Tuesday, 30 March 2010

In-Laws-Relationships – Difficult To Begin With, Challenging If Cross-cultural…

Dating a person from another culture is always an adventure, your differences make it more exciting, but sometimes also more complicated.

Start with the concept of “dating” itself: In most European countries, there is no such thing as an American “date”, where a boy and a girl go out together for one night to do an activity (most often dinner and/or a movie, but also dancing, bowling, etc). The idea behind this being a) test-driving how compatible you are while b) having a defined end to the activity, so that if you don’t like the person, you can get rid of them after 2h without either of you losing face. In Europe, you would not sign up to go out alone with a person you don’t even know. You would either have known them from group activities, friends parties or met them by coincidence (e.g. in a bar) and then decide to spend the evening with them. Thus you already know that you like them and this activity alone together without the buffer of friends already marks the first step towards becoming a couple. There is no such thing as a European girl/boy having multiple dates with multiple people in one week, some of which they know in advance they might not like, but want to test. With the American date comes a set of cultural rules, that are not entirely strict, but apply in the majority of cases: A) The guy asks the girl B) Since he asked, the guy pays for the activity C) Often the guy picks up and drops off the girl (especially, if she still lives at her parent’s house and they want to have a good look at him). D) If you liked the date, you don’t immediately ask for another, but you have to wait a day or three and them make contact again. E) One or two dates with one person does not mean that you are exclusive and it is totally acceptable to go on a date with somebody else in between. At some point – and I myself am not entirely sure when/how that happens most often – the whole “date” procedure is dropped in favor of being exclusive and a couple. But I digress…

What I really wanted to write about is: When you have overcome the differences in dating, you declared yourself “together” and things are getting serious, you are often faced with the prospect of meeting the in-laws. If you are in the same country, this could be sooner, if you are far apart this could be maybe not until wedding plans are made.
I was still in the “this is just part of the foreign experience” mode when my new American boyfriend took me to his parent’s house for the first time, about 2h away from the university town. It was Thanksgiving, a holiday we didn’t celebrate in Germany, so I was eager to go and experience it. On the way there in the car I asked him whether anybody else had ever brought a girl to the Thanksgiving dinner and he assured me that many of his cousins had. “So what happened to them?”, I asked. “Oh, they are all married now!” That freaked me out quite a bit! Parental expectations are hard enough to deal with, but when you have a culture and/or language barrier in addition, you start walking on eggshells. I think this first Thanksgiving encounter went quite well, but I am also sure that I did or said odd things in the eyes of the American family… I’m not sure how often I offended my American (future) mother-in-law unintentionally with my German directness or simple cultural mishaps in those first months (and possibly still today), but I’m sure know it was often. (And my poor boyfriend/husband was stuck in the middle trying to negotiate misunderstandings, realizing where both sides were coming from, but not necessarily knowing how to resolve things.)

When he came to visit me in Germany for the first time – about a year later for Christmas, since I by then had returned to finish my exams - he was exhausted from his first semester of Graduate school and out of whack with his sleeping patterns due to his first jet-lag. I remember sitting at the breakfast table my family waiting for him to show up… - Punctuality is a very big deal for Germans! - We had waited for a while already, so I went to check on him again and he had fallen back asleep! I was embarrassed in front of my parents and I knew they were wondering what kind of listless slacker I had brought home!? (Thankfully that impression changed at some point and – despite him not speaking any German in the beginning - they somehow found a common ground.)

Mothers-in-law are generally a touchy relationship, but when an American friend of mine got married in Germany, she got a good dose of MIL plus German frankness. All Americans believe that a woman is most beautiful on her wedding day (just a Italians find a woman with a baby on her hip most perfect), so when my friend put on her wedding dress and her American mother and friends were oohing and ahhing over it, she turned to her MIL and asked her opinion… and the woman shot back with German honesty: “I don’t think the cut is the best for you and I would take off that bow in the back.” Stunned silence followed from the American side.
A father of a friend, who is Norwegian, always told the story of his first Kaffeetrinken with his future German in-laws. While the Germans tend to say “Thank you” as in “NO thank you”, the Norwegians say “Thank you” as in “YES, thank you”. So after his first cup of coffee and piece of cake, he was offered more several times, kept saying “Thank you” and then didn’t receive anything. But since he wanted to make a good impression, he kept quiet (and hungry and thirsty).

As a general rule, I would say, in-laws become even scarier when they speak another language or come from a different culture! Especially since sons- and daughters-in-law can be scrutinized for faux-pas’ that aren’t even existing in their respective culture - just think of greetings, table manners or dress code … and never mind wedding ceremonies or child-rearing later on!

Do you have a culture clash with your in-laws to add?

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