How can I not shock and dismay my normal family?
June 24, 2007 4:14 PM   Subscribe

While I love my family, I want to claim the other half of my heritage (my father’s side of the family) in an upcoming visit.

Hokay... This is an etiquette question as well as a vague cry for help.

The family I'll be visiting are evil suits, and while my maternal family is creatively unusual, my paternal side is Normal. Smart normal, with a geeky side, but we’re talking jocks and business school, with a wee bit more money then I’m used to.

In late July, I’m probably going to get to fly down to meet my biological father in California. I have a passport, and I think I can look non-threatening enough to pass through airport security, but I’m afraid of not passing the scrutiny of the people on the other side of the border due to my alternately highly sheltered and extremely liberal upbringing. I know that my father will love me for who I am (and does, we IM a lot) and I by no means want to misrepresent myself…

But with a background where improperly housebroken cats decorate the flooring; children don’t bicycle (but do know about family planning); and parents speak strongly against weddings and other social rituals, integrating with a family that sends me an annual Christmas newsletter; goes to Disneyland; and probably cleans up after unhousebroken pets within a week of the incident causes me a degree of anxiety.

I have a father to connect with, a stepmother to win over and two adorable half sisters I’d like to befriend. I’ll be staying at a hotel, but there’s likely to be both house visits and the dinner-out-and-sight-seeing that my research indicates is normal for visits.

After this, I’ll get to meet my grandparents, also evil suits and some of the warmest people I’ve ever met.

What on earth do I pack, how do I make small talk, how do I talk on the phone and how can I otherwise be charming, friendly and non-threatening, so I’ll be asked to visit again?

What can I read, watch, learn from wise Meta-users and otherwise desperately glean information from between now and the end of July to answer the above questions?

For background, I'm a 21 year old female.
posted by Phalene to Human Relations (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think that the first thing that you need to do is stop referring to them as evil suits.

Seriously though, creating an impression of these people based on Christmas newsletters, Disneyland, etc. rather than on actual interactions is probably going to lead you down a dangerous path.

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE put everything that you know about them out of your head and go and be YOU. Talk to them about what you're studying, what your goals are, what you like to do for fun -- people want to hear this stuff from a 21-year-old. Play with your half-sisters, be kind to your step-mom (who is probably freaking out a bit about this), be kind to your grandparents and relax.

Also remember that what you know about them is probably filtered through your dad who has his own issues with his parents, to be sure.

If they ask about your mom, be kind and polite and don't talk about her "unorthodox" method of bringing you up. Don't make her seem like a bad guy or perfect.

They might surprise you and be extremely liberal themselves. Maybe they aren't and your presence in their lives may open them up, especially the younger half-sisters.

Now, once you're over your side of things, think about them. As I already mentioned, step-mom may be freaking a bit. Grandparents might be too. Try to alleviate their fears. They might be wondering if you're going to try to "invade" their family or ask for money or something. Be as normal and as nice as possible to them and always try to keep in mind what they may be worried about.

Good luck!
posted by k8t at 4:21 PM on June 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

PS, pack your "normal" clothes (i.e. be yourself), but bring some dressier stuff in case you go out to dinner. Try to befriend your step-mom in asking her things like "is it okay to wear jeans to this place?"
posted by k8t at 4:24 PM on June 24, 2007

I agree with what k8t said and would politely add that it sounds like there will likely be more judgment coming from your end of the table, and not theirs. The fact that you used the expression "evil suits" twice, and without batting an eye, indicates that you have might have some issues with intolerance.

At the very least, I'd suggest not using such a horribly limiting (and laughably dated) term to describe people you want to have a relationship with.
posted by dhammond at 4:34 PM on June 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Just want to add, in addition to taking what your dad has to say about his folks with a grain of salt, whatever your mom has told you about his family, please take with a grain of salt. If she knew them, she knew them 21-years-ago+ and without knowing any of the details of your parents' relationship, perhaps his family didn't take well to her?
posted by k8t at 4:37 PM on June 24, 2007

For one thing, stop thinking of them as evil suits. They're just people.

You might consider bringing a small hostess gift, which is likely to be a tradition on your paternal side. Since you're staying in a hotel, it's not required or anything, but it's a nice gesture. Typically a hostess gift is something small for the home, like cut flowers or a plant, a bottle of wine (find out if they're teetotallers first), or a food delicacy from your part of the world. Since you're flying, also keep in mind airline regulations. A lot of foods you can pack in your luggage just fine. Nice local chocolates are usually a good choice. (Are you in Canada? Callebaut and Laura Secord have both been big hits with my American in-laws.)

I'm going to take a guess and say politics and religion are probably hotly debated topics of fun in your maternal family. It's possible that your father's people regard them as Not Polite Dinner Conversation. Be aware that this is a potential landmine, and don't bring those topics up - it's fine to talk about them if they bring it up, though the usual politeness rules call for listening more than you talk, and being respectful of the evil suits' no doubt horrifying (to you) ideas.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:46 PM on June 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

You are a creator of grandchildren, and thus can do no wrong. (Except for saying you don't want children.)
posted by smackfu at 4:51 PM on June 24, 2007

Wow, I totally feel this. I'm a 24 year old male, also raised both sheltered and liberal, the only (out) gay guy in the family, and I spend my time teaching English abroad and being crafty, making very little money compared to my relations.

But the rest of my family, strait-laced as they are, totally love me, expressly because I'm not like them - I get to tell them how I didn't have electricity or water for a few days while working in Indonesia, or what it's like to walk through a shantytown in Senegal, or what the view looks like on the Great Wall of China.

I guess I fill the societal role of being the out-there one, and it's actually really great, because relatives are way more open with me than they'd be with each other, and I value the confidence they have in my judgment at such a young age. The younger cousins come to me for advice about college or traveling, and I've been hanging out with the adults basically forever, treated as an equal. I think the best thing about it is that I can be an outlet for them to talk about their ideas and dreams which might be shot down with disapproving glances from the more, shall we say, calcified members of the clan.

Also, keep in mind that California is an incredibly diverse, crowded, competitive place. What seems to you like evil-suit-dom may actually be just the way they've turned out after being in this insane incubator for so long. Just be an ambassador of awesome and good cheer, and who knows - you might end up being the refreshing breeze everyone enjoys instead of the hurricane everyone fears! :)
posted by mdonley at 5:07 PM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thirding the "drop the 'evil suits' crap" comment. I think repeating labels about them really shows that you're nervous about your own background, and so you're doing some pre-emptive jeering because you're insecure. They're just people, people who are probably both psyched and nervous to meet you. Considering how little contact you've had with them in your life, please remember that you're very lucky that they seem so welcoming! Not all kids raised apart from half their families can say that.

Yeah, their home environment is more structured and middle-brow than yours is. That's okay. You don't have to act like them or espouse their philosophies or follow their educational paths or any of that, all you have to do is be polite and gentle with them for the few days that you visit. Consider it kinda like a cross-cultural exchange, but with first-world amenities instead of third-world.

Hold off on some of the anecdotes about your unusual upbringing for a while. Definitely talk about your hopes and plans and hobbies and friends and things like that -- more about the now and the hopefully near future and less about the past. And I'm seconding the comment about not discussing politics or religion, as much as you can help it. Too potentially divisive; stick to fun stuff.

And hey, while you're there, why not go to Disneyland with them? Maybe drop it into conversation with them that you've never been...? You might find it kind of a horrifying and overwhelming place, capitalism at its most insidious and extreme, but it also might be neat to experience it with family, especially your two young half-sisters, as opposed to just looking it at it objectively and cringing. (And some of the rides are genuinely fun, too.)
posted by Asparagirl at 5:08 PM on June 24, 2007

PS: If you've got a favorite plant to bring to their house (something they can use later, like a rosemary bush?), you'll bond with the gardeners among them and you'll leave a lasting reminder of your visit in their world.
posted by mdonley at 5:09 PM on June 24, 2007

... causes me a degree of anxiety.

Relax. As a child of hippies (per your tag), you should be familiar with various relaxation techniques. Use them. Unless there's something specific that your father has mentioned, it sounds like a lot of your anxiety is coming from an assumption that they'll see you as a freak because they "are Normal", "have money", "went to business school" and you respectively aren't, don't and didn't. Recognize that assumption for what it is, and let go of it so it doesn't colour your visit and your first impressions of them.

how can I otherwise be charming, friendly and non-threatening

One faux-pas to avoid would be preachiness. Even if you think that your values/lifestyle/opinions/attitudes are better than theirs, don't be preachy about it. You wouldn't want them shoving their (according to your assumptions) conservativeness down your throat, right?

And what definitely pay some attention to the 'evil suits' thing others have raised. Looking down on your father's family for their education and career paths isn't a great starting point, just as you don't want to be looked down on for your ability to not be immediately offended by the smell of cat piss.
posted by CKmtl at 5:14 PM on June 24, 2007

seconding (thirding, fourthing) the advice to relax. be kind, mindful, patient, and polite. do not be judgmental, closed-minded, defensive, or rude.

also, "evil suits" can be--and often are--more openminded than you might think. just because they've chosen conventional paths in life doesn't mean they don't have room in their hearts for the quirky and unusual. one of my best friends in the world is such a suit, and i'm a laid-back, antimaterialistic creative type.

also, my suggestion, if you are feeling static from them, your way in is probably going to be through the kids. if you can befriend the girls, their parents will follow.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:24 PM on June 24, 2007

Nthing the "evil suits" comment.

When I was at my most defiant and rebellious stage in life, the most accepting thing anyone in my family said to me came from the most successful, seemingly strait-laced business person in our family, something to the effect of, "the real world is full of shit, you should be in no hurry to enter it, enjoy yourself while you can."
posted by jayder at 5:32 PM on June 24, 2007

I... ummm... don't even know what you mean by evil suits, 'cuz it's not a phrase I've ever used or heard used. But if I take it literally, it sounds like either you think you're going to be met at the airport by evil people wearing suits, or they'll just be decked out in costumes that make them appear to be evil. And I'm pretty sure that both assumptions are gonna be super wrong. They are probably a lot more complex and layered and quite possibly a lot nicer than that.

Like everyone else has said, just relax and be yourself. You are walking into the picture as someone who they really really want to accept. So try to be open and do your best to accept them too. Don't expect too much, they're only human. But try to enjoy eachother and don't project your insecurities or judgments on them, they haven't earned that from you so far. Give them a chance, you never know.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:54 PM on June 24, 2007

My dad called himself an 'evil suit'. It's not crap, it's an ID tag my biological father used to explain himself when I first tracked him down. As in someone who both supports the Iraq war and works in high level money management. o_O
posted by Phalene at 6:07 PM on June 24, 2007

Well, OK, but don't you see the self-deprication in that, and how maybe YOU identifying all them like this might not be helpful to you or them?
posted by tristeza at 6:12 PM on June 24, 2007

If you're going to approach them as evil suits, don't be surprised if they approach you as a dirty hippy.
posted by rhizome at 6:20 PM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Does he know of your maternal family's hippyish ways? Calling himself an 'evil suit' can just be a joking way of referring to his career and lifestyle difference. Hippies vs Squares, and all that. That still doesn't mean that him and his family are going to shun you for not Conforming.

As in someone who both supports the Iraq war and works in high level money management.

Does this necessarily entail that his family won't be welcoming and that you all won't be able to enjoy eachother's company?
posted by CKmtl at 6:30 PM on June 24, 2007

ok. concrete suggestions:

1. Bring a hostess gift to your stepmom and dad and for the visit to your grandparents

2. Don't wear clothes that will cause them emotional distress (you know what I mean)

3. If you have a ton of pierecings, take a few out (and don't mention if you have any that they can't see)

4. Make small talk - talk about your job, the weather, ask your grandparents and dad and stepmom about their childhoods and careers, and hobbies - express interest in their interests

5. Be helpful - offer to clear the table, wash the dishes, etc. You are the guest so they will probably decline, but it is polite to offer and they will apreciate it. If they accept it can be one of those sweet moments where you connect with them over something simple.

6. Enjoy the outings - I know its tempting to put down cheesy sightseeing attractions, but they are trying to treat you to what they think is special, so say positive things and be polite.

7. Practice courtesy - carry things for your stepmom, help your grandparents out of their car, open doors for people and be polite courteous and helpful and they will love you.

8. Write thank you notes for their hospitality when you get home
posted by zia at 6:49 PM on June 24, 2007

Have you let your father know that you're nervous? Nervous people are forgiven much.
posted by sculpin at 7:08 PM on June 24, 2007

Tell them you're nervous. And try to reframe the way you see them. I used to think suits were evil. Then I became a suit. I've got an MBA. I run a business. I've been to Disneyland a few times. I've been on cruises. I've been to Vegas and Cancun. I live in a yuppie condo area with a ridiculous price tag. I've gone to yuppie restaurants and so on. But I've also been to my share of protests and I've got a fairly liberal mindset. It's taken me a long time to realize that it's possible to be of two minds. I've had to reframe the way I look at "suits" and "yuppies". Of course, I still avoid wearing a suit, if at all possible.
posted by acoutu at 7:24 PM on June 24, 2007

Hmmm, perhaps wasn’t clear in my attitudes. My bad! That was sort of flippant, but I was trying not to be overly wordy and I’m a little flabbergasted about this ‘normal’ thing that other people do, but also seeking to do it myself.

I think it would help if I'd included that the family back ground I come from is as alien as if we were from another culture (third generation of aspergers, yipee!) or maybe some sort of warm, loving, slightly insane religious cult. So anyone who seems less inclined towards substance abuse, understands animal control and perhaps not threatening their stepchildren with knives is likely to seem very attractive. If I seem nervous and judgemental, it's because I'm terrified at blowing the only chance I have of experiencing normal via people genetically inclined to be patient and I want to reciprocate. I think you guys are totally right; I’m being a bit silly to say ‘evil suit’ and probably setting myself up for a disappointment when they turn out to be as insane as my background in their own special way.

I've already introduced myself to my father and grandfather via MSN, and had lengthy web camera chats, got the paternity test and my father voluntarily started kicking into my tuition (I didn’t ask). Thus I’m trying to avoid the ‘be your self advice’ because they know who I am. Now I want ‘how to be on your best behaviour so the people who raised you don’t look bad’. I fear my mother was a little heavy on the compassion for all living things and a little light on the table manners. Meeting and getting to know my paternal family is so I can claim my proud heritage of ‘eats regular meals, sitting down’. ;)

Laura Secords sounds perfect. Should I bring stuffed moose (meese?) or plushy lobsters for my sisters? One house gift for adults and one for each sister?

Thanks for the replies. They help a lot.
posted by Phalene at 8:06 PM on June 24, 2007

I've been on the other side of this. When I met a long-lost cousin, I had an MBA, a husband, a baby and owned a house. She had grown up on a commune. We found things in common and things that were interesting about each other.

My advice is be curious. Ask about family traditions - how do they celebrate holidays, birthdays, family recipes. Ask for stories about your father - especially with the grandparents. Every family has classic stories and they love to have a new audience so they can retell them.

Don't be judgemental (or at least don't let it show) and, at least on this visit, don't get into arguments - if they make an outrageous statement, you have to say something, try something bland like "well, not everyone sees it that way but what I really want to know is [new topic].

Some families believe that part of being a family is having an opinion of about everyone else's business. If you get unwanted advice, assume that it is coming from a place of love. Try either or both of these responses: "Thank you for that suggestion" and/or "That gives me something to think about"

Finally, they are probably excited and nervous about meeting you. After all, you are family and, at least where I come from, that counts for a lot.
posted by metahawk at 8:13 PM on June 24, 2007

After reading your second posting, I would add "RELAX". These people want to know you and want to like you. Be a nice person (friendly, caring) and it will count for far more than putting your elbows on the top or not bringing a social gift.
posted by metahawk at 8:27 PM on June 24, 2007

Be clean.
Pick up after yourself.
Volunteer to help. Twice. Cease volunteering after second polite decline. Pitch in anyway.
Do not wear black nail polish, it freaks out the squares. Plus, it's such a cliche.
Never talk about money. Rich people had MUCH rather talk about politics and religion than money.
Don't talk about politics or religion, either.
Do not openly marvel at ostentatious displays of consumerist excess, but enjoy the heated pool.
Always have one fewer cocktail than your host.
Everyone sez "be yourself". I disagree. I say, be 90% of yourself. I leave it to you to figure out which ten percent to jettison.
Do not be alarmed by the bathroom fixtures.
Don't go barefoot anywhere, unless you see someone else doing it first.
Outside fork first.
Do not insist on herbal tea.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:17 PM on June 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Seconding BOP


Mainstream your sense of humour. You've noticed the amount of flack you've got for the evil suit comment, similar problems happen translating humour between cultures. Stick to cute pet stories and airline losing your luggage rants, and stay away from sarcasm and irony until they get to know you a bit.

Reacquaint yourself with your iron.

Don't say things just to get a rise out of people. Not saying you do, but it's unlikely to make you any friends.

When in Rome, and all that. Watch what others do, and make an effort to do the same.
posted by kjs4 at 11:23 PM on June 24, 2007

When eating with complicated silverware arrangements, always start from the outside in. The silverware at the top of your plate is for dessert.

Typically people wait for everyone to be served before starting even though debretts (a manners guide) says you can start when you are served if the meal is hot. So wait until the last person is served in a formal dinner before beginning to eat. The same goes for each course.

Treat your half sisters to something fun or take them for a hike or walks on the beach or something. They'll remember how cool their older sister is and your father and step mom will remember you were kind and a good role model.

No risque stories of any kind. No politics, no religion. Ask people questions about themselves (most people love that) - oh you are a product manager in the checking division of XXX bank, what does that entail? Do you like it? REally, why?
posted by zia at 11:34 PM on June 24, 2007

Now I want ‘how to be on your best behaviour so the people who raised you don’t look bad’.

This is pretty simple. If you're sure that your dad and granddad already accept you, take them into your confidence step by step. Ask them what they say you should be doing or saying. They may tell you topics to avoid raising or things you should stop doing, but more likely they will just tell you to be yourself and not worry about any judgemental attitudes that, after all, you cannot control.
posted by dhartung at 12:26 AM on June 25, 2007

I really like BitterOldPunk's suggestions. If you follow that list of conventions no one will be raising their eyebrows or making allowances for your behavior.

My gut is that you mentioned 'evil suits' intending a little humor and not intending to put out any judgment. While I think there was a major over reaction here, keep in mind that a loving benevolent attitude from you has not been established, at least not with all the family members. Without that, it's tough to mark irony.

Religion and politics are not such horrible subjects. Money is worse. Don't ask how much things cost. If you do talk religion and politics, be detached. Only do it if you are curious about their opinions and keep it brief. Looking to win someone over to your point of view will be a disaster and it is why most people recommend avoiding those subjects.

For small talk, keep your stories short. If they want to know more about an incident let them ask first. Since you describe your upbringing as sheltered if someone has experienced something that you're curious about, go ahead and ask them. Don't portray yourself as a freak and if you feel that dynamic start up, let them know that there were good things about how you were raised that you appreciate as well. But asking someone about an experience they have had can be a strong way to increase rapport. It puts them in the position of the experienced and knowledgeable while you are showing a little vulnerability and trust in them. Don't go overboard with this, but since you'll be spending time with people a generation or two older it will be appropriate and hopefully effective.
posted by BigSky at 8:13 AM on June 25, 2007

Laura Secords sounds perfect. Should I bring stuffed moose (meese?) or plushy lobsters for my sisters? One house gift for adults and one for each sister?

This is a good idea. Don't go overboard on the stuffed animals - small-ish is good. You don't want to look like you're trying to buy their affection.
posted by deborah at 2:09 PM on June 25, 2007

Deal with them on a pesonal, human level rather than a political/ideological level. Ask about work, friends, family celebrations, recipes, what the girls have been doing in school, etc.

People who know each other well can discuss politics, money, religion, etc. and know what the limits of acceptable conversation are in a given situation. In this case you don't know them well. Being raised in a homogeneous liberal environment can make you start to think everyone agrees with you, and it's important to remember that you don't know what sort of beliefs these people have. So whatever preconceptions you may have, don't go in thinking that you know them better than you do.
posted by Lady Li at 2:42 PM on June 25, 2007

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