My poor girlfriend. She’s an only child. Her Thanksgiving dinners consisted of 3 people at a table. She’s not ready for this.
Oh, well. The walk in the park had to end sometime.
In T-minus two weeks, my sweet, loving girlfriend will innocently wander into the lion’s den: the writhing, carnivorous mass of 45 people called the Mielke family. Parents, siblings, 13 aunts and uncles, 15 cousins. If you count all the second cousins, there will be 5 sets of twins at our Christmas party.
They’re the nicest, most loving bunch of people in the world, and I wouldn’t exchange them for any other family in the world. No, not even a fake one. Not even the Tanners. But it’s overwhelming for newcomers, and especially overwhelming for significant others. So as a holiday gift, I have compiled a list of helpful tips for dealing with your “other family” on those big, important weekends.
Tip 1: Be Yourself. Just Kidding. “Being yourself” is a dangerous cliché. Being yourself involves all the rude, awful thoughts you have when you see little kids acting like assholes in the aisles of Target. Being yourself would have to account for the chain-smoking, donut-eating, “don’t talk to me when the TV’s on” hermit you become on too many winter nights.
You want to be a specific part of yourself – the engaging, interested version of you who actually wants to meet people, ask questions, and contribute to conversations about your loved one. As the new boyfriend or girlfriend, assumptions are on your side. These people aren’t hoping you suck – they’re hoping you’re awesome. So get in there, and get to know them.
Tip 2: Bring a gift. Even if you have all eight days’ worth of Hannukah presents in the car, that’s not enough. You want to have a gift to give the in-laws right away. It doesn’t have to be special – flowers or candy will do the trick – but a “thank you for having me” present will get your visit off to a great start.
Tip 3: Be able to talk about your career without sounding like a douchebag. My kryptonite. All it takes is “so what do you do, Brad?” Within 30 seconds I’m a quivering mess of a man, mumbling unrelated phrases about “prospects,” hardware stores and dodgeball. It’s a trainwreck. A word to the wise: have a 60 second script about what you do, what you like about it, and what you want to do in the future.
Tip 4: Grin and bear it, even if it’s not funny. Every family has its own sense of humor. Chances are, it’s not exactly the same as yours. Deal with it. Laugh at the jokes, smile at stories, and be the butt of a good-natured prank. (For some reason, old men think it’s hilarious to tell you that they used to be someone really famous – “oh, you like refrigerators, eh? I invented them.” Your job is to say “wow, really?” before they giggle and say, “naw, pulled your leg!” Just suck it up and let him enjoy his joke. He’s old.) If you’re feeling good, try some humor of your own – the hosts will be happy you seem to be enjoying yourself. But keep it clean, please.
Tip 5: Offer to help. My mom always reminds me of her most embarrassing moment: she was meeting my dad’s family for the first time, and all the girls rose to wash dishes at the end of the meal. My mom, as the only guest at the table, continued talking with her future in-laws, before my grandmother pointedly asked: “Katherine, are you going to help the girls?”
However misogynistic this little tradition was, it was mortifying. Growing up, her mother had always been insistent that guests never see the disaster area that was their kitchen…so she had taken for granted how it worked with this new family. Don’t be that person. Offer to help with whatever you can – cooking, washing, or cleaning the house when the festivities are over.
Tip 6: When you offer, accept the answer. No one likes that over zealous person who demands to help when they don’t know what they’re doing, and even fewer people like the person who act like they’re being held against their will. If you’re asked to help, help really well. If you’re not, be a good guest.
Tip 7: Ask questions. It’s not all about you. In-laws like to know you’re interested. Keep up with what’s going on in their lives.
Tip 8: Don’t be the drunkest person at the table. Enjoy yourself, but don’t enjoy yourself to the point of embarrassing stories. You don’t want to give the family any ammunition later in life. So take your cues from those around you: if most people are on their second glass of wine, try to be in the same neighborhood. (Advanced tip: Try not to be the second drunkest person either, just in case the first is the family fuck-up who no one likes.)
Tip 9: Religion and politics. You’re…on your own.
Tip 10: Put your significant other first. At the end of the day, you’re hanging out with these people because of the person you came with. Treat them right. Everything else is secondary.