May 11, 2006

The Brit with American in-laws.

On AskMetafilter, a British woman with American in-laws poses a question about how to deal with cultural difference -- do I seem like "a snotty, cold Brit"? -- then proceeds to trash the hell out of the horrible, horrible in-laws she obviously cannot stand. She gets the answer she seeks: everyone assures her that her in-laws really suck.

She also gets some actual advice about how to get along with horrible people, which really is one of the great challenges in life, isn't it? (Or do you just avoid people you can't stand, even when they are in the family or your workplace?) Another great challenge in life is figuring out where to draw the line: When do you mark someone as horrible and realize what you need is a coping strategy (or avoidance)? As you've gotten older have you changed where you draw that line? Did you start writing people off more quickly or did you become more tolerant?

ADDED, bonus usage question: Since we have to say "in-laws," is there any point in preserving the fussy form "mothers-in-law" (or fathers-in-law, etc.)?


reader_iam said...

I started out pretty tolerant and have gotten more so. (I do get irritated more easily, but I keep it to myself.)

The one exception is my own parents.

Jennifer said...

No, she sounds like a snotty wife. So her in-laws are low class? Deal with it. How on earth is her post not TMI or gossiping behind others' backs?

People who bitch about their in-laws annoy me. They are not going away. Grow up and deal with them. And if nothing else they created your spouse, who presumably you think is pretty grand.

I'm pretty tolerant of others, probably more as I've gotten older. I was always taught that someone with class can deal with just about anybody.

Jennifer said...

Ha ha, I just noticed that paragraph two is about people who annoy me. And paragraph three is about how wonderfully tolerant I am.

reader_iam said...

There's a difference between getting annoyed and marking someone as horrible, much less writing them off.

You can be annoyed or irritated and still be tolerant.

SippicanCottage said...
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MadisonMan said...

I avoid them. Mind, there are only 1 or 2 people in Madison that I think fall into this category. Life is so much more agreeable when those two aren't in the mix. But these are people I don't have to interact with.

I'm fortunate, I guess, that my in-laws are wonderful and my family is too, mostly. And I have nice neighbors. What would I do if my neighbors were this Brit's in-laws? Tolerate them, I suppose -- which would mean a lot of eye-rolling and laughing. They do seem ridiculous to me.

reader_iam said...

is there any point in preserving the fussy form "mothers-in-law" (or fathers-in-law, etc.


Aspasia M. said...

My general approach is to be tolerant but have boundaries.

Joan said...

It's only gossip if you name names. I have no idea who this "anapurna" is, and even less of an idea who her in-laws are. If we were never allowed to talk about others at all, our heads would all explode. TMI is only TMI because you're embarrassed for the person when you're hearing it, and forever after whenever you see them. IMO it's pretty hard to reach the TMI threshhold on an anonymous message board. There are many things I won't talk about, but I've seen lots of people cheerfully spill all.

My ex-husband's mother sounds a bit like poor Ana's MIL. That woman could find fault in the most exquisite experiences. When I finally saw that it was a constant of her personality, I felt really sorry for her.

One of the commenters brought up the most important thing to consider: these people, somehow or other, created this woman's husband. Was it just a fluke, or did something change? And the husband seems like a useless lump, really, if he can't see how unpleasant his parents are. More likely, he's just used to it, and doesn't care. IMO that doesn't bode well for how he will behave as he gets older. The cliche that we turn into our parents exists for a reason.

I like the laugh-it-off approach, and the changing-the-subject approach, and best of all, the limiting contact approach.

I solved all my unpleasant in-law problems by getting a divorce. After that experience, I was so happy when I met my husband's family, pre-engagement; they are more well-adjusted than mine. ("Never marry anyone with more baggage than you." -- my poor husband! Somehow, he survives.)

I think that Anapurna did a pretty balanced job of ragging on her ILs and describing her own horrified reactions. She doesn't present herself as perfect, and she's in a difficult situation. It's great that she got some good advice.

tcd said...

Anyone else annoyed that this Brit is attributing her in-laws' bad behavior to American culture? Like all Americans are this low class? She needs to grow up and realize that she attracted and married into trash. Otherwise, from whence did her husband spring?

And yes, I've become very tolerant with age. :)

Jacques Cuze said...

Live and let live, unless they are hurting someone. Then I must constructively engage them.

JodyTresidder said...

TCD asked: "Anyone else annoyed that this Brit is attributing her in-laws' bad behavior to American culture?"


Ex-pat Brit, and after 13 years here I still can't get over the "money thing" as we call it.

When I feel bumptious myself, I find it refreshing to hear exactly how much someone has "pulled down - bottom line - last year" five minutes after I've met them. Whem I'm in a frailer mood, it strikes me as very odd.

This poor woman will never change that part of her in-laws.

tcd said...

I don't know what circles you run in, but my experience has been very different from yours. I find that most Americans are very hush hush about their salaries and assets. I'm a first generation immigrant myself and am married to an American. My Midwestern in-laws never talk finances or dollar signs. Maybe it's the people you attract?

Balfegor said...

When I feel bumptious myself, I find it refreshing to hear exactly how much someone has "pulled down - bottom line - last year" five minutes after I've met them. Whem I'm in a frailer mood, it strikes me as very odd.

My reaction is a bit like TCD's -- this sounds bizarre to me. On the other hand, this woman is talking about New Yorker in-laws, and I have heard (from other Americans) that this kind of salary/money-obsessed behaviour is common in New York, so it may be a regional cultural difference. Talking about one's wealth in public sounds unbearably gauche to me.

Jennifer said...

Jody: I'm always surprised to hear that complaint because, like TCD, it has not been my experience. But, I have heard that complaint from other Brits.

It reminds me of what a Japanese teacher told me once. Which is to be careful of comparing the ideals of your country to the realities of another. It's not a valid comparison.

MadisonMan said...

I have no clue what any of my neighbors make. It just isn't talked about. If someone actually told me what they made last year, I'd be speechless. If I wasn't, I'd ask them why they thought I needed to know.

Is Jody on the coasts? Maybe this is an east coast/west coast/midwest mindset difference.

BrianOfAtlanta said...

tcd, maybe it's the difference between a certain subspecies of New Yorker and Midwesterners or Southerners? This lady's in-laws sound like carbon copies of my sister's NYer in-laws. Fortunately for my sis, her hubby is completely disgusted with his parents and she gets to play the hero by at least keeping him talking to them.

jeff said...

I've got nice in-laws. Both sets of them, actually.

And my wife and my parents get along quite nicely as well.

SippicanCottage said...
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JodyTresidder said...

New York in one!

Last week, as the most recent example, I met an extremely sunny woman at a party. The cost of her son's private school, followed by her husband's salary (the woman herself was a lawyer)- established straight off the bat, without a blush. This prompted another woman to mention what her house was worth (with a bit of edge).

I always knew it was a typically "New York" tic - but I assumed it was somehow part of being upfront and charming? (Which is how I take it - unless I'm feeling feeble, or don't care for the person for other reasons).

Balfegor said...

but I assumed it was somehow part of being upfront and charming?

It's a cultural thing, I guess. In New York, the meaning of that kind of conversation probably is "upfront and charming." To me, and evidently to a fair number of other people, it's astonishingly low-class and vulgar, but that's just how I was brought up.

One runs into these kinds of things all the time -- I show the sole of my shoe all the time, standing stork or crossing my legs, but my recollection is that in Turkey, that's considered awfully rude. Americans (and Englishmen) address each other by first name seconds after being introduced, but in many other countries, that's considered being excessively familiar (or even superior), and is deeply insulting.

Dawn said...

Jody, I have no idea where in NYC you were when these women began the game of 'I'm one-up on you', but my family is from Queens/Brooklyn, and personal finances were/are strictly personal - it just wasn't/isn't discussed.

Palladian said...

"She also gets some actual advice about how to get along with horrible people, which really is one of the great challenges in life, isn't it? (Or do you just avoid people you can't stand, even when they are in the family or your workplace?)"

Your blog is a good place to practice one's horrible-people-avoiding skills. Tolerating certain commenters has really put tolerance to the test. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just scroll past horrible people in the offline world the way you can online?

Ann Althouse said...

About the money thing...

I grew up -- with parents from Michigan and Delaware -- taught not to refer to how much money anyone made. I had no idea what my father made until I had to go through his papers after my mother died. I also learned -- and I don't remember being taught -- not to talk about money even in a situation where you were buying something, such as in a store or a restaurant. When I shop, I try to be inconspicuous about looking at the price tag, and if I'm with someone, I wouldn't comment on the price. I would discuss the merchandise as if price were not an issue at all. Is this not American?

Jennifer said...

Ann - that's exactly the same experience that I've had. I grew up in Hawaii.

I was even taught that when someone gives you money as a gift, you never refer to that in the thank you card. Just "thanks for the thoughtful gift." Like money is a dirty word!

I'm not sure if that's American or not. I know Asians and Arabs (from those regions) tend to haggle over price in a way that many Americans find distasteful and even uncomfortable. But those cultures tend to view you as weak or stupid if you just accept the given price or give in too quickly.

Dave said...

Jody: I've lived in NYC for 30 years and this is par for the course.

When I've been elsewhere in America (outside of Los Angeles) and in Europe, this does not seem to be a topic of conversation.

Theories abound about why this is the case: aggressive, ambitious, densely packed populations, etc. Some people in NYC are very status conscious because they apartment they live in, their neighborhood, their ability to pay for private schools are all implicit indications of their achievements in life.

Petty, perhaps, but as they say, it's the culture, and New Yorkers are not known for either their reticence or humility.

It's similar to the "you are what you drive" mentality in Los Angeles, except in the case of NYC, "your inherent worth is directly proportional to the square footage of your apartment."

Well, I'm exaggerating a bit here, but not really.

Tim Sisk said...

I expected to hate the Brit woman until I read her post (and the comments). If she was slurring Americans she sort of retracted that by saying (in the comments) that she only brings up the cultural differences in that her "British" reaction is to shut down in the face of boorish behavior. I'm not sure that is just a "British" it seems more along the lines of a non-confrontational polite response in the face of boorish behavior.

Regarding money: In the South, we do not traditionally talk about how much money we have. It is in most circles considered obnoxious. In fact, when it is discussed usually it is in the form of "poor mouthing" that is denying that you are rich but stating that you are in fact are very, very poor. I don't know if this is because we are afraid that if we are thought of as rich family will ask to borrow money from us!

For years my in-laws, upon purchasing a new vehicle, would hide it in the back yard for weeks. Once their purchase was known, they would be almost apologetic as to why they had bought it (I got a really good deal and the other one was on its last legs and etc.)

tiggeril said...

Asians may haggle over price but they never, EVER discuss finances. Growing up, I knew that was the one thing to never mention. I still don't- it's considered vulgar in Chicago as far as I know.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Ann, Jennifer -

Same here re: money, even to the way of writing thank-you notes.

I don't think avoidance is a helpful strategy, nor is pretending these things don't bother her. I think this woman needs to talk first to her husabnd about her frustrations because the in-laws are already creating distance and conflict in their marriage. Then she needs to have a strategy to talk to her in-laws about their relationship, her perspective and personality, and she must be willing to listen to them as well. They will never change each other, but they can develop ground rules for healthy interaction.

Some of the problems are based on culture and preferences, but in other cases the in-laws are just rude. It would help if the lady quit passing judgment on her in-laws and just accepted that some things she doesn't like don't make them bad.

But ultimately it's going to be up to the husband to decide if he's willing to back his wife in holding his family to higher standards of polite behavior. Otherwise, they will use him to isolate her further and possibly sabotage the marriage.

Her problem is not just with her in-laws. If she tries to initiate change, her husband will be drawn even more into the conflict. This is a family system issue.

I recommend Boundaries by Henry Cloud, and a good counselor who can help her understand and deal with family dynamics.

Jennifer said...

Hey, Tim, you're right. I went back and read the comments. She truly does seem to be trying to find a way to deal with them for her husband's sake.

I can't abide people who are hateful to their in-laws regardless of how "right" they are. How would the same people tolerate contempt for their own families?

Did you read the one commenter's suggestions?

"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.

re: the SIL is a ho thing, [say] "I'm wondering why you mention this, is there something you're trying to tell me about yourself, my dear?"

Suuure...that'll teach the in-laws how little class they have. Lord!

howzerdo said...

I have lived in upstate NY for my entire life, my husband was raised in and my in-laws still live in the NYC-metro area, I grew up in a town that is a very popular weekend retreat for folks from NYC and its suburbs, and currently I teach at a university where a large proportion of students come from downstate. I wouldn't say that *all* people from NYC love money-talk, but in my experience, it is pretty common. My husband jokes that to his family, any job that results in high income and lots of material possessions is OK. (So being a drug dealer or hit man is acceptable, but a social worker is not.) I was asked how much cash we got as wedding gifts, and who gave how much. I have been criticized for making hand made cards (something that is greatly valued in my artsy family), and told that I must be poor or I wouldn't do such a thing. A cousin-in-law remarked that she preferred to save money for 10 years so she could spend 50 grand, rather than have a modest wedding such as ours! Over the years I have learned how to cope with it. These are extreme examples. The truth is, they are actually nice people, but we simply don't share all the same values, and some of their behaviors are rude. Luckily, my ILs are not quite as tacky as the folks this woman describes (no plastic surgery, for one thing). And, we don't live next door to them. We do make a hotel reservation (and pay for the room) when they come to visit (this has been an easy sell, since they don't like animals and we have a "zoo"). I am myself and speak my mind when it is important - and have learned when to bite my tongue and let it go, when it isn't.

reader_iam said...

Very wise advice, pastor_jeff, and dead-on insight about it being a family-systems issue, as well as primarily the responsibility of the husband.

Tim Sisk said...

Family systems? It was great to learn terminology like "triangulation" and "non-anxious presence". It gave me the opportunity to show off my 100K education!

reader_iam said...

I only wish I'd had a $100k education. Not sure that mine even hit $10k for the entire thing, including housing (admittedly, I mostly lived in dives).

Joseph Hovsep said...

Two things on Brits & Americans and social standing.

I agree that Americans rarely tell others about their salary in casual conversation, if ever. Americans are perceived as brazenly showy with their wealth by foreigners who are used to more well established cultural clues available to tell one's class and presumed wealth in their home countries.

Another problem Anapurna may be experiencing is Americans' inaccurate perception of her own social class based on the limited clues they have about her. I personally have British in-laws who now live an upper-middle class suburban life in the U.S. They grew up Manchester working class families and their accents would clearly indicate to a Brit that they are low class and Northern English, but Americans tend to think their British accents indicate high social standing.

hygate said...

My experience, growing up in Ohio, living and working in the South, is that the only person you discuss finances with is your spouse. In fact, I'm uncomfortable discussing salient facts with professionals who need to know that kind of information such as mortgage brokers, CPA, Financial Advisor, etc. That said, I wish I did have some idea just how much my peers at work make. It would be very useful info the next time my evaluation comes up and my raise is negotiated. Don't most workplaces have rules against employees discussing their remuneration for just that reason?

Joseph Hoysep said:

"I personally have British in-laws who now live an upper-middle class suburban life in the U.S. They grew up Manchester working class families and their accents would clearly indicate to a Brit that they are low class and Northern English, but Americans tend to think their British accents indicate high social standing."

I'm not going to say that accents don't have any influence on how you are perceived in the U.S., but class isn't nearly the issue in the States that it is elsewhere. A persons class is determined by their accomplishments and/or financial status, (which, since we aren't supposed to talk about how much we make, means buying stuff that shows we have money)not who your family is or where you come from. People from old money families are the exception to this. They have their own rules.

Anapurna said...

I am the woman who posted this question on metafilter. Firstly I'd like you to know that I did not post in order to get reassurance that my in-laws are horrible. I was genuinly asking for help with a strategy to cope. I posted an anonymous question because I literally have no-one I feel I can talk to about this. I don't want to upset my husband and I can't confide in family or friends without being disloyal to my husband. I just know that I am not handling them well and feel enormous guilt at my failure to bridge the gulf.

I really regret causing offense to Americans reading the question. I have lived in the USA for 13 years and know literally hundreds of wonderful warm Americans none of whom behave like my in-laws. I only mentioned our nationalities because I have trouble working out which of our differences are culural and which are just personal. and because my in-laws have criticised me for behaving like a Brit (cool, distant, polite) and I want to behave better than that.

Jennifer is right I did give TMI about them. I thought that this would be OK because they are unidentifiable but I am sorry. I allowed my frustration with them to become a judgmental rant. I really do suck at handling this situation and I really do know that I am at fault for not being able to get along with them.

To the guy who called me fat and fridgid - I'm is exactly this level of malice that I find so hard to take in my in-laws and no matter how wrongly I have handled the situation I do not understand what I did to deserve such a meanspirited personal remark.

I felt that some of the advice I got from fellow me-fites was great (and some of it wasn't!) I always feel so left out and shut down when I am with my husband's family and I know that I retreat behind my upbringing and am polite and distant. I really was looking for ways of being warm without getting too involved. And also some advice about where to draw the line. For instance do I really have to pick the veg out of my spoiled niece's soup or when my MIL humiliates a waiter what should I do? As I said in my comment on metafilter I was just trying to find a way to show up for Jewish holidays with a smile on my face and without a knot in my stomach.