Family Dynamics
January 10, 2022 5:11 PM   Subscribe

I tried to do a nice thing with my family and it somehow turned into a low-key fight. This happens all the time, and I don’t understand why. Is there a name for what’s happening here? What are some strategies for dealing with it?

I’m in my mid-thirties and visit my family for a couple days about once a year, as that’s about the max I can handle. Just about the only thing we like to do together is cook and eat. So I printed out a bread recipe I was excited to try (Ken Forkish’s overnight white) and figured it would be a nice easy communal activity.

I presented it as “my friend made this a couple weeks ago and it was delicious, I want to try making it myself, if anyone wants to help it would be great to make it together.”

Right away my family was skeptical about the recipe itself (not much yeast, long proof). Not only that, but the yeast they had turned out to be 6 months expired, so it didn’t work (dough didn’t rise) which made their skepticism seem justified. Upon discovering the dough hadn’t risen, things rapidly turned into squabbling/heckling:

Relative A: “See, I told you this recipe was weird, it needs more yeast.”
Relative B: “Yeah, and I’ve never heard of proofing overnight. I’ve made lots of bread and I only proof for a few hours.”
Relative C: “This [completely different] recipe is way better, you should just make that instead.”
Me: “Why don’t I go to the store and get some fresh yeast so we can try again?”
Relative C: “[Favorite store] has the cheap yeast, but [favorite store] is closed.”
Relative A: “Don’t bother. Let’s just add some more yeast and bake it as-is. I don’t want to deal with this anymore.”
Relative B: “I knew we should have put it in the fridge to proof instead.” (???)
Relative A: “What’s the deal with this recipe? If you want bread, I can show you how to make bread.”

Reader, it was never about the bread. I wanted to have something nice to do together to build connection, because we only see each other once a year at best. Instead what I got was “Questolicious has weird ideas about making bread, let’s all correct Questolicious.” Not an all-out fight, but raised voices and everyone talking over each other and being annoyed about this bread project. No one even noticed that I was trying to participate in family life rather than Grey Rocking which is my standard MO.

There are smaller examples of this all over the place. Some conversations that took place earlier:

Me: “Wow, flights for mid-January are really cheap right now.”
Relative B: “What date did you fly here again?”
Me: “December 19.”
Relative B: “If you want the cheapest flights, you should always fly on December 25.”
Me: [wait a beat] Okay.

Like, that feels like 1) a non-sequitur because I was talking about flights in the future not the past, 2) judgmental that I hadn’t considered that, 3) oblivious that I do actually celebrate Christmas, 4) micromanagey?

Relative B (affectionately referring to me): “Has my kitten come downstairs?”
Me: “Yes, your kitten is here!”
Relative B: “Why aren’t you meowing then?”
Me: [no response, change the subject]

It’s not like we usually make a game of meowing or anything, and I sure didn’t feel like meowing on command here.

I don’t know what the name for this is. Argumentative conversational style? Micromanaging? Advice-giving? Controlling? Attention-seeking? Negging? Steamrolling? Hijacking? Chronic misattunement?

Whatever it is, it makes me feel like it’s impossible to have a conversation with my family. All 3 relatives do this to some degree. It feels like my words and intentions are being twisted, that if I start a conversation about thing A then 30-60 seconds later we could be arguing about some unrelated thing F, that everything I say or do is wrong, even the most innocuous things like wearing a coat. (We didn’t have time to go shopping, I made sure to wear other coats in future visits, it never came up again. Just as well.) I can hold my boundaries just fine, mostly by not telling my family much about my life, but I can't seem to hold a conversation.

It feels like nothing is safe from this “suddenly we’re fighting over nothing” feeling, and I don’t even understand why it’s happening. I just want to be on the same page, like, ever, and that seems… impossible?
posted by Questolicious to Human Relations (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
(coat link broken fyi)

Possibly these people are just buttholes, but I wonder if it's bickering/banter as a bonding style?

My sister was visiting recently and my husband and I were discussing something- a long standing "conflict". My sister suggested a compromise- very logical- and I explained "sometimes we like to have something to fight about." She explained she felt it was an actual fight and my BIL said he felt the same way and was even a little stressed! We aren't angry with each other (if we were it would be cold silence and heated discussions in private) but for someone who doesn't enjoy that conversational style it was stressful, so my husband and I knocked it off.

Do these people only do this to you or is it how they interact with each other and sometimes they include you?
posted by freethefeet at 5:31 PM on January 10, 2022 [10 favorites]

Mod note: Fixed link!
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 5:40 PM on January 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

My in-laws do this. Whole lot of them.

Like, they can't do a simple task without everyone bickering and dickering, because heaven forbid people just sit at a table without 14 conversations about who sits where. They also can't process information without hopping in with unsolicited advice non-sequiturs.

I think it's a cross between being high maintenance, having an oppositional conversational style, and a lack of social graces. Plus some people just need shit to bitch about.

You're probably being singled out because you don't live there, so your bread project seemed like an easy target for the thrashing.

I view them as batting around a toy, and I refuse to play along.

"I'm just making conversation, would you like to talk about something else?"

"Ok, I don't think bickering about bread was what we had in mind....should we do something else? Bickering about whether we're bickering about bread isn't fun, either. I'm turning in, bye."

Just let them know you won't give them material, and you won't argue with them.
posted by champers at 6:01 PM on January 10, 2022 [9 favorites]

Reader, it was never about the bread. I wanted to have something nice to do together to build connection

My thought was along the same lines as freethefeet's. Without more context, it seems like this is just their way of being together, and they probably don't understand why you're not joining in. It was never about the meowing/cheap travel date/recipe criticism; for a lot of people this is how you invite interaction and build bonds and a sense of being on the same page. It's not my favorite style, but it's pretty common.

(The meowing thing reads to me like a cute corny joke, though maybe the delivery didn't support that interpretation.)
posted by trig at 6:02 PM on January 10, 2022 [8 favorites]

On reading the linked question, this definitely seems like a case of cross-cultural miscommunication. Whether you want to learn to see things from their side (to understand more of how they see what you see as fights or criticism) is up to you - it's not an easy project - but it might be rewarding. At the very least, you could try to think of it as "I don't understand why they're saying this thing, but I'm going to decide to respond as if what they actually mean is 'I love you' or 'I care about you' or 'here's something I want to share with you'". A Princess Bride "as you wish" kind of thing, except less sexy. Or maybe a cat leaving you dead mice on your doorstep as a (bizarre to non-cats) sign of affection would be a better comparison. It sounds like you're all kind of leaving each other dead mice.
posted by trig at 6:18 PM on January 10, 2022 [12 favorites]

Ha, my family can be like this.

The answers to this recent question may be helpful to you, and I'll highlight my two answers there as well.

TL;DR: Ignore half of what they say, try to keep things positive, and change the subject often. What they're doing is super annoying but they're probably not doing it on purpose or even aware that they're doing it.
posted by mekily at 6:19 PM on January 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

This tends to happen when I try to cook with my mom. She's a very experienced cook and has VERY specific opinions about The Right Way To Do Things.

I also love cooking but I don't really do things her way.

I've finally figured out that the only way for us to cook together successfully is to work on completely separate parts of the recipe that don't come together until the very end. That way we're both occupied, and we can chat while we're working, but we're not in each other's faces arguing about how to proceed.

Maybe something similar could work for your family.
posted by mekily at 6:23 PM on January 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

It sounds like by your family going on and on about these pointless things (how to make bread, the cost of flights, etc) it lets them satisfy their need to give an opinion without the risk of causing offence. Like "if I ask Questolicious about their work or relationship status that might take me into dangerous territory but if I just stick to stuff like bread or cheap flights then I don't have to worry about saying the wrong thing." Maybe it's something they always do, avoid talking about actual things happening in their lives and instead just giving strong opinions on trivialities.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:27 PM on January 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you have always been a target for family criticism, things that seem innocuous/corny/lighthearted/jokey to people who don’t know the dynamic will actually cut you pretty deep. Basically you are always at Bitch Eating Crackers level sensitivity, and you’re not wrong.

I have a sibling whose relationship with their parent is like this - no statement is ever neutral, it’s all part of a deep pattern between the two of them. Other family members saying “well [parent] and I get along fine, why are you so sensitive” is actually part of the dynamic that makes my sibling feel belittled and like they are never heard.

It sounds to me as if you are recognizing this pattern and seeking some confirmation that you aren’t imagining things. Please accept my confirmation if you need it that trying to get you to meow on command, disbelieving your neutral statements of fact (it’s a recipe! It’s in writing) and other aggressions are real and you have every right to disengage, however that looks to you.

As far as strategies, have a look through Captain Awkward’s archives. She’s pretty solid on family patterns and how to set limits.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:33 PM on January 10, 2022 [41 favorites]

the second & third little examples just sound like a dull conversation and a belabored joke, respectively. the kind of thing that will feel nasty if you have the interpersonal context and history to know what they mean when they say it, but not otherwise.

Right away my family was skeptical about the recipe itself

the thing about the bread sounds like they told you before you started that they didn't want to do it and/or they didn't think it would work, and you pressed on, and it didn't work. I-told-you-sos are pretty inevitable. they could have been nicer, but they also could have been firmer at the outset and just said No, we are not going to do this. going along while sighing and complaining is a semi-compromise that satisfies no one, but it is a semi-compromise.

doesn't mean they're not also all jerks. but boy I would not have any success trying to get any four non-jerk relatives to bake bread together together. (and how, exactly, can this be done together? enormous kitchen? or is it just one of you doing the baking and the others observing and commenting?)

so if you have had success in the past with this as a communal activity, that says amazing things about your cooperative abilities as a group. even if it is unpleasant for all of you to be around each other for very long.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:35 PM on January 10, 2022 [11 favorites]

With nothing to go on but what you wrote above, I'm wondering what the dynamics are. Are you the family scapegoat? Or do they speak this way to each other, too?

It's all talking down to you, and it's not healthy interaction by any means.

I suspect there are reasons you know what grey rocking is, and these people are likely part of those reasons. You're not likely to change the way they treat you by finding an activity you do together; it won't matter what it is, they'll tear it apart in the same way.
posted by stormyteal at 6:36 PM on January 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

Yeah, a bit of a fighty dynamic that I am guessing they don’t intend to be fighty. Though I have to say when I saw your bread plan I also had a hard time figuring out how it would be something to do together-I make no knead bread all the time and it’s like a couple one minute steps and then overnight, or baking. I think my family-and we are pretty into cooking together-would also be a little reluctant befuddled. If what you really wanted was to make them something delicious/show them a great new idea-totally get it. My mom prob would’ve been skeptical about it too-she kind of likes what she likes and isn’t really into trying new things which is frustrating and also just who she is. My sister is upset about it all the time-I just roll with it as one of mom’s quirks.
posted by purenitrous at 6:49 PM on January 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

I wasn't there but in transcript form this all sounds pretty normal to me? Your family was more interested in having something to talk about (the failure of the bread to rise) than making bread. Also, is your family Jewish and/or New Yorkers? This feels very characteristic of New York Jewish conversational style.
posted by phoenixy at 6:56 PM on January 10, 2022 [12 favorites]

I think this may be a cultural thing, I found the above exchanges kind of quirky and affectionate and charming (I am also a New Yorker). Here's how I interpret them:

Bread Incident: "We're trying to help with the bread and also chat about the bread! This is a fun family activity, figuring out the bread issue"

Airplane Incident: "I love you and am trying to save you money"

Cat Incident: "I love you and the cat and am chatting to you amiably"

I remember the coat incident, and I wonder if maybe this conflict you're perceiving is because of other, deeper conflicts rather than just the words of what happened on Bread Day?
posted by corb at 7:06 PM on January 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

The bread incident would probably annoy me a little. I think they were a bit insensitive but probably not deliberately cruel.

The conversation about cheap flights seems innocent to me. Hard to say for sure, but my guess is that "Relative B" was probably just making conversation when he said that the cheapest flights are on Christmas day. If I were there, I would chime in with a (true) story about a relative who flew into my hometown on New Years Day. She was literally the only passenger on the whole plane (this was 25 years ago). My story has no real relevance to the subject at hand, but it's just a way to join the conversation.

The kitten incident was a bit odd but also seems like an innocent attempt to make a joke.

I think that you and your relatives just have different expectations of how conversations work (though I agree that the bread incident could have been handled better by your family).
posted by akk2014 at 7:07 PM on January 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's hard to tell from the question whether this is a case of teasing/bickering being relationship-building and you're missing it, or whether it's a case of people being nasty with plausible deniability.

HOWEVER, even if this is teasing/bickering being relationship-building, I want to affirm that not "getting" that is not only OKAY, but it's actively alienating when you come from a more sincere culture and get dropped in a more sarcastic culture!

My spouse comes from a fairly direct and sincere culture (and beyond that, is non-neurotypical in ways that make sarcasm complicated for him). My family-of-origin is all-sarcasm, all-the-time. We engage in complicated but loving conversations of teasing and winding-up and low-key bickering, that my spouse hears as denigration and mockery. The bread and kitten conversations would just be my family taking the piss out of each other; the flight convo would be people who express care for each other via mockery trying to connect via anything-but-mockery and sounding like officious jerks; the coat conversation would be my mom being WAY TOO INTENSE about something that doesn't matter and we'd go along in the moment but mock her (to her face, obvs) for 20 years afterwards. (I had my toenails painted blue for my wedding, as my "something blue," and my toes were not visible under my dress, and my mom FLIPPED OUT and spent the entire week focused on my toenails, and therefore ignored lots of other touchy things, and we still tease her 20 years later for a) caring what my toenails looked like and b) being so easily derailed into caring what my toenails looked like.)

BUT AGAIN, this is not my spouse's cultural background, so my family-of-origin steps very lightly around teasing him. And while he initially tried to engage in teasing, his attempts often land very wrong, so he stopped. He DOES NOT GET IT, and that is okay! There is nothing wrong with that! And so he shrugs and decides that unless I tell him I'm upset, my family is just joking around in ways that don't make sense to him. And my family-of-origin actively avoids teasing him, because they know it's not how he bonds or builds connections.

If your family bonds by mocking/bickering, and that is not something you "get," either by background or brain chemistry or personality or experience, they should NOT engage in the mocking/bickering with you! And if you are a non-mocking/bickering type of person, you should try to be chill about their mocking/bickering. It requires a certain amount of grace extended on both sides, if it's merely a difference in cultural norms, bonding styles, or neurotypicality. And I want to affirm again that if your family is a teasing/mocking/bickering family, and that is not how you interact, they have an obligation to meet you halfway! You should try to meet them halfway too! That is how human relationships work! But nobody should be telling you, "Oh, that's just how we are, suck it up!" Something like, "Oh, that's just how we are, nobody's mad," might be fine, although ideally they'd add "... and we know that's not how you are and that's chill."

If your family is being giant jerks, none of this comment applies! If they're being nasty with plausible deniability, that is not remotely the same as bonding via teasing/bickering. And they probably know it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:07 PM on January 10, 2022 [13 favorites]

I wasn't there but in transcript form this all sounds pretty normal to me? Your family was more interested in having something to talk about (the failure of the bread recipe) than making bread. Also, is your family Jewish and/or New Yorkers? This feels very characteristic of New York Jewish conversational style.

Ha I was coming in to ask if it's possible that you are just, metaphorically speaking, the "normal" person on an episode of Seinfeld. It's definitely a very distinct kind of dynamic, and people outside of it feel like either everyone HATES each other or everyone hates THEM, which would be a pure shock to any of the participants.

But if you're very close with these relatives and have always felt unable to stand them that does suggest that for whatever reason, you're not part of the dynamic. It sounds like they think you ARE part of it, though, and are likely just as stymied by your responses as you are by their squabbling.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:09 PM on January 10, 2022

Best answer: So, you said the only thing you all like to do together is cook and eat. You have been thinking of this as "Food based interaction! Yes! To recreate good vibes, just add food!" But this is a great place to start getting a little more analytical than just that surface.

Can you think back to a time when you had what felt like a good interaction with them, cooking or eating or something else? What were all of the ingredients of that interaction? How did each person vibe with you, what made your contact with each of them feel good? Was it a certain topic or a certain mode of relating...?

Build a cheat sheet for yourself. Relative A is at their least annoying when they're being an indulgent grandparent. Relative B is endearing when they're egging Relative A on. Relative C is most genial and non-critical when they think they're are teaching me something. Relative D becomes very enjoyable to me when they talk about their career. And so on.

Try to relate to these people on the levels and subjects and contexts that you find them most tolerable. Do it on an individual basis, it's much easier than engineering a large group interaction all together (I doubt that even can be done!). Focus on having 1-1 moments of ease with each of them. The group will take care of itself.
posted by MiraK at 7:13 PM on January 10, 2022 [14 favorites]

I remember your coat question! This absolutely 100% sounds like New York/New Jersey Jewish/Italian culture. It is way more about the cozy communal feeling you get from noisy bantering than it is about whatever the actual topic is. It's almost like whatever you're actually saying doesn't matter. It's very rough and tumble and the reason nobody is being particularly sensitive to anyone else's feelings is they are just so sure that they don't have to be because everyone understands the basic premise.

Have you watched Couples Therapy on Showtime? If you do, there's an orthodox Jewish couple on there and the wife is the classic example of this. If you're not familiar with her style, you will wonder why the husband isn't more upset by her constant ranting and berating and in fact almost seems to like it. The reason is: He gets her. He understands that it's just her conversational style. But I'm sure that the average WASP from Minnesota is probably horrified by her. It's just a culture clash.

Apologies if I'm reading your question wrong--it's obviously hard to pick up the nuances of a complicated situation in a few paragraphs. But that's definitely what it sounds like to me.
posted by HotToddy at 7:20 PM on January 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

This is super familiar to me too. In my experience it's not actually that cozy or pleasant for the participants as they wonder on their own why they can't seem to get along. My armchair diagnosis of those people is a whole lot of undiagnosed & untreated anxiety egging each other on to ever more unscalable heights of perfectionism. Maybe that rings a bell. My advice is to just be loose & go with their flow, let them do what they're gonna do. I know it sucks.
posted by bleep at 7:29 PM on January 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

Going by your favorite it looks like this does not feel like Quirky Family Stuff but a real corrosive dysfunction that sucks the joy out of any interaction. Any group activity with these people will be weird and fighty and hypercritical, because that's who they are. Who even knows why?

You don't have to find ways to please them, just ways to get yourself through. They don't sound like they *can* be pleased, at least by you. That's due to whatever weird / awful baggage they are carrying.

You made an effort to reach out, it was rejected and spoiled, and that hurts. It sucks. You have a right to be angry and hurt about it.
posted by emjaybee at 7:29 PM on January 10, 2022 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you are the designated scapegoat of the family unit, because you are different, and please count me as another internet stranger giving you permission to stop trying to please people who are consistently critical and unkind to you.
posted by farkleberry at 7:31 PM on January 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

I’d say they’re trying to infantilize you and rope you back into the family in a subordinate position.

That 'kitten' business is flatly offensive by almost any reasonable standard, and if someone tried to get a kid of mine to meow for them with a manipulative trick like that, they would regret it.

If you are an unmarried 30 year old, I would wonder whether they have you in mind for the time-dishonored and thankless role of 'daughter or niece who helps everybody take care of aging relatives because she has no family of her own.'
posted by jamjam at 7:40 PM on January 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

jamjam is very close to my thought -- do you have family members who can never admit they might be wrong, OP?

Because my dad is like that, and so was my mom, and it basically killed any desire I had to talk to them, because all they ever wanted to do was talk over me and prove themselves ever so right at my expense.
posted by humbug at 7:47 PM on January 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just some guesses: they were overbearing / intrusive in childhood that didn’t really jive with your personality, you responded by shutting down / submitting / people pleasing / keeping to yourself. Now as an adult you’re wanting to connect with them in your style / on your terms and they. Just. Can’t.

More so you kind of want them to be something other than what they are. You want to feel connected. You communicate love by healthy boundaries and respect; they communicate love by getting so far into your headspace it’s like can I even breathe here. Also they probably task-focused on the cooking and wanted to Do It Correctly (and maybe didn’t really think it would be fun, it was more a chore you’d proposed) so they missed the bonding point entirely.

My suggestion here, since this happened to me recently: get in there and push back! “Guys knock off the fighting I just want to have fun with y’all! Give me what I want and play alongggggggg” Don’t worry about them being pissed off; I’m reading it like they’ll just… be ok with whatever you put out there and even if they’re miffed they’ll get over it quickly. Because they mean nothing by them being so emotionally expressive themselves. Tell them honestly but laughing “guys I came 500 miles to visit you, show me you love me by behaving for five minutes”

Like… my mother in law (also Eastern European) can be super pushy and I used to respond by just taking a step back and a step back and a step back until I was about to EXPLODE. But something changed this Christmas and I just spoke my mind. I just let it out. “I don’t know why you keep asking me because I already told you my answer. I’m not gonna change my answer. Do what you like but my opinion is X.” It wasn’t pent up anger, it wasn’t belittling it was just… honest. And you know what she totally rolled with it and I was like Huh. Is that all I had to do? This whole time. Just Show up with my honest reaction? It was way way easier and for the first time I felt like I belonged, like there was a place there for me too just as I am.

Might not be you. But thought I’d share just in case.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:48 PM on January 10, 2022 [26 favorites]

So in this case

Relative B (affectionately referring to me): “Has my kitten come downstairs?”
Me: “Yes, your kitten is here!”
Relative B: “Why aren’t you meowing then?”
Me: [no response, change the subject]

New response
Me: “because I don’t meow on command!”
Me: “ya gotta bring me milk before I meow”
Me: “cuz I’ve got a hair ball”

All of those responses say: no I’m not meowing for you, it expresses you setting your boundary.

In time it will be really natural and won’t be loaded with the years and years of standing down that you’ve done. You may just surprise yourself!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:53 PM on January 10, 2022

Response by poster: Yeah, lots to chew on here. I'm very familiar and at home in New York/Jewish conversational style, with all of the enthusiastic interruptions, and I actually love it. If that's what my family did, it would be great.

The difference is that the New York/Jewish style feels like uplifting "yes-and" energy, whereas everything in my family feels like shutdown "no-but" energy. As argyle sock wrote in another thread,

I might ask something like, “can you show me that magic trick you did last week?” and he would respond “that wasn’t a magic trick.”

And absolutely every conversation is like that.

I think PercussivePaul is on to something with the in-group/out-group idea. My family and I are Eastern European immigrants, and I think criticizing everything is part cultural, part coping mechanism (new culture sucks, they don't do things The Right Way), part personality (Relative B in particular always has to be running the show), and part neurodivergence. I'm the one who is most American, so while I wouldn't call myself the scapegoat as nothing really gets blamed on me, I'm definitely more of an outsider.
posted by Questolicious at 8:02 PM on January 10, 2022 [8 favorites]

The note above about “New York Jewish conversational style” is relevant here, I think - I think many interpersonal interaction styles and social cues are more regional than we tend to realize.

I’m from a small prairie town where politeness, chattiness and being open and warm and friendly and helpful are deeply held values. I find most “big city people” a bit rude and unnecessarily blunt. But I’ve had friends from Toronto, etc come to where I’m from and comment that it seems like a nightmare because there’s so much social scaffolding that goes along with every interaction that makes things take forever - the bank teller tells you about her day and your hairdresser wants you to buy her kid’s Girl Guide cookies and you have a conversation with the grocery clerk about how her dog’s healing because you were there five days ago and she told you it had broken its leg.

I thought people were being rude in the example you gave with the bread and I would have felt dejected and frustrated too. But maybe they thought they were trying to cut to the chase and make the recipe more efficient? And - charitably - maybe this was their way of helping you and showing they’re invested in doing activities you want to do?
posted by oywiththepoodles at 8:27 PM on January 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Are they doing this with each other or just you? It sounds like you're a punchbag and they don't respect your opinion. These are the types of people I run away from. You can't change their minds. They're used to dismissing you and their egos benefit from it. Take your power back by leaving them to it.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 8:43 PM on January 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Can you think back to a time when you had what felt like a good interaction with them, cooking or eating or something else? What were all of the ingredients of that interaction? How did each person vibe with you, what made your contact with each of them feel good? Was it a certain topic or a certain mode of relating...?

I think the common thread in the (vanishingly few) interactions that I've enjoyed with my family is that they initiated them, and the topic was about them too.

I was a bit afraid of this, but it does seem to be true that if I bring an idea to the table, they will first shoot it down no matter what it is, even if we later end up doing it. It has to be their idea, so that they're doing it The Right Way. There might be some Inception-like shenanigans I can pull here, to plant the seed of what I want to do in time for them to later suggest it like it's their idea, or more overtly ask them to approve my idea, so that it can fit the pseudo-anti-establishment-anti-cultural-assimilation narrative. But in the meantime, I just kinda can't initiate anything that I care about, which sucks.

Trying to interact with the group as a whole is indeed a losing proposition. Trying to engage 1-on-1 could actually, in the right carefully-chosen context, be fun and worthwhile. Thank you so much for this idea, MiraK.

Just some guesses: they were overbearing / intrusive in childhood that didn’t really jive with your personality, you responded by shutting down / submitting / people pleasing / keeping to yourself. Now as an adult you’re wanting to connect with them in your style / on your terms and they. Just. Can’t.

Yup, every word of this, spot-on.

“Guys knock off the fighting I just want to have fun with y’all! Give me what I want and play alongggggggg” “guys I came 500 miles to visit you, show me you love me by behaving for five minutes”

Yes, 1000% this is the playful-pushback vibe I need! Test runs start tomorrow :)
posted by Questolicious at 8:44 PM on January 10, 2022 [14 favorites]

My current take on family like this is that it’s a few days a year, what I actually want is to have a nice time with them, and I mostly just show interest in whatever they’re doing and ask for advice about it where appropriate (gardening: yes, career: oh hell no). I may not need or want the advice, but they feel cared about and we have a pleasant conversation. I can go back to being an individuated adult with my own interests and skills when I go home.

Your relatives sound to me like they’re trying to be helpful / familial, they just have no concept of how they’re coming across or ability to adapt to your style, you gotta meet them where they are or it’ll be a bad time. Try to assume good intentions. Build in breaks for yourself by going to bed early and getting up late, running errands, etc.
posted by momus_window at 9:21 PM on January 10, 2022

If these relationships are super important to you, I would stop trying to initiate activities and just try to ignore the combative styles and grey rock if they push you.

If not, just conveniently have a large work project or other trips planned when get togethers happen for a few years and then try again to see if it's more tolerable in less frequent doses.
posted by ananci at 8:32 AM on January 11, 2022

the thing about the bread sounds like they told you before you started that they didn't want to do it and/or they didn't think it would work, and you pressed on, and it didn't work. I-told-you-sos are pretty inevitable. they could have been nicer, but they also could have been firmer at the outset and just said No, we are not going to do this.

But why must making a loaf of bread become such a dang controversy?

The generous explanation is that this is a cultural style, and they show their love be being involved in the minutia of daily life, and this is the way they have of connecting.

The ungenerous explanation is that they're in the habit of pouncing on anything OP does and criticizing it.
posted by haptic_avenger at 8:46 AM on January 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: *leaping in recklessly without reading previous answers*

I mostly want to commiserate, because my mother is like this. A few years ago I asked if I could clip a recipe out of a newspaper she had on hand and boy, the scolding I got about how dumb it is to cook/bake when you can just buy muffins at Walmart ... at least I didn't cry until I'd left. Some people are just unreasonable. Some families are just unreasonable. You used the term "gray rock" and I recognize that this is an ongoing struggle. It is for me, too.

Yeah, I ... when I spend time with my family I grey rock, I am subdued, I try not to say much that has an opinion in it unless it's to agree with someone else's strong opinion or parrot something I know they already subscribe to. Anything personal I reveal is grounds for criticism. It's a chicken and egg situation - I'm keeping myself private because I already know their - her - judgment of me is based not on reality but on not knowing me well; they don't know me well because I try not to reveal anything - but it's the best I have.

I'm sorry. It sucks. I'd like to spend some happy family time together too. I can't.
posted by Occula at 9:01 AM on January 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

As the comments are making very clear, this is 100% dependent on the overall dynamic of your relationship, which makes this comment really hard for anyone unfamiliar with your family to answer, and why you are getting so many different responses about what this behavior sounds like.

I see this in my own life. One of my best friends, who some people consider to be overly critical and irritating, is very particular about lots of little things and has a habit of pointing out what is wrong with everything (she does know people don't like this and is trying to change). This has definitely included her telling me how to cook things differently as I'm cooking them or telling me what I did wrong when it doesn't turn out perfectly. I have 100% never minded or felt disrespected by this at all. But if a particular extended family member of mine, who I do care about (and I know she's a good person) does something similar, it drives me up the wall. Probably because I feel (without provable evidence) that she doesn't really respect me, even though I know she also cares about me a lot.

That's a long way of saying, do you have anyone in your life who knows your family, and in particular may have seen your interactions with your family, who might be able to shed some light on this? Who has heard the tone of voice and other hard-to-describe cues in person?
posted by Squalor Victoria at 10:38 AM on January 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have a bit of a different perspective on the bread conversation because I witnessed almost exactly the same fight over Thanksgiving, except it was about the turkey.

Younger Person has a cool new way to do something. Older person takes umbrage, feels threatened. Their old, traditional way of doing the thing isn't good enough. Older person feels like their traditions have been disrespected!

Is it a silly thing to feel threatened by? Yes, of course. But at the same time... I think just about everybody gets anxious about their knowledge and expertise being devalued in favor of the new and trendy as they get older.

I have no idea if this was the dynamic with your relatives over the bread argument. But if it is - maybe ask them to show you how they bake bread?
posted by Jeanne at 11:37 AM on January 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

My partner’s family is like this and I cannot stand them. Including the obsession with appearances (the nicest coat!) while acting like the most classless, self-centered people alive. No one is fooled. They are also always the victim of everything that has ever happened, and will tell you a 4 hour long story about a service person who disrespected them once if you let them. Meanwhile, they’ve never apologized for anything in their lives. It’s tempting to blame it on culture but they seem profoundly miserable and are plenty racist, anti-semitic, classist (this one in particular is focused on me as I grew up working class), hypocritical, etc. If you’re not like them (a white, self-centered dingbat with a victim complex), you’re evil!!

My partner is like you, tries to bring “himself” to the conversation and gets shut down, while being told he should bicker more to fit in. (He is simply not a bickerer.) So I don’t have any good advice, but you’re not alone. I think people of character just avoid these type of people socially.

As for “what” is going on, an enormous amount of anxiety and profound lack of self-awareness. If they hurt someone’s feelings, it’s that person’s fault. Fragile sense of self (otherwise, why the obsession with fancy possessions?). Etc. I think it’s low-level narcissism running through families as a result of intergenerational trauma.

I put everything they say in the “don’t take advice from a person with a life you wouldn’t want to lead” bin. I don’t think they’ve ever been right about anything, they just love to say shit.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:14 PM on January 11, 2022 [4 favorites]

Don't know if this helps in the big picture understanding, but if you want to cook with them, how about, "Can you show me how to make [that thing you love to make]?" Because then you can cook and they bring the knowledge and expertise and it's sorta about them too.

The flights thing seems to me like not understanding how the pandemic is changing flight prices in weird ways. Flying on a holiday, instead of before or after, is an old hack for flying cheap around holiday time. It doesn't necessarily work that way anymore, but I think they were trying to share their conventional wisdom?
posted by bluedaisy at 12:45 PM on January 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you and your family members might have mismatched communication styles. You might like this excellent paper called the "New York Jewish Conversational Style", which someone posted here years ago and I think about all the time. It's not just Jewish New Yorkers who use this style- it's also close to the conversational style I've experienced in Mediterranean, Filipino, Caribbean, and Black American families, to name a few. Basically any culture where the people get described as "earthy".
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:51 PM on January 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

« Older France Travel Filter: Is renting an EV for...   |   What plays are they performing in high school... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.