Help, I can’t bear my in-laws.
May 11, 2006 5:27 AM   Subscribe

I’m a Brit living in the US and my husband is a New Yorker. I really suffer in the presence of my in-laws and don’t know whether this is just a cultural difference and I need to be more understanding and less uptight or if they really are insufferable and I need to draw a line. Below are the main issues. (Long sorry!)

Constant Bitchy Gossip
As soon as someone leaves the room they gossip about him/her in a way that is so malicious it takes my breath away. The first weekend I stayed with them my MIL made sure I understood that my SIL was “a ho” from a bad family, a horrible mother who tricked my BIL into getting married by getting pregnant. Where I come from this would be considered way TMI. Obviously I assume they talk about me negatively too and so I end up shutting down and not saying much to avoid giving them too much ammunition. They interpret this as coldness and complain to my husband about it.

Lots of Self-Aggrandizement
Having been brought up to be diffident and self-deprecating I am taken a back by how much they blow their own trumpets. They puff up what seem to be fairly minor accomplishments and talk openly about how great they are. My MIL will say in a restaurant “Oh, my God, everyone is looking at us because we are soooo beautiful”. They’ve all had a ton of plastic surgery (even my FIL) so they don’t look that great to me but what do I know! They talk about their money all the time “my floors cost 40k”, “my last bonus was in six figures” and name-drop like crazy. They complain to my husband that they don’t know me but I don’t think I could ever talk about myself like that.

Passive Aggression and Manipulation
I have never stayed with them without them making sure I understand how hard it is for them and how much we are putting them out. Consequently I never want to stay which upsets my husband. In a restaurant if the food takes too long my MIL will say to the waiter "You are obviously too busy to look after my family" and threaten to go into the kitchen to get the food herself. This works but I cringe inside.

Bratty Kids
My husband's little sister seems to me to be the quintessential spoilt brat. My niece who is 11 doesn’t eat any fruits and vegetables at all so if she visits I am reduced to fishing vegetables out of the soup to avoid a major hissy fit. I would never do this for my own daughter and resent having to bend over backwards to appease some spoilt, entitled kid.

All in all we misunderstand each other. Because I just shut down in their presence they think I’m a snotty, cold Brit (I'm actually very warm when I feel safe!) and I think they are brash, vulgar and trashy. Maybe both things are a little bit true but for the sake of my husband I’d like to be less cold towards them and more embracing. Help me find come up with a survival plan.
posted by anapurna to Human Relations (61 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
For what it's worth, I'm American (family in New York on both sides) and your in-laws sound brash, vulgar and trashy to me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:32 AM on May 11, 2006


Do not treat with the evil, do not lay down with the Devil.

Even if you are over stating the situation, these people are toxic and self destructive. Keeping your distance from them is good. If you are considering having children, what role would you want these people to play? Start creating those (hopefully limited) roles now, in your own relationships with them.

Familiarity breeds tolerance.
posted by ewkpates at 5:34 AM on May 11, 2006


Personally, I can't imagine wanting to spend more time around people like this. However, if you do, then I would in all seriousness suggest taking up acting lessons.
posted by Jairus at 5:35 AM on May 11, 2006


I am an American living in the UK. I feel your pain about cultural differences.

However, it sounds like your in-laws are horrible!

How does your husband feel about all of this?

I'd recommend, coming from a gossipy family myself (although not as bad as this sounds), that you be very careful in sharing information with them and try as hard as possible to not engage in the gossip.
posted by k8t at 5:37 AM on May 11, 2006


First, I'm of the strong belief that there's good and bad people everywhere. But with that being said; NY seems to have a completely different and certainly unusual culture than any other city in the world.
Your survival would include looking up British groups of people living in NY, who meet for social events. I'm almost positive the could relate your experiences, since you share much the same
experiences culturally.
posted by GoodJob! at 5:38 AM on May 11, 2006


Part of the solution to this problem (they sound ghastly) is to stay in a hotel when you are visiting with them, and arrange for them to stay in a hotel when they are visiting with you. It's not a complete solution but it does make the situation MUCH more bearable.

Everyone is offended the first time you suggest it but when they discover how much pleasanter it is, the complaints curiously stop.
posted by unSane at 5:39 AM on May 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


PS, I hope that your husband isn't like this.

Are you concerned with having children be a part of this mess?
posted by k8t at 5:40 AM on May 11, 2006


It's not you, it's them. They sound awful. Minimize your time with them.
posted by bim at 5:41 AM on May 11, 2006


Thanks for the advice. I want to make it clear that I know lots of lovely New Yorkers so I don't think their problems are cultural! I think my own shut down reaction may be a bit British though.

My husband is lovely and always sees the best in everyone and so is mystified as to why all his friends run a mile from his family. I really want to have some kind of relationship with them for his sake.

The advice about not joining the gossip is good. Is tempting to try to be part of things when you feel so disconnected. I also like the hotel idea a lot.
posted by anapurna at 5:47 AM on May 11, 2006


I think they are brash, vulgar and trashy.

Me too.

I now live in New York and spent years in London. While there are major cultural differences - New Yorkers share lots of personal information and have no qualms talking about money - but the sheer vulgarity and rudeness you describe is universally condemned. Doesn't your husband see this?
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:51 AM on May 11, 2006


Sorry, I didn't see your post just then.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:51 AM on May 11, 2006


Others are giving good advice, so I'll just suggest a coping mechanism -- try laughing at them. Not in a mean way, but in a "Oh, you guys" kind of way. When they gossip, just say, "Oh, you people are so MEAN with your gossip" in a giggly kind of way. Keep repeating this whenever necessary, and keep it light -- you're not trying to start a discussion about the gossiping, just establishing a standard reaction. Try, as much as you can (and I know it's hard), to find something humorous about the dreadful way they live their lives, and try and develop a merry laugh as your response as often as possible. They may start thinking you're demented, but you'll hopefully feel a bit better inside. It won't work in all situations, but it'll reduce your stress.

As for the fussy niece, find out from her mom one simple-to-fix dish she'll always eat, and keep that on hand for her, and then forget about her.
posted by JanetLand at 6:02 AM on May 11, 2006 [3 favorites]


Yeah, not even remotely a cultural thing. It's a jerk thing. I don't think your shut-down reaction is Brittish, I think it's the only way to respond to that kind of thing without descending to their level of nasty. It's certainly how Miss Manners would suggest dealing with that kind of thing.

Perhaps you could take a page from your husband's playbook in this and respond with a pleasant pollyanna-esque style rather than shut down. Something like "The first weekend I stayed with them my MIL made sure I understood that my SIL was “a ho” from a bad family, a horrible mother who tricked my BIL into getting married by getting pregnant." you could respond to with something in the vein of "Really? I've found her quite nice. Why, just the other day she offered to drive me to the mall when I said I didn't know where it was." It may be that your husband doesn't see it because he doesn't play along even by listening silently.

You have my sympathy. Toxic people are a horrible pain and you're stuck with these.
posted by phearlez at 6:05 AM on May 11, 2006


So let's try to help you with strategies for coping with them when you're around them... rather than just avoiding them completely.

How about sharing gossip about celebrities rather than family members? Then you're contributing, but not being rude?

And perhaps look at providing your niece and other kids with some normal adult contact? I have family members who try to provide this sort of thing for kids with screwed up parents. You can tell your niece before she visits that you'd be happy to give her a few choices for dinner (and give her a choice of 3 things that you're willing to make) and that at age 11 she is old enough to try new things? With her screwed up family, you and your husband may be her only link to the sane world.
posted by k8t at 6:09 AM on May 11, 2006


They make me hate them and weep for them. It seems like a horrible way to go through life to me.

I guess you need coping techniques.
They ARE family. It stinks but they are.

I guess there are books like that one something about how to deal with people you can't stand or something.

You can in a way, participate in gossip.
"She tricked him" response can be a mild "Wow- he seems too smart to get tricked like that". Or when they say "she has had 40K wrth of surgery and they can barely afford it" you can say "No wonder she looks so good".

Maybe find something other plastic surgery and money that they are interested in and read up-- so you do have SOMETHING to talk to them about...

Good luck- your husband sounds very sweet.
posted by beccaj at 6:16 AM on May 11, 2006


Ugh, I feel your pain. No, it isn't you...they are boorish. Unfortunately, I am related to an extended family almost exactly like this (without the cosmetic surgery thing.) It's why I moved far, far away from them and rarely attend family gatherings.

I realized a long time ago that low self-esteem is at the root of my family's behavior. It's sad really. And, yes, I feel left out. But to feel part of the gang, I'd have to participate in the gossip and backbiting and craziness...and I don't want to. When I am around them, I have a strategy of asking them a lot of questions about themselves. They love to talk about themselves. I don't respond to the gossip. After years of that, I think a couple of them trust me enough to confide in me because they see that I don't gossip, so go figure! They generally don't ask me about me at all. If one of them accidentally finds out that I have a sense of humor or may have a life that is in any way interesting, it always gets back to me like they have made some great discovery. ("I was talking to jm and, do you know? She was actually funny!") They've mellowed a little bit with age, but not much.

Take heart in that, if they approved of and liked you 100%, you would be a LOT more like them. And you're not. And that's a good thing.
posted by jeanmari at 6:20 AM on May 11, 2006


Yep. they're brash, vulgar and trashy. My family is working-class and by no means "refined" by many standards, but would NEVER talk this way.

But if your husband wants to spend time with them, you may as well find something to talk to these people about. Your husband does realise that some of the things they say are unkind, yes?

The celebrity gossip idea is brilliant, especially since it's a particular area in which the British tabloids make the American ones look tame and nice.

I was a picky eater, though not a brat about it. I still remember with appreciation the relatives who "just happened" (with a wink to me) to include one thing on the menu that they knew that I liked. Just be no-nonsense with the kid if she's whiny, and remember that before long she'll be giving her parents heart attacks with her teenage antics.
posted by desuetude at 6:23 AM on May 11, 2006


As for the niece, she's not unusual at all. American children tend to be picky eaters, and many parents are tolerant of it. That's probably the least of your problems.

I'm American and have experienced a situations like yours (with the vulgarity, but without the money). It has taken us a long, long time to adjust to one another, but the family has learned - for the most part - not to talk to me that way, and I have learned that it is their own insecurity that makes them so defensive & unpleasant. We have all mellowed. But it took a few extremely bitter battles to reach detente. Stand your ground.
posted by clarkstonian at 6:26 AM on May 11, 2006


My MIL shares some of these characteristics -- it bothered me a lot, until I finally realized that NO ONE can please her. She denigrates everybody for one reason or another; better to just keep my trap shut and not trouble about earning approval that will never come.

I don't know if this will make you feel any better, but it's likely that your in-laws are more afraid of you than you are of them. Clearly, they've got self-esteem issues, and as you've probably discovered by now, most Americans immediately develop an inferiority complex in the presence of a British accent -- no matter what class or region it comes from. Most of us can't tell the difference. Don't try to be warm; wrap yourself in the protective embrace of the Queen's English and use it to hold these morons at bay.
posted by junkbox at 6:35 AM on May 11, 2006


It's a combination. Part of it is cultural (yes, New Yorkers do share more information and talk more about money than Brits) but most of it is personal: these people are, as everyone says, jerks. That said, "keeping your distance from them is good" is pointless advice, because they're her inlaws, not annoying people she ran into at a bar. It's unfortunate that her husband can't see why they're a problem, but the fact is that she can't avoid them, so she has to develop strategies for dealing with them.

The best thing I can think of, to save your sanity and minimize the unpleasantness, is to create a persona that you slip into when you're with them, a combination of beccaj's advice (noncommittal but pleasant joining-in) and jeanmari's (asking about them—people love to talk about themselves). Don't even think about "being yourself"; just treat it as a kind of performance art or live theater. It's up to you whether you think you can talk about it with your husband, but I think for your own sake you need to adopt such an approach. Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 6:39 AM on May 11, 2006


Whenever I'm in situations like this I think the formality of etiquette comes in so handy. Miss Manners has gracefully helped me in the past.

unSane's idea to stay in a hotel is so true. If it's met with resistance just say: "Oh, thank you so very much - but we don't want to be a burden." Smile, and stick too it and of course you've already checked in before you get to their house.

When people are gossiping in a way that makes me uncomfortable I will respond with something like: "Oh she's so charming!" And of course, smile. This usually cools negative gossip a little bit.

I think people can be dismissive of etiquette as snooty or fake, but it is such an effective way to deal with uncomfortable aspects in life.

Good luck to you.
posted by dog food sugar at 6:49 AM on May 11, 2006


Your in-laws are people with low self esteem who want a pat on the back for every minor accomplishment. They are, in fact, best ignored. If you want to avoid direct conflict, just say you're not used to the gossip as it's not a British thing and it takes a while to adjust. You could even go so far as to say that back home people just said things to each other instead of talking behind their backs. You have an advantage here because the in-laws likely know little about how people in your homeland react in conversation so you can get away with practically telling them off in the guise of explaining a cultural difference.
posted by mikeh at 6:51 AM on May 11, 2006


I have a different proposal. They sounds like nouveau-rich to me, and probably need constant affirmation about their lifestyle, money, etc.. Just don't.

I'd go cold-British on them. First, explain to your husband that this is the way you'll treat the members of the family that go over your boundaries. You love him, and want to us to last forever, but some things I can no longer tolerate. It may cause an embarrassment to you, but these members of your family are an embarrassment to me. But work on the kids: they're the trojan horse to the family's hearts.

- Kids come over and don't want to eat veggies. No more backbending. Firmly state: "when you're under my roof, you'll follow my rules. Here everyone eats what's on their plate, if you don't like it you don't have to have dinner. Period." Mummy protests, you reply, "We are not in a restaurant. If you insist, I will have to show you the door."

- The MIL. Exaggerate the quintessential British haughty attitude. Take on a polite, bored, condescending look when something unnerves you. Use your wit to strike back: "At least when we spend 40K on the floors, they look the part.", "You spend 50K on cosmetic surgery? Ever thought of investing in your granddaughter/nieces health? Since she doesn't eat any vegetable, I predict she'll need an expensive liposuction in a few years.", "Oh you met Sean Connery at dinner last night. Fascinating. When is he coming over for lunch? Never?"
re: the SIL is a ho thing, "I'm wondering why you mention this, is there something you're trying to tell me about yourself, my dear?"
re: restaurant situations. Preempt them: "Waiter, I'll take the boeuf bourginion and sparking water. And also, before you leave, This elderly lady will be extremely rude to you if the service isn't quick. She's embarrassing to all of us so please don't take it personally." As people gasp, smile sweetly and continue the table conversation as if nothing happened.

If my husband and I completely trusted each other, this is something that'll cross my mind. *shrug
posted by ruelle at 6:57 AM on May 11, 2006 [3 favorites]


Can you try turning it around on them? When someone leaves the room, before the bitchy gossip starts up, begin to praise the person who has departed: "What has SIL been using on her skin? She looks radiant!" "What a lovely restaurant, so relaxing and cozy!" Try to set a better tone before they can drag it down.
posted by Sara Anne at 7:03 AM on May 11, 2006


It sounds like you might benefit from a book I've read and appreciated recently: The Introvert Advantage, by Marti Olsen Laney.

Not to say that you are an introvert, or that your inlaws are extroverts. But the book does outline some helpful strategies for dealing with people who have different (read: louder and more overbearing) communication styles.

I feel your pain, anapurna. My inlaws are insufferable in similar ways, and I just have learned to tune them out over the years. In their eyes, I'm basically just the uterus that brought forth Their Perfect Grandchild anyway, not really a person in my own right...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:04 AM on May 11, 2006


already lots of good advice which I will back up as another New Yorker who has spent a bit of time in England: Yes, there are cultural differences, but this sounds more like their personality. They sounds like the nouveau riche upper eastsiders. No one like them - even in New York.

As for coping, already lots of good advice, but I would try to remember that no matter what you think about the family, they are your husband's family. No one is expected to love their in-laws, but you try to make a positive relationship for your spouse's sake. Ask you husband what he wants and needs. I'm sure he dislikes many of the same things that you do.
posted by BigBrownBear at 7:11 AM on May 11, 2006


Let the neice's parents pick the vegetables out, for starters. It's not your fault they can't raise a child to eat properly.
posted by jon_kill at 7:12 AM on May 11, 2006


Wow me-fites. Thank you. Its like having a room full of friends avaiable for advice night and day. Here's what I've learned from seeing my question reflected back at me in your answers.

Cultural stereotypes are too black and white to be helpful. I'm guilty of falling back on them when I am in pain but the truth is that some of my in-laws quirks may be cultural but their toxicity is all their own.

With that in mind I do not want to hide behind the British stereotype too much. This is what I have been doing. I've been distant and polite. My husband says that when I'm doing that my contempt for them, although unspoken, is palpable and I'm sure he's right.

I'm going for warm, open but not very involved. So I like JanetLand's idea of keeping it light and laughing things off. I'm going to try that.

I'm also going to choose my battles. It's not my business that the kid doesn't eat fruits and vegetables. In future I'm going to serve up frozen mac'n'cheese with a smile.

The hotel idea is genius and I'm going to do it although I'm not brave enough to suggest that they stay in a hotel when they visit us.

I like the idea of gossiping about celebs rather than people we know - I think I could do that.

I don't need to be best friends with them I just want to show up at Passover, Chanukkha etc with a smile on my face and without a knot in my tummy. It makes my husband so sad to watch me sit on the sidelines not saying much and I want to make him happy without getting too sucked into it all.
posted by anapurna at 7:30 AM on May 11, 2006


Good for you anapurna!

Whilst I don't agree with much of ruelle's answer, I would give a lot of money to see her restaurant situation play out:

"Waiter, I'll take the boeuf bourginion and sparking water. And also, before you leave, This elderly lady will be extremely rude to you if the service isn't quick. She's embarrassing to all of us so please don't take it personally." As people gasp, smile sweetly and continue the table conversation as if nothing happened.
posted by ceri richard at 7:48 AM on May 11, 2006


Yeah - I love the fantasy of that too. I'd love to see their faces but in the real world I think no good would come of it. When she's rude to waiters I always try to seek them out and apologise on my way to the loo because I'm so mortified
posted by anapurna at 7:49 AM on May 11, 2006


Your in-laws are Rich White Trash. They've got money, but they're just like summer vacation - no class.

Get to work immediately on a Buffer Zone. Prod them a bit to speak of regions they can't stand visiting, then start shopping for a home in these places. This is especially important if your fixing to have kids. Grandpa and Gramma will ooze evil all over your kids should they enjoy easy access.

Despite your protests, this pair will endeavor to spoil your children as badly as your niece. Bribing thier way to a favored staus in your child's heart will be irresistable to them.
posted by EatTheWeak at 8:09 AM on May 11, 2006


This is especially important if your fixing to have kids.

should read

This is especially important if YOU'RE fixing to have kids.

how embarrassing ...
posted by EatTheWeak at 8:10 AM on May 11, 2006


I'm a Brit who's married to an American and we live in NJ. I know what you mean about not wanting to revert to Britishness in family situations, but I'm helped out by the fact that my wife has a similar reaction to me, so I've started not to care. Having said that, whilst my in-laws have their moments, I can't compare them to your experience. You really do have my sympathies, they really don't sound like the warm, open people that most New Yorkers are (imho).
posted by ob at 8:30 AM on May 11, 2006


My best friend's father is an awful human being. He's rude and toxic. Her boyfriends always hate him (with good reason). This hate makes things hard for my best friend. This leads to fights and hurt feelings.

The advice I always want to give to those boyfriends is the advice I'll give to you. It's not about you. Remember that he grew up under these people. His coping mechnisims are well in place, but his family behavior probably bothers him more than it bothers you. I echo advice from up thread...find out what he needs, what will make the visit easier for him. Also, express your opinion and make your displeasure known to him about his family (out of their earshot, of course), but don't beat him over the head with it. It will make him feel like he's in the middle of you guys when what it should be is the two of you against them.

I'm guessing following a lot of the advice about finding nice things to say and gossiping about celebrities will help a great deal.

As for the picky eater...make a dish where it would be fairly intensive to pick out the veggies...but something that looks really good. Make a big deal about how this is some super special british recipe (even if it's not). For her, get the little kids frozen mac & cheese or the kid cuisine dinners, the more 'little kid' the better. Then make some off handed comment about how maybe she will like this when she is more mature as most little kids aren't a fan.
posted by nadawi at 8:40 AM on May 11, 2006


EatTheWeak you make a good point. I have a 15 year old daughter from a previous marriage who has the good sense to keep herself a bit seperate from the in-laws. However my husband and I have been thinking about having a baby and I am a bit apprehensive. You're right they will try and bribe a child by spoiling and I guess I'd better know what I'm going to do.
posted by anapurna at 8:59 AM on May 11, 2006


I was just reading a book (yesterday!) called "I'm OK, You're My Parents" that is partially about handling situations with parents or in-laws similar to this. It specifically covers when they give TMI, are rude to staff at restaurants, and family visits; also if they dislike their child's spouse, if they're too critical, and so on.

One of her suggestions for dining out with embarrassing relatives involves realizing that waitstaff say it's very common to serve tables of rude parents with their embarrassed children. Your server has seen and dealt with this before. She says to try bonding with the people who they're embarrassing you in front of. Take the server aside while your in-laws are being seated and say "heads up, my MIL can be pretty rude to staff, I'm sorry in advance if she behaves badly" and slip them a tip. Then if she is rude during the meal you can brush it off a little easier knowing the waiter was forewarned and has been compensated somewhat for the trouble.

For family visits she has another list of suggestions, including of course having them get a hotel room (and pointing out they may be mightily offended at first but they realize how much more comfortable they are that way and the complaints tend to stop), but also if that isn't viable, ideas for coping while they're there (making sure you get time away from them, don't share a bathroom with them, invite people over, etc.).

If you have a chance to get it from the library it might help you come up with more ideas on how to handle the in-laws - when you have a plan you'll feel less rattled by them, I think. Good luck!
posted by Melinika at 9:25 AM on May 11, 2006


I love the phrase "Rich White Trash." If the phrase "poor white trash" didn't bug me (as if "white" were the exception, and non-white the rule) I would start using the phrase "Rich White Trash" five times a day.

You may find Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System useful or entertaining.
posted by mecran01 at 9:31 AM on May 11, 2006


Welcome to New York, my hometown, Anapurna! I bet you now wish you had taken those anthropology courses at University. New Yorkers are, in fact, no stranger than those Papuan tribes that get diseases from eating human brains, but they can definitely be more annoying. New York is definitely a different culture, and after a while the stark differences will seem less grating. I’ve lived away from the city for 20 years, and on going back for a visit I notice all the same things as you do. (Sounds like you married into my family…) I’ve even asked people there directly why they choose to behave so badly. They fully recognize what I am talking about but do not answer honestly. But then, nobody answews an anthropologist honestly.

The key cultural orientation in New York is “I need attention!” and it’s corollary “Don't you know who I am?” This can be expressed by berating waiters (a very NY habit, since waiters and shop help are seen as somebody you rent to have lower status than you for an hour) badmouthing people (especially relatives because “we really care about them”) and other impatient behavior, which is IMHO not based on any inferiority complex, but rather a NewYorker’s sense of evident superiority. The New York conversational habit of constantly interrupting you while you answer a question is only a way of egging on conversation, like saying “uh huh” in other cultures.

Self-aggrandizement is common “I’m the dental floss King of Essex County, dammit! I ordered my steak rare! ” is also a way of getting attention. When growing up I in the Bronx was told “toot your own horn – nobody else is going to toot it for you.” In a small place with ten million people, you learn this fast.

Passive Aggression and Manipulation: If you haven’t already, I suggest renting the television series “The Sopranos” on DVD and watching it all from the start. It is for New York colloquial culture what Malinowski’s “Argonauts of the Pacific” was to Solomon Islands ethnography.

Bratty Kids. Yup. Need for attention expresses itself by adopting eating disorders. I’ve learned to insult my relatives directly when their kid objects to me ordering (ick!) whole fish or squid in a Chinese restaurant. Heck, somebody has read the brat the riot act, it might as well be Uncle Zaelic. Otherwise, I don’t get to eat fish. Heck, I’m a New Yorker, dammit! I’ve actually taken a stand on being invited out to family dinners by saying “Please, no Class Warfare Theater or Amateur Psychoanalysis tonight or else I would rather stay home, thankyou.” It works.

Note: You are British. Use it as a weapon. Your relatives - like many Americans – are secretly in awe of what they believe is British “good manners” and verbal prowess. While, yes, they are definitely badmouthing you behind your back they are terrified that you might be doing the same using long sentences and properly conjugated irregular verbs and multisyllabic nouns they could never hope to utilize themselves. This thought diminishes the status they just gained by berating a waiter at lunch.

In time, you will acculturate and the annoying realities will lose their sharp edge, but never disappear. On the other hand, certain positive New York traits will become obvious to you. When I was there with my Japanese girlfriend, she was amazed at how nobody ever said “excuse me” when asking for directions. I explained that when I say “Yo buddy” in my thick Bwonx accent (which I stifle when not in NY) the accent itself means “I can see you are from around here, friend” even if I say it to a Pakistani cab driver.
posted by zaelic at 10:15 AM on May 11, 2006 [2 favorites]


When she's rude to waiters I always try to seek them out and apologise on my way to the loo because I'm so mortified

I gotta say, I don't think much of this or Melinika's passed-on idea of pre-apologizing. You can be completely sure that if they EVER got wind of you doing that they'd be even more apoplectic than if you contradicted them when they did it. Aside from that, the reality is that jerk patrons are a fact of life in the service industry. Maybe I was more pragmatic than others but an extra buck in my tip went way farther than an apology from their cohorts. "Oh, they're always rude and mean to everyone, but you're sorry. Uh huh, that makes it all better."

Don't risk a big brouhaha for yourself by making an apology nobody cares about. Be extra nice yourself and/or put your money where your shame is.
posted by phearlez at 10:35 AM on May 11, 2006


There's lots of good advice and reassurance here already but I'd like to share some insights as a USian who has lived in several different cultures:

Having been brought up to be diffident and self-deprecating I am taken a back by how much they blow their own trumpets...

This is a cultural thing. One of the recurring observations I noticed with my non-USian friends is that USians are a very optimistic culture. Any problem can be solved. The flip side of this is their pride in their accomplishments, any accomplishment, which of course they share with everyone. Self-deprecation is not really seen as a positive characteristic in US. It's not seen as a sign of modesty, it's seen as a sign of low self-esteem. Your in-laws definitely seem to be taking this to the extreme, though.

I remember a comment I read about a difference between the English and USians:
"If an Englishman says he doesn't speak French very well, that means he's fluent. If a USian says he speaks French, that means he can order a cup of coffee in a cafe."

They talk about their money all the time “my floors cost 40k”...

This is also a cultural thing. Americans are always talking about money (this was pointed out to me by every non-USian friend I have) . While many USians may think it's very rude if people boast about how much money they spent on something, these same Usians may also talk a lot about how much money they've saved on something.

"Hey, nice shoes!" "Thanks, I found them at Macy's. 40% off at the White Flower Day sale!"

"That's a really nice sofa. Where did you get it?" "Found it on Craigslist. Only forty bucks!"

My own strategy when around people who boast about money is just to ignore it. "I spent 40K on these floors!" "Oh, that's nice," or "Good for you," and smile a pleasant smile that encourages no further conversation.

Most Americans immediately develop an inferiority complex in the presence of a British accent -- no matter what class or region it comes from.

I think this is very true.

While, yes, they are definitely badmouthing you behind your back they are terrified that you might be doing the same using long sentences and properly conjugated irregular verbs and multisyllabic nouns they could never hope to utilize themselves. This thought diminishes the status they just gained by berating a waiter at lunch.


Yep, that's spot on.
posted by maxwelldemon at 10:37 AM on May 11, 2006


This is also a cultural thing. Americans are always talking about money (this was pointed out to me by every non-USian friend I have) . While many USians may think it's very rude if people boast about how much money they spent on something, these same Usians may also talk a lot about how much money they've saved on something.

"Hey, nice shoes!" "Thanks, I found them at Macy's. 40% off at the White Flower Day sale!"

"That's a really nice sofa. Where did you get it?" "Found it on Craigslist. Only forty bucks!"


I am now terminally embarrassed because I do this all the time and never thought about it before.
posted by JanetLand at 10:48 AM on May 11, 2006


maxwelldemon: This is a cultural thing. One of the recurring observations I noticed with my non-USian friends is that USians are a very optimistic culture. Any problem can be solved. The flip side of this is their pride in their accomplishments, any accomplishment, which of course they share with everyone. Self-deprecation is not really seen as a positive characteristic in US. It's not seen as a sign of modesty, it's seen as a sign of low self-esteem. Your in-laws definitely seem to be taking this to the extreme, though.

I strongly suspect that these are a bit of an over-generalization. Around my neck of the woods, aggressive self-promotion (at least verbally) and talking about money are mild taboos.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:56 AM on May 11, 2006


This isn't a cultural thing.. at least not between countries. Definitely cultural at the family level though.. some families have this sort of culture, some do not. I've experienced this sort of thing in the UK a lot though.
posted by wackybrit at 10:57 AM on May 11, 2006


I don't need to be best friends with them I just want to show up at Passover, Chanukkha etc with a smile on my face and without a knot in my tummy.

Clearly this is an unpleasant situation for you, but is it possible this is a Jewish/non-Jewish thing as opposed to US/Brit?
posted by minkll at 10:59 AM on May 11, 2006


My sympathies for what sounds like challenging personalities!

I really want to have some kind of relationship with them for his sake.

If you want to tough it out, one way would be to actively look for their good aspects.

There are few people in the world who are completely rotten. (OTOH, maybe they are one of the few!) But if they're not, how about subtly encouraging them when they're good? Make a list of their good qualities.

Incidentally, being rude to waiters is one of the more foolish things to do. Not only is it just wrong, those hard-working waiters are *handling your food*. Being rude makes the likelihood of, uh, foreign objects being imbibed.
posted by storybored at 11:10 AM on May 11, 2006


"Hey, nice shoes!" "Thanks, I found them at Macy's. 40% off at the White Flower Day sale!"

I don't see this as self-aggrandizement.

If someone says "I paid $2000 for these shoes", *that* would be self-aggrandizement.

The former is an instance of good fortune, running across a sale. The second is bragging.
posted by storybored at 11:14 AM on May 11, 2006


The former is an instance of good fortune, running across a sale.

Both are cases of bragging. In the US, the first one isn't considered rude.

Not all cultures think that talking about money, even finding a good deal somewhere, is a polite thing to talk about.
posted by maxwelldemon at 11:27 AM on May 11, 2006


(If nothing else, saying you found an awesome pair of stores for half-off at a department store is bragging about your shopping skills. Some places, that would be a definite no-no.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:45 AM on May 11, 2006


I am so offended by the answers to this question. Nobody should act like your in laws, it should not be excused with culture.
posted by Packy_1962 at 11:51 AM on May 11, 2006


It has nothing to do with culture! They simply sound like awful people.

I'm American and don't know anybody like that. Of course, the minute I run across someone intolerable, I immediately terminate relations with them. You're in an unfortunate position because you can't really do that. But you can draw the line, as you say.
posted by Lillitatiana at 12:12 PM on May 11, 2006


I have to agree with Packy. You did not marry his family, you married him. As others have pointed out he has his own methods for coping with them. I think you should talk to them about why you appear to them as "snotty and cold." Talk to them about exactly why you feel the way you do. Be patient and give them a fair chance. Everyone deserves at least that. But at some point you should feel justified in giving up and simply avoiding them at all costs. You don't gain anything by suffering through their pitiful existence. You have to draw the line wherever it is comfortable for you to do so.

There is more to being Family than blood and papers.
posted by J-Garr at 12:37 PM on May 11, 2006


Both are cases of bragging. In the US, the first one isn't considered rude.

They're both bragging, but bragging about sales is a bit different than bragging about how much money you spent, because the two statements reflect two different things.

Bragging about how much money you spent is meant to show your high place in society as a whole and that you're a BIG DEAL. It's rather serious.

Bragging about sale prices is like bragging about downing a World of Warcraft boss. Sale shopping is a hobby, and while you may feel out of place because you don't share that hobby, there's no real idea of "I am clearly a better person because I did this"
posted by dagnyscott at 1:14 PM on May 11, 2006


I think your not giving them much information about yourself is a great way to handle things. They WANT to dislike you (and everyone else, really), and if all they have to complain about you is that they don't have any information on you to complain about... well, gee, isn't that a shame?
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:25 PM on May 11, 2006


It's definitely not you.

"Waiter, I'll take the boeuf bourginion and sparking water. And also, before you leave, This elderly lady will be extremely rude to you if the service isn't quick. She's embarrassing to all of us so please don't take it personally." As people gasp, smile sweetly and continue the table conversation as if nothing happened.

The beautiful thing is that if you said this with a beaming smile on your face, you could totally get away with it. Sort of a variation on the Southern usage of "bless his/her heart".

As for the conversational unpleasantness, go with the Miss Manners approach: "Hmm," or "That's nice," followed up with a complete change of subject ("Say, you wouldn't happen to know who is responsible for bringing leggings back in style, would you?"). Repeat as often as it takes for them to realize that you're not going to take the bait. They can't ding you for being cold, but you're not a party to their bitchiness.

Basically I think it all boils down to planning the circumstances of your contact with them ahead of time, and then sticking to it. Stay in a hotel; if you go over for dinner, decide beforehand when you'll show up, and when you'll leave. Ditto for them coming over to your place. I find it's much easier to be polite to toxic people when you know you can kick them (or yourself) out at a certain time.
posted by Vervain at 1:25 PM on May 11, 2006


As for the gossip, I've found that the best way to handle that is complete transparency. So SIL, MIL tells me that you are “a ho” from a bad family, a horrible mother who tricked my BIL into getting married by getting pregnant. Do you know she talks about you like that?

If you get their evil out in the open they'll be so busy hating eachother that you can enjoy a peacfull evening.
posted by Megafly at 2:13 PM on May 11, 2006


Maybe just be honest with them. They need to hear how the way they behave affects those around them. And you need to make them hear it.
posted by Lleyam at 2:49 PM on May 11, 2006


If the verbal badmouthing is really getting out of hand, and the family is observant Jewish (you mentioned the holdiays) then you are completely in bounds if you make a stand and announce that you wish to avoid "loshn hora" or evil speech. I use that all the time in my family - it makes them think I am some kind of holy madman, but it makes a completely acceptable Jewish claim to self righteousness and shuts them up.

In my family, when we spoke English we were generally being nice. For the nasty backbiting stuff we had a pool of languages that would always leave somebody out of the loop - Hungarian, Yiddish, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish. I learned Romanian completely through the bitter invective of my Grandmother, who hadn't taught it to her own kids, who in turn, used Russian as a secret language of hate. As adults it came as a surprise to find everybody in the family was fully conversant in Spanish - no one ever told anybody else, because it was only used to whisper nasty comments about people in private. And my Mom has just started to teach me abusive language in Turkish that she learned in the 1940s working at her family's Sephardic Turkish restaurant in Budapest.
posted by zaelic at 2:53 PM on May 11, 2006 [1 favorite]


I agree with KirkJob, the self-aggrandizing, braggardly person is not representative of most of America, which is sad. Most of my family are quiet, humble, decent folk who talk like the guys in Brokeback Mountain.

Your in-laws remind me of my last two set of in-laws, both from New York. So, sorry New Yorkers, but I do think this is a New York thing. With my current in-laws, one thing that works is laughing at their behavior in an "oh, my lord!" manner, as someone suggested earlier.

For me, I approach it by taking on the character of this funny, ball of energy and goodness. I make jokes about their outrageous behavior. Jokes that make them laugh. I also include myself in those jokes. If I say or do something that seems ridiculous, I laugh and make fun of it. That has worked only in that they seem to enjoy spending time with me, and I get a release by being able to laugh about it. However, I don't find their behavior any less horrifying. I mostly deal with that by flying out of my body.
posted by joaniemcchicken at 1:11 AM on May 12, 2006


I heartily nth all of the boundary-setting advice above! They truly sound beastly.

The goal here is damage control. One additional strategy I've used with varying types of difficult people is to put on my "researcher" hat and reframe the situation as: "What can I learn (or what useful information can I gather) from this person?" So rather than turn the gossip towards celebrities instead of family members (which would reduce some of the direct toxicity but still can get kind of boring and stupid), I would go about trying to ask them questions that give them a chance to show useful opinions or knowledge. They've got sooooo much money? Ask them for advice on managing it, investing, etc. They put in $40K floors (egad)? Well, ask questions that move them off of bragging based on cost and into the things one must know when choosing between different types of flooring, styles, etc. Figure out other things that they might have "expertise" in and grill them about those. When that runs out, ask them about what new books they've read/movies they've seen, new restaurants they've tried, places they've traveled, etc. etc. The key here is to find non-torturous topics where you can "wind them up and watch them go" with occasional follow-up questions from you.

They'd still have ample opportunity to hear themselves talk and feel fascinating...but at the very least, you'd be redirecting the really toxic invective towards potentially useful/interesting information. And it will make the time go by a bit faster.
posted by shelbaroo at 8:51 AM on May 13, 2006


late to the party.

lots of good advice, but I suggest you show up mildy stoned, or drunk, to help you survive the unpleasantness. as everybody said, it's not you, they're the assholes. you can't get an ulcer trying to pretend you don't despise them. booze or other substances are the answer. Valium -- especially intravenously -- does the trick. bring breath mints if you choose to show up drunk. just don't get too lethargic, it'll be over soon.

and if the damn brat wants crappy food so bad, microwave her some crappy frozen salty stuff, she'll love you for it. it's not your responsibility to feed her healthy stuff, especially if the parents are against healthy food

good luck
posted by matteo at 10:59 AM on May 13, 2006


Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

Diagnostic Criteria

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
4. requires excessive admiration
5. has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
6. is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
7. lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
8. is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes


Lately it seems that this is how America (as a whole) is being viewed by the rest of the world.
posted by Araucaria at 3:09 PM on May 18, 2006


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