What do you call your significant other's family members?
February 18, 2008 6:18 AM   Subscribe

What do you call your significant other's family members?

What do you call your significant other's extended family members? I always feel a little uncomfortable with this, and I'm not sure what's the best way to deal with it. What do you do?

I see my options as:

First name: This works great for cousins and such, but I think it might be a little too informal/disrespectful for relatives that are significantly older than me, especially those in the grandparent generation.

Mr/Mrs Last Name: This is what my parents (who are from a similar background as my SO) prefer to be called by someone of my generation, but it's a little impractical once you realize that half the people in the room are named Mr. Smith. Also, it's hard to remember everyone's last name (SO has a very large family) since no one else uses last names. This also might come off as a little too formal.

Aunt/Uncle/etc: Calling people whatever SO calls them could work, but I feel a little weird, since we're not married or anything and I'm not really a part of the family.

Avoid using names at all cost: This is my current modus operandi. It works well most of the time, but it's nice to be able to call people by name.
posted by fermezporte to Human Relations (37 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Here's what works for me. (cultureFilter: white, Northeastern US)

F-i-L: first name
M-i-L: first name
GM-i-L: what my wife calls her: "Nana"
Aunt/Uncle/Cousins: first name

It works the other way for my wife as well. She calls all of my relatives by their first name, and my grandmother as "Grandma".

Like I said, we aren't a formal family and the types of formality expectations are completely different from, for example, my first-generation Korean-American friends.
posted by gregvr at 6:22 AM on February 18, 2008

I call my girlfriend's parents by their first names, and her only surviving grandparent "Granny". I have no grandparents left of my own, so this isn't confusing.

I guess it all depends on the stage of the relationship, and how you get on with the individuals in question. Early on, when you're still trying to make that good impression, Mr and Mrs X might be the right thing, but we're 8 years into the relationship, and I've been out drinking on more than a lot of occasions with her dad - calling him anything other than by his first name would feel very strange now.
posted by benzo8 at 6:23 AM on February 18, 2008

I call my father and mother in law by their first names since we've been married. It was hard as hell to do at first, and still feels a little unnatural, but hey, they've never complained.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:34 AM on February 18, 2008

I call everyone by their first name. My SiL's husband calls her parents mom and dad, though, and everyone's ok with it both ways. Uncles and aunts are also first names. It helps that her family are all quite a bit younger than mine, though my wife and I are about the same age. I get the impression that everyone realizes that I'm the most uncomfortable person in the room in these situations, so they let me use whatever formalities make me the most at ease.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:50 AM on February 18, 2008

My Mother and Father-In-Law are a few years older than my parents, so first names didn't feel right. I pretty much avoided calling them anything, my wife was lobbying for "Mom" and "Dad', which just felt weird - then my Sister-In-Law got married and her husband started dropping the "mom"s and "dad"s left and right I realized I had to get with it or lose most-favored-son-in-law status. It was a bit strange at first, but given that I am very close to them it seems natural. Now it's even funny when my "real" Mom is visiting and I call out "Mom", get two "Yes?"s in response, and have to clarify (uh, biological Mom)
posted by jalexei at 6:55 AM on February 18, 2008

I've actually ducked this problem for the 1.5 years I've been married by never using a name for them in conversation with them. Now that we have a child on the way, I'll just use grandma and grandpa.
posted by drezdn at 6:56 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

All of them are first names, with just a couple exceptions -- for whatever reason, there are a couple who are "Uncle So-and-so" or "Mrs So-and-so" to everyone, not just me. So I just go with the flow, but I'm pretty informal and have no discomfort calling an older person by their given name (assuming that that is how they want to be called -- I'm happy to call them any name they desire, and sometimes other names behind their backs in a couple of cases).

I did have one girlfriend once where I could never figure out a comfortable way to call her parents, so the entire time we were together I never, ever called any of them by name -- once in a while you have to do a little rhetorical dance, but in practice names are not really needed all that often.
posted by Forktine at 7:01 AM on February 18, 2008

I use first names. My mother-in-law really really really really really wants me to call her "Mom" (phone call: "Hi, Lucinda, this is Mom") but it feels very odd to me and I have trouble doing it.
posted by Lucinda at 7:13 AM on February 18, 2008

First names for all except the grandmother, who I don't really call anything except "usted".
The whole "mom & dad" thing for in-laws sounds really, really odd to my south american ears. People who call their in-laws anything other than by their names here use 'suegro' & 'suegra' (father- & mother-in-law), even for Girl- or Boy-friend's parents.
My wife calls my parents by their first names (or my dad by a nickname, actually), but uses the "usted" form, which is also odd.
posted by signal at 7:16 AM on February 18, 2008

In the US, at least, it's easy for people to correct you if you're being too formal ("No, please, call me Bob!") but a bit awkward to correct you if you're being too casual. We like to act generous and easygoing; we don't like to act uptight and "That's Mister Windphone to you!" sure does sound uptight.

So if you err on the side of informality, you may never find out you're screwing up, because people will feel funny pointing it out.

That means if your goal is to call everyone what they want to be called, you should err on the side of being formal, which, I know, is a real pain.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:17 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Somewhere along the line, there, I switched from "Here in the US..." to "THIS IS HOW ALL CIVILIZED BEINGS BEHAVE!" Um, tack an "If you're in the States" on those last couple paragraphs somewhere.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:19 AM on February 18, 2008

As a younger person, I called everyone by Mister/Ms, or if I knew they were married Mrs. Then, if the person said "Oh nonsense call me Kevin!", I'd call them Kevin, and feel very very weird about it. Since then, I refer to my now-gf's parents by their first names.

For me there's a bit of a power issue, sort of a "respect your elders" thing. I really don't respect her parents, and I don't mind letting them know that I've got shit under control. I've never been rude or uppity or anything with them---I just avoid them. So, to their faces it's first names, but the way I refer to them MOST often is Mister and Mrs White Trash. (Never to their faces, and never in front of my gf.)
posted by TomMelee at 7:22 AM on February 18, 2008

Can I just put in a word for all of those parents who don't get referred to as anything? My boyfriend's SIL has now been affiliated with his brother for over six years, and she STILL doesn't call my boyfriend's mom anything -- not L., Mrs. P., or Mom. I was over once and casually said, "Hey, L., can I get you a drink?" and she froze and said, "YOU CALLED ME A NAME! SOMEONE CALLED ME BY A NAME!" She practically kissed me.

So, yeah... it's really the SIL's fault, and she's worse than most, and I've totally been there with not calling someone's parents anything, but it's potentially more hurtful than you realize. Please, people! Get over it! Otherwise, you'll get into the habit of calling them nothing, and being that way multiple years in is rude and kind of sad. If you're not sure, just ask. (I jokingly referred to an ex's parents as A. and Sir, as the dad was rather gruff, and they still sign their cards that way with a little heart next to it.)
posted by Madamina at 7:30 AM on February 18, 2008

I think it depends on your age as well as the family. I'm in my mid 20s and have been dating someone for over 4 years and still call all of his family members by Mr./Mrs. Last name, except for one of his aunts who asked me to call her by her first name and since she just got divorced and stopped using the last name I know, have no choice. But in general, I like to avoid names at all cost.

My boyfriend dropped the First Name bomb on my dad earlier this year and I kinda looked at him funny, but my dad said that it was ok because it was a "guy thing" but it definitely sounded weird. Why don't you ask your SO... they may have a better idea
posted by CAnneDC at 7:31 AM on February 18, 2008

I used to have a USian GF, here in Chile. Her parents came down to visit, and I naturally called them both by their first names. Apparently, it was kind of weird for them as they where used to being Mr. and Mrs. LastName. But I was the odd, foreign boyfriend, any way, so no worries.
posted by signal at 7:44 AM on February 18, 2008

Could you ask them? Or have your boyfriend ask them? He'd probably know how formal his family is better than you would, and definitely better than we would. When I was dating my husband I called his parents Mr. and Mrs. Lastname, but once we got engaged they made it very clear to me that they expected to be called Mom and Dad. On the other hand, my parents don't care what he calls them as long as it's not Mr. and Mrs. Lastname. It varies from family to family.

As far as cousins and aunts and uncles go, this is the strategy I used when I attended a family wedding with my husband before we got married. Since his aunts and uncles are usually introduced to me as, "Meet Aunt Claire and Uncle Terry!" I just referred to them as Claire and Terry. If they had been introduced as, "Meet my aunt and uncle, Claire and Terry Smith," I'd refer to them as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It gave me a clue about how formal I should be.

This is always an awkward thing. Good luck!
posted by christinetheslp at 7:48 AM on February 18, 2008

Throughout the 20 years I was with my ex-husband, I managed to completely avoid calling his Lancastrian/Anglo-Canadian parents anything (and I see I'm not the only coward here!). I used no salutations in email, and when the Christmas cards were sent out, I made my husband address them to Mom and Dad, with me adding my signature. I didn't feel right calling them by their first names, and if I had called them Mr./Mrs. so-and-so, that probably would have forced them to say, "Oh, call me [firstname]!" Cards and email from them to both of us were signed as Mom or Dad; but anything sent just to me was always signed with their first names. But for some reason, I really didn't feel right being that informal with them, and calling them any variation on Mom and Dad didn't fit.

The situation is a little different with my sister's Guyanese-Canadian in-laws (my extended in-laws, or, as I sometimes call them, the In-law Expansion Pack.) I call the matriarch "Mrs. Chan", but my sister doesn't call her anything, using the same avoidance strategy that I used. And she's never asked me to call her by her first name, either. On the other hand, I call close friends of the family (but not blood relatives) Uncle W. and Aunt B., the same as everyone else, and it feels perfectly natural. It's both friendly and formal.
posted by maudlin at 8:02 AM on February 18, 2008

I also avoid using names at all cost and have done so for the past 20 years.
posted by theredpen at 8:09 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I always defer to formality first. I address someone as Mr. or Mrs. unless they correct me. This is especially true for people who are my grandparents' generation. After doing this with many of my husband's relatives, they all told me to call them Aunt or Uncle whatever. And actually, his grandmother was insulted I called her Mrs. because obviously I should have known to just call her grandmom. Ah, miscommunication. Anyway. Nobody else seemed insulted I went for the Mr./Mrs. route initially.

My family is a little more formal than my husband's, but even they wouldn't stand for the Mr./Mrs. stuff, except for my grandparents and other elderly relatives. My dad actually called my grandparents (his in-laws) Mr. and Mrs. until my parents had been married for like 20 years. They were verry old school.
posted by sutel at 8:09 AM on February 18, 2008

I avoided calling my in-laws anything while we were dating. Then, after we got engaged, I took a deep breath and started calling them by their first names. I kind of got the feeling that it seemed abrupt or forward to them and now I wish I had just asked, even though I know they would have told me to call them by their first names. I actually would have liked it if they had told me to call them "Mom" and "Dad."
posted by Enroute at 8:33 AM on February 18, 2008

When I was first married, my mother-in-law called one night and said to me, "This is Steve's mother." I burst out laughing and said, well, I can't call you THAT, what SHOULD I call you? We ended up settling on her first name. Since then I always ask.
posted by JanetLand at 8:40 AM on February 18, 2008

I dated a guy for almost 7 years. It started when I was really young, the ripe old age of 15. Anyway, about year 3 after trying the 'avoid calling them anything' and then the Mr/Ms thing which always felt odd, ex's mom sat me down and right there in front of her, made me call her by her first name. Several times. :) It was weird and awkward, but that sure let me know what she preferred!
posted by CwgrlUp at 8:43 AM on February 18, 2008

I was the coward as well, using the same avoidance strategy that apparently most here adopt. That worked for almost 4 years until my bf's mom passed away after a very brief battle with cancer, and I found myself in emotional situations when I had to call his dad something, so I just went with the first name. It felt really weird, but Mr. would've been worse in that situation. Heck, it's still a little weird (and I still avoid when possible), but i'm getting used to it. I still don't know what to call his grandmother though.
posted by cgg at 9:07 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

All in-laws except grandparents get called by their first name, in our family. I call my husband's grandma "Mrs. F".

I instigated the first name thing with my PILs to pre-empt any request to call them Mom and Dad because that would have skeeved me out.
posted by gaspode at 9:18 AM on February 18, 2008

I usually call my inlaws by their first names. It helps that they are friends with my mom and dad now, so I can awkwardly string along behind them with the first-name adoption plan. I would never call them mom and dad. My mom and dad are my mom and dad. It would be disrespectful of THEM to graft those monikers on to someone else, IMHO.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:43 AM on February 18, 2008

Using first names is completely comfortable for me. You would call close colleagues at work of the same age by their first names, wouldn't you? At some point on reaching adulthood age should stop being a barrier to being on a first-name basis with people.
posted by yarrow at 9:59 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was raised by a super formal southerner.

I would call everyone ma'am/sir or Mr/Mrs/Miss last name (if I knew the name). If I didn't know their name I would ask my partner as soon as possible and learn it, ASAP. Besides, if you don't know their names, how will you address the thank-you notes?

Point the greeting at the general person you're addressing. They'll figure it out. Several people get by without using names at all. If they get sick of it, they'll ask you to call them something else. If not, then, whatever.

I call my partner's parents Mr. and Mrs. I just feel more comfortable with that until they invite me to do otherwise.

I would rather be over-formal than over-familiar in a life-long relationship--there's plenty of time to get to know them better and be more casual. Likewise, hurt feelings can last a long time.
posted by sondrialiac at 10:03 AM on February 18, 2008

Aunt/Uncle/etc: Calling people whatever SO calls them could work, but I feel a little weird, since we're not married or anything and I'm not really a part of the family.

I feel that this is rude, and it robs you of the wonderful moment when they say "Oh, call me Aunt Becky, we just love having you as part of the family."
posted by sondrialiac at 10:06 AM on February 18, 2008

I mostly deal in first names here.

In my 18.5 year now-ex relationship, there was the MIL named Karen, the step-MIL named Karen and the SIL named Karen. Two having the same last name. Any way you dealt with it, you were screwed.

I'm currently in a long term relationship and am still most comfortable with first names. There is another step-mom issue and as my partner doesn't consistently call her mom (never to her face) this is easy and we all roll with it.

My partner calls my 'rents mom and dad. He's known them forever - 20 years or so due to the nature of his biz. It's cute. Everyone is comfortable with it... But I'm sticking with firsts.
posted by Incognita at 12:05 PM on February 18, 2008

For SO's parents, you could do the Hank hill thing and refer to them as Mother/Father [last name] (ex. "Hello Mother Smith, I've been looking forward to your delicious meatloaf").

Old fashioned but it works in a way.
posted by champthom at 12:39 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I call my MIL by her first name and always have. I found it pretty difficult at the start because I'd been raised to believe that people who were a generation older than me were far more valuable human beings than myself (it's not true).

I invite my kids' friends and nieces and nephews to call me by my first name, but they never do. I can't imagine anyone except a bank teller calling me Mrs Anything, but I'm Australian and we're a pretty informal lot.
posted by b33j at 1:39 PM on February 18, 2008

I call my SO's parents and brother by their first names.
posted by number9dream at 2:07 PM on February 18, 2008

we've been together for three years, and we got serious quick.

i call hers mom, papa, grandma
she manages to not use any names for mine *shrug*
posted by phritosan at 2:53 PM on February 18, 2008

My parents have always called their in-laws "Mom" and "Dad," but my wife and I use first names for each other's parents. Feels perfectly natural.

There's a form of address that I like but could never pull it off without a "WTF?" from my Mrs. The only time I've heard it is in the old sitcom "The Jeffersons," as Louise would call George's mom "Mother Jefferson." Maybe someone else knows about this. It's both respectful and familial.
posted by bryon at 5:00 PM on February 18, 2008

If her name is X, I call her parents X's mom and X's dad. When directly addressing them, I find myself not using their names ... ever.
posted by yellowbkpk at 7:42 PM on February 18, 2008

I avoid calling my girlfriend's parents anything. When I meet them, I just say "Hello".

Seems to be a popular tactic. :P

Although if the day comes when I absolutely have to address them directly, I'd say Mr/Mrs. ****.


Chinese inlaws filter: If your inlaw relatives are Chinese, you have to call them mom/dad/uncle/aunt/etc. It's a cultural and linguistic thing. If the inlaw relative is of an older generation than you, you absolutely cannot address them by their name. Doing so would be deeply disrespectful. Names are fine if the inlaw relative is of the same generation as you.

Note the emphasis on generation. Even if a relative of a higher generation than you ends up younger than you through a bizarre combination of early/late childbearing ages, you still have to address him or her with the appropriate title (uncle, aunt, etc). This rule is not strictly enforced in most families, and it may be appropriate to address that person by name. Ask your S.O.

Linguistic complication: In Chinese, there are specific names for the various types of cousins. If your inlaw relatives are Chinese and you don't speak Chinese, and are thereby unable to address them with the appropriate titles, it's best to use the avoidance tactic.
posted by BeaverTerror at 1:50 AM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Boyfriend's parents? I call them "Hi there." They're liberal Seattle folk and I'm Southern, so I'd feel too weird to call them by their first names.
posted by herbaliser at 3:47 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

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