in-laws and class differences
November 2, 2005 10:16 PM   Subscribe

Just got done with an extended discussion of how weird my family is, after we decided to go to a buffet for thanksgiving rather than get together with the in-laws. Part of the problem is that my side of the family is "economically disadvantaged" and spouse's side of the family is middle class.

It's also difficult to delineate between what are class differences, and what are just annoying individual quirks.

How do I tactfully teach my wife about class differences, so she can approach my side of the family anthropologically rather than antagonistically? How else do you negotiate these sorts of differences within an extended family?

Some behaviors that I think are class-based:

1. keeping multiple crappy cars and rotating them when one breaks
2. never making commitments until the day before
3. talking endlessly about plans for "moving on up" but never acting on them
4. involvement in various get rich quick schemes

the thing is, we're not exactly loaded, but I've been to graduate school and my side of the family doesn't have a lot of post-secondary education.
posted by craniac to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've learned to embrace my trailer park upbringing, and to consider it a colorful character trait. There's just no other way. You can either be embarrassed by it, or you can be entertained by it.

I personally waited to find someone who would share in my entertainment, before I married him.

My husband's mother is a professor and his father is the head of a department at a renowned medical facility. My mother lives in a trailer, my father lives in a slum--both of them have degrees, and my mother actually has a master's, but they're still poor and kind of trashy. Fortunately, my inlaws are genteel enough not to mind. And so, after years of getting over myself, am I.
posted by padraigin at 10:21 PM on November 2, 2005


Can I ask what it is about "never making commitments till the day before" makes it class-based (in your opinion) rather than just flaky (at best) if not inconsiderate of others (at worst)? I'm not trying to argue, I'm genuinely curious.
posted by scody at 10:25 PM on November 2, 2005


My current S.O. comes from a seemingly-classy family (while I come from pretty trashy roots), but one generation back, and his dad's dad's family works down at the garage for a living, while my dad's dad designed bridges. So my advice is to help your spouse find the white trash inside her, that's aching to get out.
posted by muddgirl at 10:41 PM on November 2, 2005


How do I tactfully teach my wife about class differences, so she can approach my side of the family anthropologically rather than antagonistically?

I'd've thought approaching them anthropologically would only be a slight step up from antagonistically (unless I'm misunderstanding your use of the word?). Anyway, the only answer I can think of is this: try exposing her to more palatable upper-working class people first, then find some slightly more trashy folk, and so on until she can accept the fact that your family are scallies, but essentially decent people.

I'm joking, of course, but from the phrasing of your question, your wife is at fault, not your family, and I'd be inclined to tell her to stop being such a snob. I can't think of another reason why she'd care that your family have crappy cars etc. (Apologies if I'm wildly misrepresenting your other half, just going by the info in the question...)

scody: if you're living hand to mouth, or close to, it might be tricky to commit to, say, a plan that involves travel if you don't know whether you'll have the cash to pay for travel on the appointed day. (I've had this problem with friends who appeared to be inexcusably rude by not turning up, turning up late, etc. until I worked out they just couldn't afford to get to places as quickly as I could.)
posted by jack_mo at 11:46 PM on November 2, 2005


what it is about "never making commitments till the day before" makes it class-based

Your friends want to go out for drinks, but you don't know if you'll:
a) Have enough money to do so
b) Have a means of transportation that will get you there that day
c) Be offered some overtime at work which you need to take instead
d) etc.

All these lead to waiting as long as possible before saying you can commit to this particular social event.
posted by falconred at 12:27 AM on November 3, 2005


My wife's family is so far different from mine that we could be a sitcom.
Mine are stuffy British folk, while hers are good-timin' Texans.
For the most part, when we get together with her side, I've learned to just grin and bear it when it gets too much.
It helps that they're all genuinely nice people, so it's not hard to overlook the differences.

I'd say just point out beforehand any quirks your family has beforehand (for example: being forewarned that every plate at my wife's relative's BBQ was a "family plate" and you're liable to have someone grab something from your plate at any time, helped out a lot when cousin Joe stole my chicken wing) and hope they all get along.
If they do get along, then all the little peccadillos won't matter one bit.
If they don't get along, then nothing you can say or do is going to bring the classes together.
posted by madajb at 12:31 AM on November 3, 2005


It's also difficult to delineate between what are class differences, and what are just annoying individual quirks.

Could this be because all class differences are just annoying [group] quirks?

I've read your post three times and am still not certain who is whom in your scenario but I take it the problem is that your wife does not wish to go to your family's house (her in-laws) for Thanksgiving. Welcome to married life. There are times I look forward to visiting my wife's father and other times when I shudder at the thought.

Your wife either has to find a way to cope with a visit to your family or you have to bend to her "needs" -- in this case going to a Thanksgiving buffet. (Coping can be things like making certain she has a way to have time alone during the visit, that the visits are not too long, that she has a time a place to gripe openly to you before and after, etc.)
posted by Dick Paris at 4:57 AM on November 3, 2005


Response by poster: A few clarifications:

1. We're going to a buffet because trying to get the in-laws to commit to a particular place and time for thanksgiving 2.5 weeks in advance was like pulling teeth. That, and we're sorta exhausted from moving and other stuff. Also, my brother gets annnoyed when he is asked to do preparation work along with everyone else, instead of just sitting on his butt and watching the women folk do all the work, etc. Apologies for the incoherence, I'd just spent five days trying to broker a thanksgiving dinner, and four hours talking about why my brother backed out at the last minute. And yes, there is more than class issues going on here.

2. When I said "anthropologically," I was thinking of the following--I work in Utah, and some times peoplel come here from out of state and rail bitterly about the vast mormon conspiracy, until it consumes them. Others (while not ignoring the problems presented by Utah's monotheism) take the attitude that they are in a foreign country with a different culture, and try to learn something about the culture, albeit with some bemusement.

3. I don't know if snobbiness is a vertically-organized attitude, insomuch that my in-laws rejection of my wife's middle-class values (going to school, planning a career) is just as insular and arrogant.

4. The commitments my family is unwilling to make in advance have little to do with their available cash flow. Their flakiness is probably just resistance to not being in control, I suppose. My family regularly comments on how planning things too extensively (i.e. at all) is uptight, anal-retentive, and all of the other words they use to describe anything middle-class.

5. My wife doesn't care that the family has crappy cars, etc. She is mostly bugged by the things that impact us directly (house is so cluttered we can't hold family functions) and stymied by her inability to talk about the things she normally does with her own family and home town friends (work, future plans, etc.) I'll tell her, though, that Metafilter thinks she's a snobby bitch, that'll probably smooth things out!

Metafilter: letting you know your wife is a bitch, but in a *helpful* way

The fact is, there are some strong tensions because insecure older brother has been bouncing from crappy job to crappy job for ten years, while deriding me for going to school for over a decade and wasting my life. Now that I've landed a decent job (making less than a good plumber) and he's still living in a shotgun shack, he has to find some other way to express his resentment.

I guess I'll make her read Paul Fussell until something sticks.
posted by craniac at 5:24 AM on November 3, 2005


*resists urge to hug craniac*

I have a family situation sort of related to this (two families, very different cultures), and what strikes me about your post is how *hard* you are working to make something happen that no one else around you seems to be as passionate about.

You're going to need their cooperation for this to work, and right now its clear that you're getting nothing but resistance. Think about why that might be other than "class difference". I find myself wondering what they would have done for Thanksgiving if you weren't trying to "broker" something. Certainly this is not the first Thanksgiving they've faced. :-) While I understand why spending Thanksgiving with your family is important to you, it also seems a little like (from your post) that you're trying to impose somethng on them that they simply don't want to do (i.e. go out to eat on Thanksgiving rather than stay at home) so that's why you're getting a lot of resistance.

You need to decide what is most important to you. If spending T'giving with your family is the thing, then you need to maybe let go a little and not try to drag them so far outside their comfort zone, and just try to get behind doing whatever it is that they would normally do. Or, another option would be to just say "We're going to be doing X, and if you want to join us in doing X we'd be thrilled. Here's what you have to do to join us:"
posted by anastasiav at 5:40 AM on November 3, 2005


Response by poster: Thank you for the supportive message. I couldn't even get them to meet at someone's house to eat. The buffet thing was just our fallback plan, something as stress-less as possible for us. No other family members are coming, I think. The problems are probably due to more than class differences. Ok, move along, nothing more to see here.
posted by craniac at 5:58 AM on November 3, 2005


Don't take this the wrong way, but why do you have to spend the holiday with your inlaws? Why can't you and your wife just have a nice holiday by yourselves? It sounds like you've been through a lot -- can't you plead exhaustion and say 'we'll see you at Christmas?'
posted by Atom12 at 6:55 AM on November 3, 2005


Response by poster: Oh, we've pleaded exhaustion at this point. In the past it's been a tradition, since we all live about 30 minutes from each other. Part of it is that my mom has a very Norman Rockwell view of life, despite the fact that she works full-time at Walmart and has arthritis and really doesn't have the energy and time to do a big thanksgiving spread.
posted by craniac at 7:21 AM on November 3, 2005


Response by poster: I personally waited to find someone who would share in my entertainment, before I married him.

Yeah, but when I met my wife I was out of state, and she had long dark hair and looked like Counselor Troy from Star Trek: The Next Generation. What am I supposed to do? Huh? Huh?
posted by craniac at 7:23 AM on November 3, 2005


Data point: I experience the same situation as your wife when I'm with my in-laws, even though our class differences (at least in terms of money) are not that great. My family manages to be simultaneously more intellectual (we have post-graduate degrees!) and more home-spun (we grew up on farms!) than my suburban-bred, college drop-out in-laws. We confound them from every cultural direction, and the results are never pretty.

What has helped is finding one or two members of my husband's family with whom I share a bit of common ground; as much as I may dread Christmas, knowing that Grandma Jane and Aust Suzie are going to be there makes it easier. I don't know how much time your wife has spent with your various relatives, but maybe you could convince some other branches of the family tree to come for a holiday, to see if she finds anyone she gets on with.

Also, your situation is weirdly reminiscent of the film Junebug.
posted by junkbox at 7:53 AM on November 3, 2005


Best answer: it's not your job to make everyone happy.

one of the most important things i've learnt so far in life is that i'm allowed to say "ah, fuck this" and walk away from an impossible situation.

don't know if that helps, but it sounds to me like you're trying harder than you need to. if you back off, someone will take up the slack. the world won't end. etc etc.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:01 AM on November 3, 2005


The great thing about AskMe - if you wait long enough, someone will say what's in your head, except better. Anastasiav and Atom12 have expressed a lot of what's occurred to me.

Personally, I sometimes get a little unsettled that every holiday needs to be a family/friends thing; I would like to spend some of them, occasionally, in a just me-and-my-guy mode, with our own personal traditions and celebrations.

But in terms of your larger problem... If both you and your wife could get together on an agreed concept of enjoying your families (and other shared peoples!) in the spirit of just relaxing and appreciating the cool, unusual, entertaining, refreshing stuff about them, while accepting some of the other not-so delightful characteristics as the price paid, I bet you would (could? might?) have a fairly fulfilling relationship with both sides.

It does seem to me that you are trying too hard to create a dynamic that doesn't actually exist*, and that as a result you might be missing a really fun, albeit more casual, more idiosyncratic experience that is more organic and comfortable. It may be a question of what you imagine as an ideal relationship, and what the relationship naturally tends to be.

Just as in romance we cannot successfully choose a person who is pleasing to us in some ways, and then try to change the other several things about them that don't either meet our preconceived notion of what we want, or (sometimes) our very real, true and insistent needs... We also can't reformat our families to fit into some template we've determined is optimum, or even, sometimes, get them to fill in some of the emotional holes that families are meant to soothe and balm.

The best thing we can do with families is to constantly use our increasing age and wisdom to see more clearly what is dear about them while accepting with more grace those areas in which they've failed us (because, know it or not, we've failed them too!) and learn to avoid those intersections where we find it impossible to meet.

(Also, 'cuz I know you're feeling a little hurt and exposed right now, do remember that a lot of the stuff that's said here may sound a little like preaching at you, but it's mostly just the restrictions of the medium - having to put a lot of information into very few words.)

* On preview, this now seems like it might be more of your mom's not-really executable ideal - that you are maybe kind of trying to achieve for her? (sorry if I'm way off!)
posted by taz at 8:08 AM on November 3, 2005


A couple more things:

1. You're going to a restaurant to eat. That means you'll have to spend less time with them since there's no prep/cleanup/naps in front of the tv. Thank God for that.

2. I don't remember if it was here, but about a week ago someone posted a message about marriage, saying in effect "it's not about the man versus the woman, it's us against the world." Keep that in mind. It sounds as if you and your wife have a united front against the world. It's just that you're torn when it comes to your inlaws. That's okay. You don't have to like everybody. I'm in a somewhat similar situation as you and it means a lot to me when my wife will say "I can't stand it when my family does ____. That bugs the shit outta me. But I can't change them. I just expect it." Acknowledging these things to your spouse will probably go a long way and hopefully, over time, will enable her to understand where your family's coming from. Doesn't mean she'll accept or embrace it but at least she'll understand.
posted by Atom12 at 8:26 AM on November 3, 2005


Oh, we've pleaded exhaustion at this point. In the past it's been a tradition, since we all live about 30 minutes from each other. Part of it is that my mom has a very Norman Rockwell view of life, despite the fact that she works full-time at Walmart and has arthritis and really doesn't have the energy and time to do a big thanksgiving spread.

If I were you (and not knowing your full circumstances, but I think I did catch up above somewhere that you've recently moved...) this is what I would do.

(This plan only works if your siblings don't live with your mom any longer)

I would (that is, you and your wife) plan a simple but lovely Thanksgiving dinner for three -- you, your wife, and your mom. (You don't mention your dad in your posts anywhere, but if your parents are still together obviously this will be a simple dinner for four, not three.)

Don't go crazy with food, but do something very simple and traditional -- maybe even see if you can get a pre-cooked Turkey from your local market (like they do with rotisery chickens in some places). Maximum of three side dishes (whatever is traditional in your family), and couple of nice pre-made pies or other desert type things. Set a really nice table, don't scrimp on the flowers and candles, and make it a day to give thanks for what a great mom you have. Make sure she doesn't need to do anything -- maybe even have one of you drive over and get her and then take her home.

Invite your siblings and extended family to join you for desert only at a specified time -- say 6pm. Tell them its fine if they can't tell you they're coming until the day before, but then make the effort to call them and simply ask them if they can come on the day before. Accept whatever the answer is -- either yes, or no. If they question this set up, tell them that you wanted to make sure they were free to spend part other parts of their day with other family members, but wanted to create a way for you to see them as well.

Spend some time with your wife creating a list of questions she can ask your mom that will spur conversation where they have common ground -- I always find a list of questions about "So, what was craniac like as a baby/kid?" and "Tell me about craniac's great-grandparents (ie your mom's parents" work well, because it shows an interest in family history and can get a person - especially an older person talking about their past and suddenly you have some common ground.

What I'm saying with this plan is if the whole "Norman Rockwell" thing is as important to you as it seems to be (I'm like that -- I'm forever trying to create a holiday for myself that I never had as a child and that probably never actually existed at all for anyone), then create it on your terms, and in your space. I also think your wife might be more comfortable with your family in smaller 'bites' - I know it works that way for me.

Good luck, and don't let this ruin your holiday. Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks for what we have and value, not about fixating on what we don't have.
posted by anastasiav at 8:50 AM on November 3, 2005


Response by poster: It does seem to me that you are trying too hard to create a dynamic that doesn't actually exist*, and that as a result you might be missing a really fun, albeit more casual, more idiosyncratic experience that is more organic and comfortable. It may be a question of what you imagine as an ideal relationship, and what the relationship naturally tends to be.

Thanks to all for the nice suggestions. Originally my intent was to chill out my spouse regarding my family, through the judicious use of class-education, but the whole thing is much more complicated than that, and you have all given me a nice perspective.
posted by craniac at 10:18 AM on November 3, 2005


I wish I knew more about your specific situation, so I could give you some real advice on things that work in our family. Despite my parents' education (and my grandparents are highly educated as well), my upbringing and my family dynamics are just so diametrically different from my husband's that it was, in the beginning, a real source of tension. We've really done a great job of working through it though, and we get along great with our inlaws and they even get along beautifully with each other (minus my dad, who gets along with nobody).

If you have any questions about specific concerns that you'd like to bounce off of someone, feel free to drop me a line.
posted by padraigin at 11:24 AM on November 3, 2005


Atom12: I'm in a somewhat similar situation as you and it means a lot to me when my wife will say "I can't stand it when my family does ____. That bugs the shit outta me. But I can't change them. I just expect it." Acknowledging these things to your spouse will probably go a long way and hopefully, over time, will enable her to understand where your family's coming from.

This is sage advice.
posted by scody at 11:38 AM on November 3, 2005


Best answer: I do the class education thing a lot where I work since I tend to ramble on and on about the digital divide and then spend hours trying to teach poor people how to use computers. It's different teaching poor people [at least the ones I work with] how to use technology because of some of the issues you've pointed out about how to get your parents to do something different. Me and my SO spent a long time grappling with the awfulness that can be family + holidays [I have two sets of parents, he has one, my relatives are loud and crazy, his can be quiet and brooding, my family values having a good time, his values togetherness etc etc etc]. I think the way I make it all into a teaching moment is to talk about it when we're NOT PLANNING A HOLIDAY, using some of the same tactics people have talked about

1. it's you and your wife against everyone, when in doubt, side with your wife [unless she's batshit insane which it doesn't seem like]. Me and my SO had trouble, because he always thought I was putting down his family when I was just frustrated at not being able to plan things with them. Once it was clear that wasn't the case [through lots of non-holiday time contact and talking about it] things cooled down. I also opt out of some family holidays with him because what his family has in mind is just not what I want to be doing. We alternate, most years. His family is always a little miserable when he's not there both xmas and Thanksgiving and they're just going to be. My family is always happy when we make it there for either holiday, either because I've set expectations right, or I'm older and we're a little more adults in this case.
2. that said, sometimes these problems suffer by one or the other side deciding that they have cornered the market on normal, and parents also think this. Therefore deviations are seen as freakish or whatever. So, your wife can't think of your parents as bad versions of her parents and vice versa. There's a lot of shame and resentment and whatever built into class issues. Since everyone thinks that poor people want to be rich, sometimes this means that higher classes will assume that people in lower classes are wrong where they are right. This is annoying and probably needs to be addressed directly.
3. You are not your parents and your wife is not her parents. Maybe she's concerned that you'll follow in their tracks [teaching moment about classmobility in the us perhaps]? Maybe you're concerned that she'll make you leave them behind? Maybe when she's mad at them you feel she's mad at you? In any case, make sure you're focusing on the issue and not thinking you have to defend your parents because you're genetically like them. Defend them because they're your parents, but also keep in mind that you left home for a reason.

In any case, it seems like other people have given you good advice about making holidays work, but the "fuck em, I've had it" attitude from andrew is one that I've employed to my benefit a few times. People get all worked up and you and your wife need to figure out what you want [not what you want other people to want] and move forward from there. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 1:57 PM on November 3, 2005


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