Enchanté? Meeting the (foreign) parents
It's time to meet your partner's foreign parents and family. How can you make a good impression when you don't share a common language or culture?
If your partner invites you to come and meet his or her family, it's generally a signal that the relationship is pretty serious. In most European countries, however, the family is highly important – in some places, such as France and Spain, it's almost central to daily life – so if you're invited to meet the parents (and possibly aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces and nephews), it can be a very big step indeed. In some countries, it's almost tantamount to a marriage proposal.
Europeans treat the older generation with a great deal of respect, and parents – and grandparents – will have a lot of influence within the family, even with their grown-up ‘children'. So what your partner's family thinks of you can really matter. No pressure there then.
Unsurprisingly, the older generation will tend to be more traditional too, so bear in mind what's acceptable to you – clothes, language, topics of conversation, manners – might not be to them.
How then can you make a good impression while navigating an unfamiliar (or second) language and culture?
1. Talk the talk
Make an effort to speak the language of your partner's family, even if you can only manage a few words. While your partner might be able to speak English, the chances are that his or her parents and other older relatives will not (unless you're in the Netherlands) and in any case, they will appreciate the fact that you've made the effort.
Use the more formal form of speech, for example, vous rather than tu when you're talking to adults. Don't use first names with the parents and older relatives unless you're invited to do so, but instead keep to their title, even if it's just Madame, Frau, or Signora to show respect.
Be friendly, polite and well-mannered, praise the food, be prepared to answer some pretty direct questions (try not to take offence, it's normal in some cultures to be quite direct) but above all be yourself – and you probably won't go wrong.
2. Dress appropriately
While most Americans and British will dress more formally in the workplace and then slip on something very casual at the weekends, Europeans do not, especially the older generation. So when you're visiting the parents, keep the flip-flops, shorts and t-shirt at home and wear something smart and not too revealing to create a good impression, and more importantly, not offend your hosts.
3. Take a gift
A small gift will be appreciated (but is not essential) but take advice from your partner on exactly what to give, as you don't want to make a faux pas by handing over something that may cause offence even if it is done with the best intentions. For example, taking a local wine might imply that you don't think the host will serve a good quality wine, and in any case in some countries, like France, the host would have carefully chosen the wine for the occasion. Flowers (but not lilies or chrysanthemums, as they're often associated with funerals) or high quality chocolates are a nice, safe idea.
4. Keep your hands off each other
Older people are much more likely to be conservative than you and your partner, so try to be sensitive to how your partner's relatives might feel about you being physically demonstrative in front of them. Parents and older members of the family might consider it disrespectful if you were to hug and kiss your partner in their home, especially if it's the first time you're meeting them. So don't drape yourself over your partner, or be overly affectionate.
In France or Spain, if you're going to stay overnight at your partner's parents' home, don't always expect you'll be put into the same room. Even if you have been together for months, and everybody knows that you're sleeping together, you might not be invited to do the same under the their roof. In the liberal Netherlands, on the other hand, it might be more acceptable.
What other expats say...
> "I was the first American that his family had ever met, so of course the usual questions were asked, do I eat McDonald's, do I have an SUV etc. They thought my accent was cute."
> "When Juan took me to meet his parents, all the family were there – 15 people or so – from his great grandmother in her 90s who was dressed in black and had a very fierce expression, to his youngest niece who was still a babe in arms. I was bit intimidated at first but I got through it... they were all friendly."
> "I spent Christmas with my fiancé's family in Belgium. They spoke Flemish and I spoke English, with my now husband serving as translator. Being a genuine person that is open and friendly will do more than a present."
> "My experience was actually pretty cool. They were super laid back, told me immediately to say ‘du', and made me feel really welcome. So don't let the horror stories scare you. I think they were very interested in me, but I never felt like I was being grilled, more like they were eager to learn."
> "Her family asked me if I was learning French and when I said that I was, her mother asked why my parents had wasted their money. I was a bit taken aback about that but I don't think she meant to be rude – maybe something was lost in translation!"
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Photo credit: o5com (flirting).
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