How do I change my SO's behavior on matters of good manners and attitude? Should I?
December 6, 2012 7:09 AM   Subscribe

How do I change my SO's behavior on matters of good manners and attitude? Should I?

I know this is a touchy subject, so I'll try to tread lightly...

I'm in a relationship with a great guy. We have been together for almost three years, lived together for two and a half.

My problem is some of the differences that come from our upbringing. This is understandable, since he grew up in a poorer family with a single mother from another country than we are living in now. However, it raises some tensions both with my family and in our home life. I'm not from a rich family, but I was taught manners from a young age by my parents.

Here are some examples to give you context:
- He does not thank the cook after a meal (me, my mother, etc.)
- He does not say thank you after receiving gifts or eg. after a vacation we went on with my parents where they paid for everything, he did not thank them
- When he gets something for himself (a drink, snack, etc.), he does not offer to get the same for anyone else
- He does not greet new people when he meets them. He will often just stand there, or maybe give a small nod or wave, instead of shaking the person's hand and introducing himself with name.
- He is not very open to new experiences. He never travelled with his own family when he was younger, but I like to and have always done so. When I suggest things I always have to go through the initial phase of "ugh, no" as his first off-hand response. Then I can work on him, try to convince him, and then when we finally go he is excited about it and enjoys it. (This holds true for most things – travels, going places in the city, restaurants, any "new thing" basically)

On the one hand, I don't want to be correcting him like he's my child – he's an adult. On the other hand, I think that he really would be better off learning this stuff. Take note that none of this is because he is actually ungrateful, unhelpful or boring – it's just that it never occurs to him to do this stuff because no one ever told him to. He is very good at other stuff like sharing household duties. He is very sweet and nice, and my family likes him a lot – they just comment to me privately on this particular behavior.

So, MeFites, what do I do? Suck it up or "teach" him – if so, in what way?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
However you end up dealing with this issue, I would keep this in mind because it is absolutely correct: I don't want to be correcting him like he's my child – he's an adult.

Don't approach this like you're training a puppy not to pee on the rug. That would be demeaning and harmful. Come at this as a partner, as equals, working together to improve yourselves. Sit down with him and talk about it. Let him know how you feel. Don't mention that your family has picked up on it, that may just end up embarrassing him. Don't just passive aggressively "teach" or "correct" him -- learn this thing together.
posted by fight or flight at 7:21 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only way to do this is by removing the "manners" part entirely from the conversation. This is about being considerate toward other people, not holding a fork the right way. Conflating the two when dealing with this is counterproductive. So some strategies:

He does not thank the cook after a meal...

"I really like cooking for you, but I would appreciate it if you let me know if you enjoyed it" OR (in private) "please let my mom know how much you liked her dinner; she would really appreciate that."

...after a vacation we went on with my parents where they paid for everything, he did not thank them

"I'm going to call my parents to tell them 'thank you' for the trip, can you hang out for a sec so I can give you the phone too?"

...he does not offer to get the same for anyone else...

If he's clearly going to the kitchen, just ask him for what you want: "Hey, as long as you're in there, can you please grab me a soda?"

He does not greet new people when he meets them.

Are you there as well? If so, make the introduction: "Hey Frank, this is my boyfriend. Boyfriend, this is Frank." More thank likely, Frank will prompt an introduction and boyfriend will follow. This is a generally courteous thing to do when introducing two people who do not know one another anyway.

When I suggest things I always have to go through the initial phase of "ugh, no" as his first off-hand response.

If he immediately gets negative: "I would appreciate if you did not immediately shoot down my suggestions for doing things. Just let me tell you about the fun stuff we can do and then you can decide..."
posted by griphus at 7:26 AM on December 6, 2012 [27 favorites]

Also: "This is understandable, since he grew up in a poorer family with a single mother from another country than we are living in now."

This is neither a good excuse, nor a good way to think about such things. Social status, income, and immigration status have absolutely nothing to do with how gracious or considerate a person acts, and don't ever try to frame it that way unless you intend to seriously offend him.
posted by griphus at 7:31 AM on December 6, 2012 [53 favorites]

Husbunny is an only child and apparently he was brought up to believe that he is the only person in his universe. He doesn't mean to be impolite, he's genuinely clueless. I accept this about him and he acknowledges that this is an issue for him.

I prompt him in a low voice. "Get the door for the lady in the walker."

If we go out with my parents, and they pay, I say, "Thank you so much, that was terrific." Then I kick him under the table so he can chime in.

When I cook for him, I'm not looking for thanks though. That's my gig. He's usually pretty good with feedback, "This is GREAT! Seven thumbs up!" So no complaints there.

I recommend sitting down with your BF and saying, "Hey, there are some social niceties that you seem to be flaking on. Let's work out a system where I can give you a signal and you'll know that you need to do something." He should be okay with it, because who doesn't want to be nicer?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:32 AM on December 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

Not thanking your parents for the vacation = way out of line. So yes, work on him so he doesn't burn bridges in life, just tread lightly and not passive-aggressively. It would probably be good to show him through example. Something like, "my parents paid good money and made a lot of effort planning this, we both need to thank them so we don't hurt their feelings". That way the focus is on their feelings and not his failure of common courtesy.

On preview: good suggestion from fight or flight.

PS: being poor has absolutely nothing to do with being inconsiderate.
posted by Neekee at 7:32 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wish you every happiness, with or without your current LISO. I love my wife and I'm glad I'm with her. In our relationship, very, very (vanishingly) few changes of the nature you're looking for have occurred without first going through years of frustration. Sometimes your SO changes. Sometimes you just drop it. I don't know what I would have done early on in our relationship if I'd known how hard that was going to be.

There was a time when the purpose of dating was for two people to get to know each other well enough to decide whether they wanted to spend more time with each other as they are, and/or whether the changes and compromises necessary to bring about a deeper relationship were worth the time and bother.

Now it seems that there's a (very brief) period where you determine that someone punches your ticket in certain ways, and then you move in with them, and then you start trying to change the things that would have driven you away from them if you had gone through a process as outlined above, and it's much harder to come to the determination that you're not really that great for each other.

(Before you think I'm judging or hating on you, I am here to tell you, I did this with my wife.)

Please just remember that whatever advice you get here, however sound and well-intentioned, could result in no change in your boyfriend's behavior or a change for the worse in your relationship. And you could spend years (with or without him) wondering why you bothered.

posted by Infinity_8 at 7:37 AM on December 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

I can only chime in about meeting new people. If he is with you, which seems apparent since you noticed this, it is generally the responsibility of the person who knows everyone to introduce those who don't know each other.

Or what Griphus said.
posted by Max Power at 7:39 AM on December 6, 2012

From the way you describe it, it sounds like this isn't just cultural but also maybe a personality issue. But if it were me, I'd frame it culturally. I'd ignore the difference in economic background and focus on the different-country aspect. Just tell him that obviously different countries have different cultures, and you were sure he'd want to know about some of the accepted customs here, because you know he wouldn't want to be taken as rude.

FWIW, I think the last example you mentioned is not a manners thing. If it bothers you, by all means address it, but maybe at a different time. You don't want to overwhelm the guy.
posted by troywestfield at 7:46 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some of the stuff you mention is legitimately a big deal. Not thanking somebody for an all-expenses paid vacation is really inconsiderate. Likewise, not being open to new experiences and shooting down your travel suggestions by default sounds like something that needs to be nipped in the bud, because it will only get more annoying over time.

Other behavioral "issues" you mention are normal and the fact that you bring them up as problems implies an extreme hypersensitivity on your part. For example, not offering to fetch anything for you when he goes to the kitchen? It's completely reasonable of him to assume that you have the active agency to ask him for what you want when you see that he's going to the kitchen. Furthermore, is it more efficient for him to ask you if you need anything every single time he goes to the kitchen - even though most of the time you won't need anything - or have you simply take the initiative to ask on the few occasions that you do need something? Your expectation that he ask if you need him to fetch something whenever he goes to a room that is five seconds away would create a subservient dynamic that seems weird and unhealthy. Likewise, if he's a reserved or shy person, expecting him to be actively social when he meets people could be an imposition. Being an introvert is not a defect, and it does not need fixing.

I think that what you need to do is pick your battles. Focus on trying to get him to change the big things, and simultaneously adjust your expectations so that you are less hypersensitive to trivial things that you perceive of as problems.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:01 AM on December 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm a polite person for the most part, but I can be clueless and tone deaf at times, and people who have noticed this have had good luck with me by framing it in the third person. It helps, because every family is different, just like every culture is different, and so if you're going to help him fit into your family/culture, you can't come at it from the perspective of "you're doing it wrong."

In your case, you have observed him not thanking your parents for a meal they cooked, so the next time you're headed for such a meal, say "oh, I almost forgot to tell you after last time: everyone in my family thanks the person who prepared the meal, so you should thank my parents tonight." If he gets defensive, don't engage, just say "last time you didn't, so I'm just reminding you."

For not offering to get drinks when he gets one for himself, you can model the behavior (by doing it yourself, which I'm sure you're already doing) but you can also be politely explicit about your needs: "dear, while you're up, can you please get me a drink too?" After a few requests, he should start asking, if he's a thoughtful and attentive guy who learns from experience (like most human beings, right?)

In fairly short order, he should develop a solid sense for how he is expected to behave with you, your friends and your family. If he doesn't, it is worth sitting down to talk about it, but I recommend trying this first.
posted by davejay at 8:06 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Social status, income, and immigration status have absolutely nothing to do with how gracious or considerate a person acts

Keep in mind that "considerate" is effectively arbitrary and is just a set of social norms and graces that are taught within a cultural context and taught by having those precise experiences before. So, yes, it is understandable that, given his background from a foreign country and totally different socio-economic milieu, he would not have the same social behaviors associated with middle class Americans. I mean, yes, not thanking your parents for the vacation is way out of line, but from his perspective, he's hardly ever been on a vacation in the first place, much less had someone pay for him to take a vacation. It's like people who never go out to a restaurant not knowing how much you should tip.
posted by deanc at 8:09 AM on December 6, 2012 [19 favorites]

Oh, and regarding this from Wolfdreams01:

"Your expectation that he ask if you need him to fetch something whenever he goes to a room that is five seconds away would create a subservient dynamic that seems weird and unhealthy."

This is a perfect example of the cultural difference that can exist with families. Like Wolfdreams01, my family and I consider it a bit weird and unhealthy to attend someone constantly like a servant; we reserve the "can I get you...?" questions for people who are infirm, busy with something, or otherwise unable to take care of themselves in the moment -- but I'm in a relationship with someone who expects that constant level of explicit consideration, and I recognize that sometimes we have to blend in with the culture we're working with, so I try to engage at that level. Sometimes I do the blending, sometimes she does, and that's a big part of how people make relationships work.
posted by davejay at 8:11 AM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

of course, I'll emphasize the point that you also should be doing some cultural adjusting; he's your partner, not your dog, right?
posted by davejay at 8:12 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you considered looking into why he doesn't do these things? I'm sure he's very aware of it, and it sounds like you've brought it up several times.

Based on what you said, I'm willing to be that he didn't thank your parents because he wanted to avoid confrontation. He sounds like a very shy and introverted person. So instead of telling him "fix the problem", you should work with him to help him with these issues. I very much like griphus' suggestions because in each example you guide your SO to the preferred action, rather than telling him that he's doing something wrong.
posted by nikkorizz at 8:18 AM on December 6, 2012

The OP said:

When he gets something for himself (a drink, snack, etc.), he does not offer to get the same for anyone else

I didn't take this to mean that she wants him to ask her if she wants anything every time he goes into the kitchen in their own home. I was envisaging something like, they're hanging out at a family picnic, and he goes and gets himself a drink without offering anybody else one, even though they've been getting things for him. More of a dynamic where everyone is looking after each other politely, but he only looks after himself. That would bother me, where the first scenario wouldn't. I do think people would consider it a bit selfish and rude.

(I could be wrong: maybe the OP can clarify?)
posted by Salamander at 8:31 AM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think you need to get over this.

First off, your family is in the wrong here. You don't give gifts or make dinners or do nice things for someone with the expectation that you'll be appropriately thanked. That's not how it works. And while his Lack of Outward Gratitude might* be a faux pas, it is more of a faux pas to point out his sub-optimal behavior. So next time your family comments to you privately about his Lack of Outward Gratitude, I suggest you say "Mom, do you do nice things specifically so that you will be thanked? I always thought that generosity was its own reward."

Further, it sounds like you two actually have a reasonable system for the one thing that might be an actual incompatibility - trying new things. It sounds like he is initially hesitant, and you address his concerns, and you end up enjoying yourselves in the end. It sounds like you're just trying to short-circuit the "addressing his concerns" part, and while I understand from a practical standpoint that it is tiring, I think that "addressing his concerns" is an integral part of what makes the equation work. Just asking him to get over it isn't going to work. One way to do this could be to have a Regularly Scheduled Mystery Adventure. Dinner at a new place. Travel to see something new. A new outing. Something new. Make a list of things to choose from. And you get to alternate picking something from the list. You can even give each other A Single Veto which should be used carefully since you only get one.

*Setting up an "appropriateness" standard for someone's gratitude is a really bad way to go because it is such a moving target. For my grandmother anything short of a handwritten note is an inappropriate show of gratitude. Most of us in this day and age will roll our eyes at that kind of rigidity. But where is the line drawn? Is a verbal "thank you" sufficient? Or does it have to be accompanied by some hyperbolic language? And what about someone who instead chooses to repay the kindness without ever linking the two kindnesses? Who is to say which of these is a faux pas and which is not? And ultimately, the only thing we can control is our own expectation.
posted by jph at 8:41 AM on December 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Ruthless Bunny has got it. You can sit down with him and point out that he is missing out on some important social cues and that it is affecting his social life, whether he is aware of it or not. Then you have to ask him if he is interested in making a change, and if so, if he would like your help in making those changes. Anything less than an enthusiastic positive response is going to end up with you coming off as nagging, him being resentful of it, and both of you being frustrated. Yes, I do speak from experience.

Think hard on this issue, because we all tend to get lazier the longer relationships go on, and we expect the other person to just accept us as we are. That's fine when it's just the two of you. But if you get to a point where kiddos come along, you will find yourself being the only one in the house leading by example and teaching good manners. Imagine the comments you will hear from your parents then. Trust me, resentment builds real quick in that situation.
posted by vignettist at 8:49 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I suggest you say "Mom, do you do nice things specifically so that you will be thanked? I always thought that generosity was its own reward."

I think people prefer to have their social intimates and guests be pleasant to be around, and that includes adhering to social graces. At issue is that being around the boyfriend isn't a pleasant experience because he makes everyone feel uncomfortable or unappreciated. I did defend the idea that he simply hasn't learned these social graces because of his background, but certainly his behavior is going to have an effect on everyone else that interacts with the couple.

(and no, being an introvert is not an excuse for not shaking someone's hand, looking him in the eye, and saying, "Nice to meet you!" when introduced)
posted by deanc at 8:53 AM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

First off, your family is in the wrong here. You don't give gifts or make dinners or do nice things for someone with the expectation that you'll be appropriately thanked. That's not how it works. And while his Lack of Outward Gratitude might* be a faux pas, it is more of a faux pas to point out his sub-optimal behavior. So next time your family comments to you privately about his Lack of Outward Gratitude, I suggest you say "Mom, do you do nice things specifically so that you will be thanked? I always thought that generosity was its own reward."

Gratitude has been and always should be a two-way street, especially with something like this. The assumption is that the family took them on an all-expenses paid vacation for their happiness. If someone makes you happy, then you thank them for it. It doesn't matter if it's someone holding a door open when your hands are full, or taking time and effort to provide a tasty meal, or paying for a nice vacation. It is in no way more of a faux pas to suggest that someone who enjoyed another person's efforts express thanks for that, and it's rarely so when the action was not enjoyed.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:20 AM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I love Ruthless Bunny's approach of treating it like you know that he's a good, sweet person who intends to be kind, and that there are some social/cultural practices that he could stand to learn (or learn to do when prompted).

I like this approach particularly because you can be pretty direct ("You're not doing X, and it's a problem for me") without suggesting that there's something deeply wrong with him. In other words, you're not saying, "You don't appreciate others' generosity," you're saying, "When you don't say thank you after receiving a gift, the giver gets the impression that you don't appreciate it, but I know that's not the case. Want me to signal/remind you to say thank you until it becomes a habit?"
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:34 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would approach the situation by 1) reminding myself that my partner is not a mindreader and 2) communicating clearly what would make me happy so he knows what makes me happy/unhappy. For my husband, he will remember to do things that make me happy but telling him to conform to a social norm that he isn't familiar with is not as useful.

I'd make sure to tell him that you love when he thanks you for slaving over a hot stove, why it makes you happy and why it makes people sad when that doesn't happen. I wouldn't turn it into a lesson, just say what you really feel. You being happy is a better motivator than him needing to conform.
posted by dottiechang at 11:28 AM on December 6, 2012

It sounds like you're asking about me a few years ago. Model the behavior and he'll probably learn. Also, put him in more social situations slightly out of his comfort zone. He'll get more comfortable with them and will improve.

Except for that last thing. It hasn't improved in almost 15 years, so you're probably going to be living with a lack of pre-event enthusiasm for a long time. Some of us just don't really like all the stuff involved with going places even if we enjoy the activity itself once we're there. I prefer to sit at home with my pets and my toys if given the option. It's harder to be disappointed by a known quantity. A lot of us are that way.
posted by wierdo at 11:34 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I take issue with changing him, you can move him in the appropriate direction with cues and clues but he's the one that will decide when to change. Practice will help. But, being a guy, he will not respond to subtle cues, so a swift kick or leading statement may be your best signal.
posted by ptm at 11:36 AM on December 6, 2012

In my family, gratitude is expressed somewhat differently. Part of this is that we go to extreme lengths to avoid talking about money. It would be impolite to point out who is paying for vacations, and that includes thanking them. Even thank you cards would avoid pointing out how generous a gift was, and instead about how thoughtful it was that they took time to celebrate [x] with you.

We don't thank each other for dinner. It would imply that we mostly showed up for the free food. We thank each other for their company and a lovely evening.

I think you need to avoid considering your behavior as 'manners', and more as a social norm. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be thanked after making a nice meal. But there is something wrong with just expecting him to pick it up. Don't tell him what to do. Tell him what those manners mean to your family.

Conversely, it's a lot to go on a vacation with your SO's family. I hope that your family is being appropriately gracious about the situation. The only reason he is there is because he cares about you. The nice dinners and good company and paid hotel rooms are all secondary to the fact that he's there because you place a priority on your family and you asked him to make the effort. If family isn't important to him, it's easy to see that he could feel that he's the one making the sacrifice and deserving of gratitude.
posted by politikitty at 12:30 PM on December 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think you've had tonnes of suggestions on the manners piece, just on the "new ideas get shot down" thing. I am - God help me - somewhat like this at times.

I'm somewhat of an introvert, in that I will almost always pick staying in over going out, reading over socialising etc. I'm also a little bit on the anxious side (not disorder or anything, just tend to be a bit... emotional litmus), and can get quite focused on what I'm doing right now.

Because I don't enjoy socialising (in abstract, really, more than practice), and feel like it can be a chore sometimes, if I'm stressed out at work, or very busy, or concentrating on stuff, when my partner proposes something to me, I can be quite down on it.

You don't have to do this, and nor does my partner, but set and setting make a big difference as to what my reaction to a proposed outing/event will be (especially if there are a large number of strangers involved).

Sunday night - just before a week of work, when I'm preoccupied with what I need to do, and sad at my weekend's passing - is a terrible time to propose stuff. Friday night - when I'm trying to recover from a week of work and absolutely don't want to spend my weekend on more "work - is likewise a terrible time. Middle of the week can be good depending on how stressed I am and what the nature of the proposal is. Saturday mornings are great, and proposals with a really long lead time (so I can get "comfortable" with the idea, and prepare myself so I know it's coming, my energy levels are appropriate etc) are great. Also, don't ask me to do stuff, when I'm thinking about or doing other stuff.

Gawd, that makes me sound like a totally precious arsehole - I'm not, I promise! But I think my partner totally understands how I tick in this regard, and I suspect she makes a concerted effort to give me the longest possible notice she can, framed in the positive light, so I don't go around dreading social "obligations" or activities I wouldn't pick myself. And why would I? Like your BF, I generally enjoy myself whatever I'm doing.
posted by smoke at 3:23 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

This could totally be a cultural difference. I have Russian friends who say that it would be RUDE to thank close friends or family members for anything. Basically to them thanking someone signifies that you think it is possible that they might not have done that thing. So a child thanking a parent for food is understood to mean something like, "I know you might have chosen not to feed me today, so I appreciate that this time you have decided to." This is insulting to the parent. Similar implications hold for thanking significant others for doing nice things for you.

If you have never had a direct conversation with your partner about this, you really should. He might actually not realise there is an expectation of thanking people in these situations in America. Or he might realise and still feel uncomfortable about doing it because of those implications, in which case you can jointly decide whether and when he needs to get past this feeling.
posted by lollusc at 4:10 PM on December 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

One possible tack you could take: start by just asking him to interact with your family in the specific ways you have in mind. Most of your examples seem to feature your family, so it might make sense to present it as "here's how my family does things, and I would really be grateful if you would say 'thank you for the fine meal, Mrs. AnonyMother' at the end of dinner. It would mean a lot to me and my parents. I'll lead off by saying 'thank you for having us, Mom and Dad,' and that will be your cue." Train him on one behavior at a time; after he gets it right on two or three occasions, add a new behavior to his repertory. When he does things the way you've asked him to, privately praise and thank him later.

If he learns a set of behaviors/manners in the context of interacting with your family, then down the road you can ask him to extend those behaviors to other situations: "I think this cocktail party we're attending is a good place to switch on your AnonyFamily manners" or "When we have dinner with the Browns tomorrow night, could you do the AnonyFamily thank-you routine? I think they'll like that."
posted by Orinda at 9:26 PM on December 6, 2012

I might be a bit like your partner: I don't always think to say thank you for things that I really do appreciate. I realise this now - because my partner is a bit like you and does say thank you. The nice thing is that his example is bringing out the best in me: I'm starting to learn to thank people for their generosity.

In other words: keep being polite and he may pick it up naturally.
posted by SuckPoppet at 6:51 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was exactly like your SO in my first relationship, and still am to a degree (I'm still not always sure what is expected and by far the hardest part is remembering to do it).

I know for me it's related to my upbringing - I was raised without many opportunities for thanking people, and strongly encouraged to be independent and not expect anything from anyone. It still feels awkward for me to accept things from other people which makes the thanking process awkward as well. I'm also a bit shy and in situations where I'm not sure what to do, I'll often default to doing nothing, since I still have a hard time accepting completely that any non-action can be rude! Maybe he has a bit of that perspective as well.

My first serious bf helped me with a lot of this by 1) telling me that it was an issue, since I was completely unaware that I was being rude and 2) constantly reminding me, discreetly, "say thank you" etc. There was also some shaming involved that was not all that helpful (you're so rude all the time, why don't you have any manners, my family is mad at you for being rude, etc). But the biggest things are knowing what appropriate behaviour is (for your family - not necessarily universal!) and then remembering to do it.
posted by randomnity at 7:41 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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