don't agree with. Might be about some child-raising point. At some point, you probably will yell at them, but save it (IME) for something really important.

Get a blog, get a friend, don't make the rude comments to your hubby. Either he notices the behavior they have and will work with your (maybe in his own way) to change it or not. Might try venting frustration in a more "help me" kind of way ... "I was happy to talk to your parents about XYZ, but it was very frustrating to be interrupted again and again. Do they not care, or is it SQUIRREL! syndrome or what? Do you have advice for interacting with them for me?"
posted by tilde at 5:43 AM on August 30, 2012

Agree with Xingcat - you have two issues here. However, I think one is a symptom of the other.

PROBLEM 1 - Your father-in-law is a blowhard.

POSSIBLE SOLUTION: Focus on talking more with your mother-in-law, who has to live with the guy and is probably dying for more of an interactive conversation. Your father-in-law may still interject, but if he does, just wait it out like he's a loud bird or a siren going off outside the house, then turn back to mother-in-law and keep going as if nothing had happened. Or, get her into a conversation when your father in law isn't in the room.

POSSIBLE EMPATHIC RESPONSE TO REMIND YOURSELF OF: I have a friend who's also kind of a blowhard know-it-all, but he confessed to me once that that's a defense mechanism for when he's feeling self-conscious and shy. He and I have enough of a rapport and there's enough trust between us that sometimes when he's dominating things I'll crack some kind of joke that'll take the piss out of him a bit ("Oh, God, who asked Sid about Marxism THIS time?...."), but ONLY because I know that he knows he does this and he's asked me to kind of help him with it. In your case, just reminding yourself that maybe it's a sort of self-consciousness on his part that's making him do this, so you can start feeling sorry for him rather than angry at him.

PROBLEM 2 - Being snarky to your husband about his parents.

SOLUTION: yeah, you already know you should cut that shit out, because your husband is going to feel a loyalty towards his parents. So I'd have one conversation with your husband about this, where you suck it up and explain that this is just how you've been handling your frustration up to this point, apologize, and say you're going to stop it. And you'd like to know whether he thinks it's a problem, and if so how he copes with it (maybe he has some kind of coping trick you don't know about); also, you'd like him to give you a heads-up on the times when he thinks you're being a little unfair to his dad.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:51 AM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Do you knit or crochet? (If not, consider starting; it's really easy.) Think of your father-in-law as a movie marathon. Because then you could turn this from frustrating inner monologue of "shutupshutupshutupshutomgshutup" to "yay woohoo! Scads of guilt-free yarn time!" where you just smile and act nice while making something really neat (for yourself).

And yeah, don't kvetch to your husband about this. You wouldn't like hearing negative things about your folks that you already well know, right? This is what your friends or own siblings are for.
posted by mimi at 6:02 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Your husband's father is, basically, my father. I disagree strongly with the people above who are saying this isn't such a big deal. It is infuriating and crazymaking and belittling and obnoxious.

Having grown up with it, I have some tricks for tuning it out, but my girlfriend has no such filters and it drives her nuts every single time we visit.

We're pretty convinced he's never going to change, but one coping mechanism we've developed is a "recuse me" signal. If she's cornered and desperate and being lectured at and can't take it any more, she taps the S.O.S. signal on my back or says an innocuous signal phrase, and then I help extract her from the conversation as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Simply having an ally who is willing to put in some effort to help you out can make the situation considerably easier.
posted by kyrademon at 6:04 AM on August 30, 2012 [23 favorites]

The only way to deal with this is to make a joke of it. Smile, be polite, and acknowledge that your FIL is a conversational nightmare.

I love answering his questions with "zebra".

I have a cousin who starts talking and pretty much doesn't draw breath for an hour. I love her dearly, so I'm not at all concerned about saying, "Dude, somewhere about 15 minutes ago you asked me a question. Want me to answer it or are you doing a monologue?"

Might not work with your FIL, but you could say, "Dude, I thought you wanted my opinion. You already know yours."

Or maybe, when he's wound up about something, "Woah! I didn't sign up for a lecture. Mom, do you need any help in there?"

One thing to do is to ask, "Are you asking a question or being rhetorical?" That will indicate that if he honestly wants your opinion, you're willing to offer it, but if he wants to pontificate, well, you have his number.

You're 100% right that not saying anything is causing you to be snarky and to make you and your husband miserable. Feel free to say what's on your mind. Don't be mean, don't scream, don't make a scene. Be funny with a tinge of honesty.

As for your husband, he's just trying to get through the day with you. He's known his blowhard dad his whole life, he's cool with not being able to say anything then let that be. That's his battle to fight and he discovered long ago that it wasn't worth it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:11 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ugh, some of the responses on here are really frustrating. Count your blessings? That's a total invalidation of what this person is saying.

OP, I am in a situation very similar to yours, except it's the mother-in-law, not the father-in-law. I laughed when I read that your FIL will ask a question, but then cut you off as you're answering it, because that's exactly what my MIL does, and it's really difficult to deal with. I'm envious that you see them only a few times a year. I just moved closer to my in-laws, and we see them about once a month.

I talk about this issue in therapy all the time, and seven years into being married I still have a hard time seeing them. In fact, it's getting harder, not easier, to deal with her. However, that's probably a good thing because I'm getting closer to the point of saying something to her about how I find her impossible to talk to. I agree with the responses above that recommend saying something to the effect of, "wait, you asked me a question, now let me answer." I'm going to need to do that soon and I think the relationship between her and I will be a whole lot healthier when that happens.

I'm sorry that I made this reply all about me! It's just comforting to hear that someone is going through the same thing I am. If you ever want to talk about this further, please feel free to me-mail me. Good luck and keep us updated!
posted by lagreen at 6:27 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

My mother has this similar habit of talking at people as opposed to talking to people or with people.

I think it was a few years after college when I had something I really needed to tell her that I just had to say, "WILL YOU LET ME TALK FOR A MINUTE?! Please." My mother still engages in this habit, and the only way to get her to stop is to say, "Mom. Mom. Mom. Listen to me for a minute," or to cut the conversation short when she gets in her pattern of talking without reciprocating.

Since this is the in-laws, it will be a bit more difficult, but I think you can break in. When he cuts you off, you say, "Oh, let me finish this thought!" Or, "Excuse me, may I finish what I was saying?" It's not cutting someone off to ask them to wait. If your father-in-law gets miffed by this, just say, "But I really wanted to know what you think about this!" (If you do, anyway). I don't know if this will work, but it may help change the dynamic. But there's no way to change the dynamic without asserting yourself -- aggressively or otherwise. And if you're father-in-law continues to go on, find a way to excuse yourself politely and look at the art on the wall or take a trip to the bathroom and then come back with something new to say to change the conversation. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't.

As for saying snarky things about your husband's parents --- go ahead and say them. Just not to your husband. Say them to your friends. Say them to an empty room. If saying the things helps you, then say them. Just not to him. These are his parents. Of course he loves them, even if they frustrate him.

And I like the idea of talking to your mother-in-law more.
posted by zizzle at 6:32 AM on August 30, 2012

I agree your FIL has a problem and you are justified in being angry about it. As it is your FIL it is your husband's responsibility to resolve the situation (because taking it on yourself will lead to both your husband and FIL teaming up against you ad casting you as the "bad guy"). Potentially, soon you will see your FIL diminishing your daughter and you will want to protect her and her enthusiasm. If so, watching your husband sacrifice her well-being to the FIL's need to dominate will destroy your partnership. That his father is not a problem for him (that he can see) does not excuse him from ignoring that his father IS a problem for you. I think though, that your FIL has successfully taught your husband that his first loyalty should be to his father, rather than his wife, and that your opinion is less than his father's. This is where your husband needs to have someone outside you that he trusts and respects to have a "come to jesus" talk with him about being a husband/father rather than always his father's son. If you can't think of anyone in his life that fulfills that role then a neutral third party like a social worker is a good choice. A social worker can also help him develop a "script" of how to explain the problem to his FIL and give you both coping strategies. Also, a good social worker would make sure your husband does not accidentally paint this as a problem "you" have, and make you out to be the bad guy and again aligning your husband with your father instead of being on your team.

having my words cut off and interrupted hour after hour...feeling un-self-expressed for hours on end makes you feel sort of powerless...It enrages me almost more seeing him do it to my husband

First off, you should not be subjected to that for hours and hours; your husband needs to step in an stop it much faster and your husband should not be arranging visits of several hours duration knowing this is a problem (if you are the family social organiser than you have to stop setting yourself up for frustration too). Since your visits with them are so stressful your husband should be bracketing them with positive, relationship-nurturing words and actions. If watching your husband endure these "conversations" is painful than you need to leave. He is an adult and can choose to stay or go himself; you have the right to say this is uncomfortable for you (not out loud to your FIL of course) and take your daughter out for a long walk to the park. Again, your husband needs to have your back here and cover graciously for you if you decide to leave.
posted by saucysault at 6:45 AM on August 30, 2012

I also see two issues here; 1) snarking at your husband, and 2) your father-in-law's style of conversing.

On 1, "I was wondering why I am compelled to make rude comments about his parents when I know it upsets him. And I think to myself, why can't I just endure it a few times a year and be nice about it? Is that so hard? But I just always feel compelled to say something rude about them." -- my friends and I call this verbal vomit. You can tell it's coming, you don't want it, but you're helpless to stop it. But the thing is, you can stop this. You DON'T have to say it. And this sounds really, really passive-aggressive. You need to be honest with your husband and say, "I find myself dreading lunch with your parents a bit because of how your father talks over me constantly." Don't let it build up and then unleash this built-up resentment at your husband, for having imperfect parents that you don't like and forcing you to interact with them because you married him. Much, much better that you simply say what you feel and admit your fear/dread/worry rather than say hurtful things in a passive-aggressive attempt to get your feelings out.

On 2, I don't doubt your husband's father is a blowhard. However, you place yourself and your method of communication on a privileged pedestal and don't recognize there might be other methods. Like, if you're passive-aggressively sniping hurtfully at your husband because you don't like spending time with his father, rather than honestly and openly discussing feelings, you're not exactly communicator of the year. And in many conversational cultures, talking over and interrupting IS polite (only usually called "overlapping" communication because it isn't rude in those cultures). You have a clear and super-specific idea of what a "good conversation" is, one that is very culturally conditioned, and you consider yourself excellent at it, such that those who don't converse in the same way will not be communicating acceptably in your book. So do think about that.

One thing you could do -- which I have done -- is when Blowhard starts in on the monologue, I just space out and think about something else. When he asks me for input ("blah blah blah, right?" "blah blah blah, I'm sure you agree?"), I say, "What? Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't listening since I didn't seem necessary to the conversation." or "Oh, sorry, I stopped listening, I thought you were talking to yourself." Or, I'll listen politely for a while, and when he pauses for breath, say, "I'm going to go in the kitchen and get everyone drinks, because it sounds like you're just thinking out loud and you don't need me for this part." You can also begin a conversation, wait for him to take it over, have everyone stop talking while he yammers, and when he pauses for breath, jump in, "So, anyway, Jane, as you were saying?" just as if he hadn't spoken at all. Any time he goes into a monologue, just tune out or physically leave. Someone who thrives on others listening to him will quickly learn that he gets no attention when he's just yammering on. You can do this quite rudely, or you can do it with affection, or you can do it a bit ditzily, depending on what you want to communicate.

Another option, though, is to recognize that older people have a certain right to monologue simply by virtue of being older. Especially if they're retired, talking may be an important recreation for them. Or if they don't have a lot of things going on in their lives (like a workaholic may be busy, but doesn't have a lot of DIFFERENT things going on), or they don't get to socialize a lot, or their minds are not as sharp as they were. All good reasons to be tolerant of monologues. (I'm a stay-at-home mom and sometimes when I get around other adult humans, I feel like I might actually EXPLODE with words because I get to talk to people about things! Things other than potties! I can barely bear to stop talking because it's been so long since I got to talk, it's like a bubble of verbal hysteria in my chest that is demanding to pour forth even though I can simultaneously tell I need to STFU and let others talk.) Anyway, sometimes it's a mitzvah to just let people talk, even if you've heard this story ten times, even if they're monopolizing, even if they're being a blowhard.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:01 AM on August 30, 2012 [11 favorites]

I agree with those here who suggest to just live with him without trying to address the problem or trying to change his behavior. I have these same problems with my own father and I recognize that he will never, ever change. The few times I have tried to address it he has become overbearingly defensive and the encounter resulted in resentment on both sides.

You seem to come across as a good conversationalist and listener but be aware that not everybody actually wants to talk about the same things. I have come to realize that people have different ideas about what conversation should be. I could absolutely care less to critique a movie or TV show, or talk about art or politics. I thrive in a conversation when it is speculative and "What if?"-ish, but not everybody likes to ponder. Most just need to talk at you about what they know, rather than engage in equal rapport.
posted by No Shmoobles at 7:06 AM on August 30, 2012

It might be worth considering that your father-in-law has a different conversational style. Are you familiar with the sociolonguist Deborah Tannen? She has written about this extensively. Even if your father-in-law is not from New York, you might find this essay insightful. It's possible that his interruptions are a way of showing interest.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:09 AM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Different people have different conversational habits. Academics (I grew up around them) and performers (I am one, as are most of my friends) do often tend to have a more "hold the floor" conversational style than other people, and academics often have habituated modalities of expression that can come off as "lecturing" (or "pontificating" if one is being less kind) to those unused or intimidated by this style. This is in contrast to other styles of conversation in which people feel the parties have an obligation to wait and proactively provide conversational space for their counterpart(s). And other concepts abound. Much of this is cultural/habitual according not only to things such as regional and ethnic custom, but as described above, things like career field, peer groups, etc. The problem is that each person's style feels "right" and "correct" and "natural" to them, and probably wors just fine in most of their interactions. More importantly, opposing styles are often perceived as wrong, annoying, impolite, tiring, etc. For every "wait your turn and give a turn" type who is offended by a "hold the floor" type who won't let them get a word in edgewise, there is a "hold the floor" type who is frustrated by a shrinking violet "wait your turn and give a turn" type who doesnt seem to have the confidence to hold up his end of the conversation. Both parties should ideally recognize these traits and try to compensate for them, but this is harder than it seems. Among my performer friends, I am considered someone who doesn't talk about himself all the time (an unfortunate tendency in performers), but among my non performer friends I frequently feel like I've talked way too much. All of the foregoing is to say that you seem to be blaming your FIL for this clash in conversational styles and expecting him to do all the accommodating, but it ain't necessarily so. Ideally you'd like to try to meet in the middle. My experience is that "hold the floor" types are usually more aware of this trait and more willing to make an effort to modify the style in certain contexts (whether successful or not) compared to "wait your turn and give a turn" types, and this s evidenced in your expressed unwillingness to try to step up your conversational game.

As for the other issue, you have to know the golden rule: your husband can criticize his family members as much as he wants, but you can't. And vice-versa. I'm sure your parents have their flaws as well, but I bet you wouldn't like it if he made snide complaints about these flaws all the time.
posted by slkinsey at 7:10 AM on August 30, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I have a number of friends who talk like your FIL, and it makes me crazy (also, they are all dudes). For a long time, whenever they interrupted me, I would say, "Please don't interrupt me," "Excuse me, I was talking," etc. ("Please let me finish" is a maybe more polite, but also less powerful, alternative.) This was pretty effective and it called them out, which is good - people like this need to know that polite, respectful people don't behave this way in conversation. On the other hand, it got really exhausting saying "Stop interrupting" 857857492 times per day.

So now I just keep talking. Someone asks me a question? I answer it as fully as I want to. If they interrupt me, I just keep talking. I don't increase my volume - usually I don't need to. Once they realize that I'm not going to stop, they shut up. (On the rare occasions when they don't, I just talk louder and louder until they're quiet.) Honestly I think this has worked better as a training tool than the more polite method.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:11 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Talking with an interrupter tends to feed on itself: you're frustrated, feel you have to respond immediately and talk fast during any break in the conversation, but then he interrupts, talks faster/louder because that's how interrupting works, and then you're louder/faster at the next opportunity. Dial it back. Force calm.
One strategy is to wait a few seconds after you're asked a question. Like the suggestion of responding with "Are you asking a question or are you being rhetorical?" having a full 3-5 seconds of silence before you start talking points out that he did, in fact, ask you a question. During that couple of seconds, he *knows* he's waiting for you to talk, and will be temporarily silent. (if asked, say "give me a second, I'm gathering my thoughts") Respond deliberately, slowly, clearly - as if what you're about to say is the most important thing that's been said all day. Hold up your hand in that kind of warning-off gesture about the time you've got your first sentance out, which will be about when he starts to open his mouth. Interject ("Ah! no! you asked!") if he makes a noise. Don't try to pontificate for 5 minutes, just try to own your full statement.
posted by aimedwander at 7:11 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My mother never never ever never never ever lets me get a word in edgewise or asks me anything about my life1 and treats others this way too. In her case, she's growing increasingly deaf and the monologues are a defense against her inability to truly converse with people, despite her hearing aids, special phones, etc. Truthfully, she's always had this tendency but now it's acute. It's a solid wall of sound and it's exhausting and frustrating.

In person, I've found it helps to use my hands more when talking and to help cue her that it's not her turn. For example, I'll put up a hand in the "Stop" position when she butts in or I'll make big gestures so she can see that I'm still talking. I look right at her so she can read my lips. When others are trying to say something, I'll listen with exaggerated attention. If nothing else, it gives me something else to focus on that also reminds me to be compassionate towards her. Any chance your FIL/MIL are losing their hearing?

1One exception, which is consistent: At the beginning of a telephone conversation, she asks where I'm calling her from because I travel constantly for work, but never why I'm visiting that city or what I think of it. I guess she just needs to visualize me with, I dunno, the Golden Gate Bridge or Mt. Rushmore behind me. Or something.
posted by carmicha at 7:21 AM on August 30, 2012

You're playing one game and your FIL another. Your game centers on conversations, on taking and giving, having respectful and mutually beneficiary interactions. Your FIL's game is about asserting one's competence and dominance, arriving at truths and solutions. Obviously the two of you are going to run in to trouble when you're playing two complete incompatible games.

Changing your FIL behavior is going to be difficult. Ultimately it could be easier to change yourself in some way because it's easier:
* give him the exact same treatment. Yes, ask him a question - preferably related to his domains of expertise - and cut him of. Better yet: don't even wait for him to say anything just answer your own questions. The purpose of course being that you want to make him aware of his behavior.

* Play his game. Figure out the rules of the game he's playing and play by them. Surely there are some people that he has actual conversations with, people he listens to. Figure out the dynamics of these interactions and copy them to the letter.

* Make it a mental game. Let your FIL hold his sermons while you play a game in your head that incorporates the bad things he does and uses them in a positive way. Every time he cuts off your husband? 5 points! He cuts you off? 10 points. Husband defends FIL? 50p! FIL says something outrageously inane and gets away with it, 100p and bonus star (collect 3 and get the Naked Emperor Badge)! To make things more fun, give yourself a treat when your reach a certain level. After a while you might find yourself enjoying the game, even looking forward to playing it.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:26 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some great advice on here, thanks people. Especially thanks to the people who know my pain!

Oh and I KNOW the shitty remarks to my husband are in bad form. And I have spoken to him about the situation in a rational manner, but he responds in the same way and we just dont really get anywhere. So I feel that those remarks are all I have in terms of power in the situation. But they're unconstructive I know. That's why I'm here guys.

MIL (who i am fond of) is not married to FIL though her husband is exactly the same as FIL and makes me just as crazy. FIL's partner is similar to him in that she never listens for more than about 7 seconds before interrupting.

I think some of the strategies suggested here about being assertive/light-hearted are pretty great. It's really useful to have scripts for these situations so you can break the habit of doing nothing and feeling resentful.
posted by saturn~jupiter at 7:35 AM on August 30, 2012

I love the give and take of a good conversation. I am interested in what people have to say. I enjoy exploring ideas with another. I am conscious of not interrupting. You know, basic human etiquette.)

Seconding Eyebrows McGee and everyone else who's said that this isn't universal "basic human etiquette," it's a very culturally specific model for a particular sort of conversational interaction. By convincing yourself that this kind of conversation (that also happens to be the kind you're good at) is the "right kind," and that any departure from that format must be a signal of personal disrespect for you, I think you're setting yourself up for failure in the keeping-your-temper realm.

Instead, you might have more luck enjoying these interactions if you try to view conversation as a form of ministering to your inlaws, a favor you do them in exchange for their love and support of your husband and your family in other ways. Truly, academia is a super lonely lifestyle-- even if your FIL is a well-respected senior person in his field, he probably spends most of his days alone in his office reading (or in a classroom reciting the same lectures for the 10th time to students who don't get it and don't give a damn). Depending on the size of the institution or the dynamics of the department, he might get to have conversations with actual people, who like him and are interested in his ideas, as little as once or twice a year, at conferences. Combine that with the loss of social sensitivity that comes with aging, and I can see where a certain amount of one-sided chattering might ensue when a good audience finally comes around.

If you respect your FIL in other ways, then try to be charitable in this instance and assume that his interruptions aren't his asserting dominance over you or minimizing your ideas; they're him bursting helplessly forth with what may be weeks of pent-up conversational energy of his own. Just listening patiently (and maybe asking some of those leading questions you're so great at) may not be as fun for you, but these are acts of human kindness and generosity to someone you're supposed to love (or at least like).
posted by Bardolph at 7:38 AM on August 30, 2012 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: (also I want to add, this is the ONE area of tension between husband and me, other than this we get along so great. It's our marriage's archille's heel.)
posted by saturn~jupiter at 7:40 AM on August 30, 2012

Instead, you might have more luck enjoying these interactions if you try to view conversation as Truly, academia is a super lonely lifestyle-- even if your FIL is a well-respected senior person in his field, he probably spends most of his days alone in his office reading (or in a classroom reciting the same lectures for the 10th time to students who don't get it and don't give a damn). Depending on the size of the institution or the dynamics of the department, he might get to have conversations with actual people, who like him and are interested in his ideas, as little as once or twice a year, at conferences.

This may differ widely according to institution and field of study, but based on observations of my parents (hard sciences at places like MIT and Rice), this could not be further from the truth. I recently attended a memorial at MIT for an old family friend and colleague of my father's: there were over 400 people there, and dozens told stories of their daily interactions with him and each other. It's clear they were highly social with each other.
posted by slkinsey at 8:07 AM on August 30, 2012

Just ducking back in with a metaphor: I really love playing Frisbee and catch, but am intractably bad at both of those. Various relations of mine, by contrast, are totally awesome at throwing and catching stuff. It's probably a little tiresome for an expert to play one-sidedly with someone who spends most of their time trotting around looking for dropped balls and can't really return them even when they're found... but on the odd occasions that I do end up in pick-up projectile games with said relations, I'd be sad if they made snide comments about my misses, took it upon themselves to try to improve my skills, then harangued their spouses on the way home about how painful it was to ever play with me. So I suck at catch, OK? If you love me in other ways, just chalk it up to the costs of doing business and try to find ways of hanging out that are more mutually gratifying.
posted by Bardolph at 8:08 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh and I KNOW the shitty remarks to my husband are in bad form. And I have spoken to him about the situation in a rational manner, but he responds in the same way and we just dont really get anywhere.

Okay, this changes things just a bit.

It's not clear what your husband does when you speak to him about this - you say he responds "in the same way," but I'm not clear how he DOES respond. Does he just shrug it off? Sigh and say "yeah, I hear ya," or something else?

Maybe a conversation about not feeling like you're being heard by him will help:
YOU: I really struggle when your father does [foo].
HIM: Yeah, I hear you.

YOU: Sorry, but I'm not really looking for sympathy here - this time I'm looking for help, and I feel like you're just dismissing me when you just shrug and say that. I know that you feel the same way - what I want to do this time is figure out how we can help each other cope. Otherwise I'm just gonna snark at you about him all the time and that doesn't help the situation, but that's more about me being frustrated because I'm trying to talk to you about it and it doesn't seem you're listening either.

HIM: Oh. Okay, what did you need help about?

YOU: Well, maybe if you could [get me out of the conversation if I give you a high sign/back me up a bit more when I'm trying to get a word in edgewise by saying "dad, I think saturn~jupiter wasn't finished talking"/distract him so I can talk to your mom/take him aside to talk to him about this/whatever you want him to do] that would be a start, how do you feel about that?
And you go from there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:15 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice upthread, so I just wanted to add that my mom has a similar problem with my dad's parents. They interrupt her, they forget what she was saying, everyone just talks at each other and nobody listens, or remembers if you were in the middle of saying something, no matter how important it was (this is not an age thing either, this is the way it has always been). Lots of people in my family have ADD as well, which definitely adds to the interrupting and terrible short term memory.

However, my grandparents are wonderful, interesting and attentive people who can be good listeners when I visit them one on one. When I mentioned this to my mom, she realized that in the 25+ years my parents have been married, she has spent very little time with them alone.

Have you spent a lot of time conversing with your in-laws one on one? Sometimes people are very different in group settings than they are when all their attention is focused on you, and it might be a bit easier to say "do you mind if I finish this thought before we move on to what you're saying?" While it might not make the group conversation less irritating, it might make you feel like they care about what you have to say a bit more and less stifled.
posted by inertia at 8:34 AM on August 30, 2012

It seems remarkable to me how many people seem to assume that their own conversational style is the "correct," that saturn~jupiter's in-laws should change their style to suit her's, and that there is some onus on saturn~jupiter's husband to help make this change happen. I find it especially interesting to note that the people with the lowest level of insight into the ways that conversational styles differ and the fact that other styles might not mesh with theirs are the "wait your turn" types. For the most part, people who tend to hold forth and be more aggressive conversationalists at least tend to have some awareness that others might not like this style and usually would like to make some effort to tone it down in certain contexts (this is easier said than done, of course).

It beggars belief that anyone would think that responding to someone with a different conversational style by saying "I stopped listening, I thought you were talking to yourself" and flouncing away puffed up with righteous indignation was anything other than horribly rude. I wonder what Eyebrows McGee would think if a conversational counterpart said, "so, are you going to step up to the plate and contribute to this conversation or do I have to do all the thinking for us? I'm going to go over there where maybe someone has enough confidence in their opinions to share them."

These differences can sometimes be trying, and especially when it involves someone that you have to spend time with. But adults figure out ways to adapt without expecting the other person to do all the changing, and certainly without expecting a third party to get the other person to change. You know who you can change in these situations? Yourself. That's about it. The chances that saturn~jupiter in-laws are going to change because of some strategy of conversational shaming is ludicrous. All she will do is offend her in-laws, and either drive a wedge between her husband and his parents or herself and her husband. Or both. You think you're going to get Mr. saturn~jupiter's parents to change? Good luck with that. How many of us have been successful in getting our parents to change lifelong ingrained behaviors?

I see this as not all that different from a person who comes from a midwestern family where no one ever raises their voice marrying into an east coast Italian-American family where arguments around the dinner table are a regular occurrence and everyone gets over it as soon as its dropped. This would be challenging, of course. But would we really be recommending strategies for the midwesterner to get her in-laws to stop raising their voices? Somehow I doubt it. Rather, we might be saying that it would be important for the midwesterner to learn to roll with raised voices when visiting those in-laws, and it would be important for the east coast Italian-American to learn not to talk argumentatively with a raised voice with visiting those in-laws. I would suggest that a healthy dose of this outlook would be useful in the OP's situation.
posted by slkinsey at 9:15 AM on August 30, 2012 [10 favorites]

I think I understand where you are coming silinsey, from but I do not get the reading that the FIL is just an agressive conversationalist. If the convesational style is different I would lable it as "priviledged white male mansplaining it to you". Several times the OP mentions the FIL asking a question and then immediately cutting her off. I think his attitude, that he is the only one "right"and only one worth listening to, is the main problem, of which the symptom is verbally cutting off those lesser than him (women, his son). Even the most agressive conversationalist (and I have known a few!) are capable of sharing a conversation - unless they truly have no interest in what the other person has to contribute. I do agree that the OP can change her contribution to the dynamic, but it is also reasonable that an adult can ask another adult that communication styles be modified by both parties to meet in the middle.
posted by saucysault at 10:53 AM on August 30, 2012

Interaction with FIL is one issue. You may be surprised to know that "pontificators" might actually be grateful if someone actually asked a question about the thing they were discussing. Think about that a bit.

Someone upthread imagined a conversation as a game of catch, like tossing a frisbee back and forth. Sure. But that's not the only way a conversation could happen. Sometimes thoughts intertwine like the threads of a rope, all of them paying out in the same direction. Sometimes conversations are spitwads shot at the wall, and the object is to see which ones stick and which ones fall. Your style--the one to which you've grown accustomed, and with which you have some skill--is not the only style.

Take a dense hypothetical: You may not like the idea of a man excercising his virile manly prerogative of domination (if that's how he comes off to you), but then, he may not like the idea of a mere woman having original ideas (although it may be a mistake to characterize his viewpoint at all, never mind in the uncharitable way I've done here). Your perceptions of his rude behavior may not be engendered only by his behavior, but also by what you've come to expect from a conversation. Would it help if you believed he was not being rude to you intentionally? Perhaps not, but it might give you another way to look at what he does.

The trick is to overcome style problems and see if the topic is worth mining. You may get lucky, and find out that he's isn't as intractable as you think he is. Of course, if he's the flaming asshole, conversationally speaking, that you paint him to be, then all is lost and you might as well stay home, remain silent, or go walk the dog.

Boogerflicking has been suggested upthread. Sure. Verbal combat. Somebody wins. But boogerflicking's what you get back, and it encourages one-upmanship, which often leads to bad places, where words are said that cannot be recalled. If conversation is your goal--as opposed to having the other person be quiet and listen to your opinion--surely you can come up with a scheme that works to that end.

The other thing, snarking to hubby about his parents: a product of frustration. Why hold his feet to the fire over something that's not his fault? A couple of suggestions have been made as to how to have a conversation with him. You seen to be headed down the road with him that you travel with the FIL. Not a good sign. You might examine your percieved skills to find out how come you can't seem to deal with him about this. You obviously believe a solution exists that you've not considered. That seems like a good thing to me, as most of my issues turn out to be brick walls only because I can't think around them in a useful way.

My wife's aunt comes to mind. She and her daughter (a woman in her mid-40's) come over for cards regularly. She often will ask me a question, then interrupt me before I finish the first sentence. Or, her daughter will decide to change the subject while I'm in the middle of a sentence. I take this to mean that they've stopped listening to me. Sometimes this pisses me off, but I usually lose interest in enlightening them any further. I take it as significant that they don't seem to think they are being rude. I don't really know what they think they are doing at times like these, because I've never asked them. I envision some sort of circular little dance that doesn't really accomplish anything, and to tell you the truth, I don't think my stories, or views, are worth the wear and tear that making an issue about Auntie's conversational tactics would engender. That's to say that I don't thinks it's worth it to me to tell them what I think, which has nothing to do with my own evaluation of my excellent thoughts.

Except for being conversational cripples about anything that doesn't involve recipies and their little dogs, Auntie and her daughter are very nice people. Now and then I mention to my wife that talking to her aunt is a lot like conversing with one of our cats, but I don't try to make an issue of it.

Anyhow, back to paragraph one. If you can step around your outrage, try to engage the pontificator by asking him questions--catch him between clauses. This is a sort of non-condescending judo that he will find endearing, and in fact will encourage him to want to know more about what you think.
posted by mule98J at 11:03 AM on August 30, 2012

But I don't know what to do! I seriously don't know how to make it different! How do I break this pattern???

You work on stopping caring. They are your inlaws. Only a small fraction of people who have inlaws have ever said, "Yay, I want to have long thoughtful conversations with my inlaws!" I don't want to have long thoughtful conversations with my own parents, let alone expect my husband to want to talk to them.

Think of spending time with them like going to the dentist. No one wants to go to the dentist, but people suffer through it and when it's over they think, "Great, I don't have to do that again for x more months." All you have to do is be polite. Smile and nod. Just ignore the rest of it.
posted by crankylex at 11:39 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

My father-in-law used to be like this. (He still would be, I think, if he were in good health.) My mother-in-law just talks - I've seen my partner put the phone down, walk away, and come back without her ever noticing. I find it helpful to go back and forth between them and take lots of breaks. My FIL feels like no one listens to him, so sometimes I give him that gift, just letting him talk. When I can't handle it anymore, I go do something else.
posted by linettasky at 9:19 PM on August 30, 2012

Best answer: I asked a similar question here recently. I have a friend who, when I'm talking about something, always interrupts me and starts talking about how SHE does that too or HER son does that too or SHE experienced something similar. She's a good person, though, and I like her a lot, so I asked people here what to do and got some very good advice.

Basically, when she starts that shit, I'll very sweetly say, "Wait, I wasn't done yet," or I'll hold up a finger and say "Hold that thought." It actually works! Whenever I do it, she says, "Oh, I'm sorry." Sometimes I don't even need to say it- she'll realize it on her own and say, "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you." I've trained her! Sounds like I'm joking, but it's true. I did it often enough that now she's aware of it and is trying to change her behavior.

Might not be as easy with your FIL, who sounds like a complete jerk, but I would just do it every time. Be nice when you say it, smile, but do it every time. Eventually he might learn something- and even if he doesn't, as least you'll be heard, you'll get to actually finish a sentence, and he will be made aware of his boorish behavior. Look, things couldn't get much worse, right? Give it a try, what have you got to lose?
posted by shelayna at 2:16 AM on August 31, 2012

Best answer: So, you've got a lot of great answers about dealing with your in-laws - now what about the snarky remarks to your husband?

I would suggest this:

Spend some time figuring out what purpose those snarky comments serve. Do they make you feel heard? Do they feel like a bid for your husband to validate your feelings of intense frustration? ("Oooooh, I HATE those non-conversations with your dad! I'm totally normal for feeling that way, right? RIGHT?")

If you can get a sense of what you want from your husband in that moment, it might give you a way to ask for it directly. Sometime when you have NOT recently been to visit the in-laws, you could say to your husband, "I've been feeling bad about the snarky comments I make to you when we see your folks. I end up feeling so [thing you're feeling] and I think what I'm really needing is [thing you're wanting]. It seems likely that you need some release or appreciation or something, too, after spending time with them. Do you think there's a way we can give each other a good boost afterward? Because I really need something, but I absolutely do not want to hurt you in order to get it." And maybe you'll find something you can do for each other that will help you both feel a bit restored after a trying time - even something as small as saying "AAUGH! I am SO glad I get to just be alone with you now!"

And while you're talking about it, it would probably be good to bring up this bit, very specifically and directly, with your husband: "It enrages me almost more seeing him do it to my husband than when he does it to me..." That's a lot of additional anger you're taking on, there. I completely understand how enraging it is to see someone mistreat someone you love, but your anger is probably part of what builds your frustration to the point of the snarky comments - you're watching your husband not stand up for himself, and so you want to get in the middle and make his father listen, but you feel like you can't do that, so you feel unable to really support the man you love, and - UGH. It might actually really help to say, straight out, to your husband, "I SO want to support you when he does that to you. But I don't know what I can do. What can I do? Can I squeeze your hand to let you know that I would love to hear what you have to say? Can I send you silent empathetic glances of support? Is there anything that would actually feel supportive to you - and also help me feel like I'm not being completely useless?"

Two other quick thoughts:

And I think to myself, why can't I just endure it a few times a year and be nice about it? Is that so hard? ... I know that I should change the dynamic, I know I'm being a whinger, that I shouldn't be a victim, and I should take responsibility and stop complaining about feeling powerless ...

I find I can handle things much better when I completely separate "should" from my feelings. For me, "should" is for behavior. You feel angry. You feel powerless. You feel stifled and frustrated and probably a lot of other things besides. You feel what you feel. In my experience, telling myself to stop feeling angry or hurt or sad or frustrated just makes things worse, because now not only am I frustrated, I'm also ashamed of not magically being happy about being mistreated.

You feel how you feel. The question is, how do you want to respond to that feeling? You've said you don't want to keep making snarky comments to your husband. So your next steps are to figure out what you can do to promote that behavior. Your feelings might change or they might not, but you can choose what you do about them.


When I'm around someone who's doing something that's driving me up a wall, I can sometimes lose that edge of frustration by pretending it's something they genuinely cannot control. "Wow ... FIL is actually completely incapable of listening, or of caring about what anyone else thinks? That must make things really hard for him! I bet he misses out on a huge amount of information that way! And he hardly knows a thing about his son. How sad! I'm so lucky I'm able to share and listen."

Good luck!
posted by kristi at 3:58 PM on August 31, 2012

Sorry to be late to the party.

Next time you're going to visit with FIL, have a pocket full of nickels. Every time he interrupts you, hand him a nickel. The first time you hand him a nickel, he'll be baffled and you'll have to explain that he just interrupted you.

I'm guessing the second time you reach to your pocket he'll shut up.
posted by claytonius maximus at 3:34 PM on September 1, 2012

Response by poster: @shelayna and @kristi - thanks for really great and helpful input here!

kristi - you're so right that I have some "unmet need" when I'm being snarky to husband. I want him to validate and share my frustration. But I CAN go about getting that need met in a mature way that doesn't hurt him. Thanks for pointing that out.
posted by saturn~jupiter at 3:45 PM on September 5, 2012

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