Tips for when the foreign in-laws meet each other

Written by Diane on. Posted in French language, on life in France

Tips for when the foreign in-laws meet

Meeting your significant other’s family for the first time is nerve-wracking no matter where you’re from. For those of us in relationships with someone from another country, meeting the family can be quite an experience. That goes double when your partner’s native language differs from your own. If the day comes when it’s time for the in-laws to meet each other, take a deep breath. Even if they don’t speak more than a few words of each other’s language, which is the case in our respective families, it doesn’t have to be a disaster. I’m living proof. My parents have met Tom’s parents on 2 separate occasions since we’ve tied the knot and have lived to tell about it.

Here are some tips on how to have a smooth multicultural experience for when the foreign in-laws meet.

Go!

Tips for when the foreign in-laws meet each other

The first time Tom’s French parents met my American parents was the summer after we got married. We all decided to spend a week together down in Provence and Tom and I would act as unofficial translators. We figured a week together under the same roof will either have us all hating each other or we’d have the time of our lives. Luckily, it turned out to be the latter, but I’d be lying if I said there were no hiccups along the way.

A week of touristy vacation stuff with both our parents there — and actually interacting with each other in their own way — was a great first meeting. Then, a few years later we all spent Christmas in Brittany. It was smooth sailing except that everyone but me got the gastro. Nothing like bonding over being sick!

A quick word on personalities:

My parents and Tom’s parents are luckily all easy going people who enjoy language and cultural exchange. Both couples were open to meeting each other and look forward to the next visit, so I lucked out there.

Before you plan a multicultural family vacation like I did, twice, think it through. You and your partner know everyone best.

If one or more of the in-laws is uptight, self-conscious about language-related things, totally against traveling, or super close minded, proceed with caution.

Maybe a week-long vacation together upon meeting isn’t the best route for your family. You know your family and their personalities best, so plan accordingly.

tips when foreign in-laws meet each other

First thing the dads did in Provence:

The day we all arrived in Provence, we sent the dads to the grocery store to stock up on food for the week. Both guys do most of the regular grocery shopping anyway at home, so it was a common activity we figured they’d both enjoy. Our dads had a nice 2-hr trip to Carrefour and they had a whole bunch of stories to tell upon arriving home, especially since it was my dad’s first trip to the French grocery store. They gestured to communicate, and I’m sure to any observers in the supermarket, they looked like 2 somewhat impaired people trying to shop. Or just two dudes who had never been in a supermarket before who were, for some reason, shopping together. But it all worked out and they had a bunch of laughs.

But this only worked because both guys were open to the new experience and accepting of the fact they could barely communicate. They just went with it.

So let’s move on to some tips to keep in mind for when the foreign in-laws meet for the first time. A few of my tips have come about after doing the exact opposite and realizing there was a better way to go about things.

Things that are true when your husband is French >>

Find common ground and build on it

Icebreaker activities are your friend. In my case, both families enjoy cooking, so we all headed into the kitchen and an impromptu language learning game ensued. We quickly prepared our meal while having fun at the same time. One person would point and say the word in their language and the other pair would say it in theirs. My parents learned some French food words and Tom’s parents worked on their English in a no-pressure environment.

Don’t let your ego get in the way

When you meet someone new, it’s best to go in with no preconceived notions about who they are or what they’re like. Remember that your way isn’t always the best way and that just going with the flow is key. As in my supermarket story above, both dads were open to going shopping together and were fine with temporary awkwardness and misunderstandings. They both laughed about it and weren’t too concerned with embarrassing themselves.

Make sure you choose group activities where language isn’t a key component

This is for 2 reasons: So people feel at ease and not left out of a particular conversation or activity and so no one feels obligated to translate for the others. That way everyone can enjoy the activity and just “be.” So no Trivial Pursuit or other word-based board games. No movie night (subtitles aren’t always a positive thing especially for people who have small TVs, and you may have one side of the family feeling shunned). My suggestion? An easy-to-play game like Uno is always a hit because it’s simple.

mealtime foreign in laws

Make sure mealtime/group convos aren’t overly dominant in one language and that someone is jumping in to always translate

This means that the less chatty side of the family needs to speak up. This also means that someone should act as a translator and consciously jump in to explain what the other person or people said, without being asked. This is important because no one wants to feel left out, but at the same time, no one wants to feel like they’re a burden either and constantly asking what is being said. Read that again. No one wants to feel like a burden. That’s where Tom and I have gone wrong in the past.

It’s our responsibility to make sure the parents are always involved and are a part of the conversation, on both sides. So someone needs to jump in, always, and provide a quick explanation of commentary, jokes, and everything else. It’s the polite thing to do and goes a long way toward the overall harmony of the meal. Everything will fall on the “kids” (so in our case, me and Tom) in terms of translation but it comes with the territory. Even if it seems tedious or like overkill, just do it. Trust me.

Will I be fluent after living in France for a year? >>

Ask often if anyone wants to say anything to the other group

Throughout the day, the bilingual person or people should ask if one side of the family wants to say anything to the other side of the family. Maybe there was something from earlier in the day they forgot to ask or maybe it’s something in the moment. But keeping the lines of communication open and showing that you’re there and willing to translate will help everyone to feel included even if there is a language barrier. Even if no one has anything specific to communicate, by asking both sides often, you’re showing that you’re doing your best to create a positive group dynamic where everyone is involved.

Again, trust me on this. My mother-in-law used this against us last month out of nowhere referencing dinner with my parents a few years back where they didn’t understand and felt it was mostly in English. I wish she would have spoken up in the moment. (FYI, I hate when people harbor resentment instead of speaking up in the moment and then throw it back at you months or years later. What is the point of that? Grrr.) So the moral of the story here is that sometimes you aren’t always aware of people’s feelings, so my advice is to translate even if no one asks and always leave the lines of communication open!

If more than one person in your group speaks both languages, make sure the same person isn’t the one who is constantly doing the translating

As I mentioned above, translating can get exhausting. And it can get in the way of your meal or activity! If there’s more than one person who speaks both languages, take turns with the translation. If Tom is the one translating at lunch, I’ll do dinner. Or when I see his mouth is full, I’ll jump in. Work as a team and only good things can come from it.

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If your partner’s family speaks a different language, have they ever met each other? Do you have any stories about how the in-laws met in your family? Would love to hear in the comments!


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Tips for when the foreign in-laws meet

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Comments (13)

  • Taste of France

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    My parents met my mother-in-law only once, only for about a day. Not easy, when you’re dealing with three countries (U.S., Belgium and France). MIL had never flown, and her coming down to see us meant somebody had to drive her. My parents came the first year we moved here, mostly to see their grandchild, when it was clear we couldn’t afford to go see them. They stayed three weeks. We tried to keep it a secret from husband’s best friend, who is crazy about the U.S., but “overbearing” hardly scratches the surface. And since he also is in Belgium, he wouldn’t be popping in for dinner and then leave us alone. Well, he got wind of my parents’ presence, immediately packed his RV, and he and his wife picked up MIL and drove down, two days before my parents left. It’s nice we have photos of our kid with all the grandparents, since they have all died, but it was miserable translating 24/7 for that many people, plus cooking and otherwise tending to them all. I couldn’t have handled it a day longer.
    Taste of France recently posted…Pont du GardMy Profile

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    • Diane

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      Oh yea, I could see how that turned into a burden. In our case, we were on “neutral ground” — a holiday rental both times — so no one felt obligated to host or to be in charge of any one task (laundry, cooking, straightening up, etc.). We all pitched in and it worked out. Glad you all were able to meet even if it was stressful at times!

      Reply

  • Gwyneth Perrier

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    What a fun article. Olivier’s family came over to California for our wedding. They had visited before, so it wasn’t a total culture shock; however, San Francisco is August is notoriously cold and foggy! They couldn’t believe that we would want to live there. 🙂 My mother-in-law speaks no English whatsoever, and my mom knows only a couple of basic words in French, but my mom is outgoing and very “huggy”. Hugs aren’t usually the thing to do with French people, but my hardworking mother-in-law from the countryside seemed to appreciate her American enthusiasm, and they got along very well. My brother’s family hosted a lunch for everyone in sunny Sonoma County. His wife stressed about what she would serve French people (she’s a great cook), and she ended up making a gazpacho, salad, and barbecued hamburgers (very American), which everyone loved. Olivier would sometimes get annoyed with his mother when she visited because she would start speaking French to people in the shops, or keep commenting about what time it currently was in France! Ah, parents. 🙂
    Gwyneth Perrier recently posted…La Ferme des Frères Perrel / The Perrel Brothers’ FarmMy Profile

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    • Diane

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      Haha, your comment about your MIL speaking French to people in shops in the USA makes me think of my MIL. She’d do the same thing and just keep speaking in French even though people wouldn’t understand. My in-laws have never visited the USA but I’m sure my MIL would try to make conversation with everyone. Glad everything went smoothly, more or less!

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    • Diane

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      Thanks 😉

      Reply

  • Keith Van Sickle

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    Excellent suggestion about checking in throughout the day to see if one side of the family has anything they want to communicate to the other. It reminds me of a different example of always keeping lines of communication open.

    I was once with a startup company and we had weekly “All Hands” meetings. As the one in charge of the agenda, I often struggled with what we should talk about because the meetings were so frequent. But it was important to communicate often and openly, especially when things can change fast. And it was amazing how often we would cover a topic one week and there would be questions about the same subject the next week, as if people hadn’t been paying attention.

    I believe that in a startup situation, it is not possible to over-communicate. It sounds like the week you had with both families was another such situation.

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Keith, thanks for sharing your experience. A tight-knit work project can be compared to family in a way and a situation where communication is equally important. I think for me and Tom, the 2 who understood everything in both languages, it was hard to imagine what the other 4 people felt like. Not because we didn’t care, but because we were busy doing all kinds of things and just didn’t realize, “Hey maybe so and so feels left out but doesn’t want to say anything. We should make an effort to translate more.” I’m pretty direct and speak up and I know if my family felt weird, they’d speak up. But Tom’s parents didn’t want to rock the boat (as I pointed out w/my MIL mentioning something years later) so I think it always makes sense to do more than less. Like in your case of the frequent meetings. Never hurts to open up lines of communication. If no one has much to discuss, then it’ll be a short meeting!

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      • Keith Van Sickle

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        Funny story on translation – last year we had our nephew Greg visit us in France and we invited our French friends Sara and Christian over for dinner. My wife was doing the translating and at one point she got her languages mixed up – she started speaking to Greg in French! Pretty funny.

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        • Diane

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          I’ve done the same thing — with both languages, speaking to Americans in French and French people in English. Hahah

          Reply

  • Diane

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    A server issue ate a few comments so I’m reposting here.

    From Advice Needed:
    Thank you so much for this article! My boyfriend and I have been together for a few years already. My parents (an American and a Taiwanese) are about to meet the parents of my boyfriend (they are both French) over dinner, but the problem is that we won’t be there (long story, we live far away, both sides wanted this meeting to happen as they will be in the same city during his parents’ vacation)!

    There is not really a common language as my parents don’t speak any French and his parents don’t speak English, though his sister will be there and she speaks moderate English. My parents have thought about inviting friends of theirs who are French & English-speaking to put everyone at ease, but I have concerns about the parents’ first meeting involving another family… I just want everyone to feel comfortable and enjoy their first interaction but since we can’t be there to facilitate, so many questions are being raised about the best way to put everyone at ease.

    If anyone has any advice on what to expect or how to make the meeting as un-awkward as possible, I would really appreciate it.

    My reply: Oh man, that’s tough if no one there really speaks the other’s language and can act like a translator. Even more awkward that you won’t be there. You said his sister will be there and she speaks moderate English, but is it enough to understand the English in real time and translate? I’m definitely no expert on this but maybe you can do one of the following:

    1) Have each family write a letter, kind of a speech or toast or something, and make sure it’s translated by you and your boyfriend ahead of time so that way it’s a pre-written intro each family can say to the other.

    2) Have a bilingual third party come (like the friends you mentioned) just to make the language exchange easier.

    3) If the dinner is in a quiet place like someone’s private home or a chill restaurant, get you and/or your boyfriend on Facetime to kind of virtually be there.

    I think it’s hard enough to meet new people when it’s your own language so the fact that there’s a language barrier and that you and your bf won’t be there might make things difficult. And you definitely don’t want difficult if it’s their first time meeting! Even when you do have someone translating, they aren’t going to be able to cover everything everyone says and I can imagine even the most laid back parents getting frustrated by not being able to communicate. If you can, really, really try having a third-party party at dinner and/or you on Facetime maybe at the end of the table on an iPad. It’ll be hard to hear but it’s better than a language barrier between strangers. I’m sorry I don’t have better advice! I hope it all works out

    From Advice Needed:

    Hi Diane, thank you so much for your response, I really appreciate it! This is not a common situation to find oneself in, so I’m having trouble finding people who have shared a similar experience. Thank you!

    It’s good to know that you think the third party would facilitate things. I feared that it would be awkward or detract from the importance/familial-aspect of their first meeting (that perhaps his parents would be taken-aback that another family is present at the dinner). But you make some good points about how someone who can help break the language barrier would be helpful, even if they aren’t related.

    Reply

  • CatherineRose

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    Haha, I am laughing at your description of the two dads shopping together! That’s so nice that they were able to go out and do that together, language barrier be damned! My parents and Hugo’s have met a few times, and it went well because they’ve all worked in education and had interesting things to talk about, and they all made an effort to speak slowly and try to speak the other language when they could. His parents are making their first trip to the west coast this summer!

    By the way, have you ever written a post about how you and Tom got married? I can’t remember. I know that some people like to share those stories and some people prefer to keep them offline (myself included for the moment) but I always like reading about multi-cultural weddings.
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