For most couples, meeting the parents is the first serious step in a relationship. No longer are you casually dating -- you're crossing the threshold into long-term expectations. And if you do hope to be with this girl for a long time, her parents will also be part of your life, whether you like it or not. Just as you can't choose your own parents, you can't choose your girlfriend's.
No wonder meeting the parents can be such a nerve-racking experience. Luckily, in this modern age, the future of your relationship probably doesn't hinge on their approval of you. However, you can't deny life will be much easier with their approval.
Family disapproval can put tremendous stress on a relationship. And if your girlfriend comes from a different cultural background with traditionally-minded parents, winning approval will be all the more difficult. This momentous meeting could even bring to the surface issues you haven't discussed yet with your girlfriend that could threaten the relationship.
First impressions matter, too -- a good first impression will go far, but it's difficult to get over a bad first impression [source: Bryner].
But never fear: We'll arm you with the tips to make the first meeting go smoothly.
Do Your Homework
Don't go into battle unprepared -- do a little reconnaissance. The first essential step is to talk to your girlfriend ahead of time about her parents.
Get specific. What do they do for a living? What are their hobbies and interests? Most importantly, ask about their core values: What are their politics? How religious are they? These are potentially perilous subjects for you to broach if you disagree with them. Ask her if there are any other subjects you shouldn't bring up.
If you don't want to bombard your girlfriend with such questions, or if she gives only vague answers, ask her to tell some stories about growing up with them. This will give you an idea of what kind of parenting style they had. If they were strict, you know to walk on eggshells and show respect. If they were more free-spirited, you can relax a bit -- but not too much until you know them better.
Aside from preparing you for what to expect, these will be great conversation topics, which we'll talk about more later.
Dress to Impress
Nothing makes a bad first impression like underdressing for an event. It's the first thing the parents will notice about you, and no matter how politely you act, you won't be able to distract them from an egregious fashion faux pas.
Show respect by dressing appropriately. What's appropriate, of course, depends on the occasion. But even if it's a low-key family picnic, this is no excuse to come with tattered jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt. Instead, opt for clean, ironed khakis and a polo shirt.
For dinner at the parents' house, you can't go wrong with dark pants and a button-down shirt. If it's a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant, make sure to add a coat and tie to your ensemble. The restaurant may even have a dress requirement for this, and it would be more than a little embarrassing to have to don the restaurant's oversized spare coat. And if it's a wedding or similarly formal occasion you've been invited to, dress to the nines with your best suit.
What's appropriate also depends on parents' expectations and cultural traditions. It would be a good idea to have the girlfriend approve of your wardrobe choices beforehand.
Keep the Conversation Going
Her parents will be assessing and evaluating every word you say to try to read your character. But turn the focus onto them, as well -- after all, the goal should be for you to get to know them, too. You'll want to show interest in her parents while controlling the conversation to shed a positive light on yourself.
Here's where your reconnaissance work comes in handy. Talk about shared interests, or at least ask questions to learn more about theirs. Unless your girlfriend has warned you that her parents hate their jobs, ask them about their work. Another great topic is their background and upbringing -- this shows you care about family history and traditions.
If you've learned that you disagree with the parents about politics or religion, you'll want to avoid these topics. Though such conversations are probably inevitable, the first meeting is not a good time for them. If these topics do come up, restrain yourself from arguing and politely guide the conversation back to pleasantries. And if you're intimate with a girlfriend whose parents hold more traditional values, avoid the topic of sex and everything remotely related to it.
Keep several neutral conversation topics in your back pocket to use when you need to refocus the conversation or avoid awkward silences.
Getting in Their Good Graces
There's a fine line between being complimentary and being a suck-up. But, if you've read "Does brownnosing really pay off?," you know that compliments can work to help get in someone's good graces -- as long as you aren't too obvious about it.
The key to sounding sincere is to be sincere -- if possible. Find things that you honestly like or admire about the parents. Mention how beautiful their house is, how wonderful the mother's meal tastes, how impressive the father's big-screen TV is. But avoid cheesy, overdone lines, like telling her mom, "You look like you could be her sister!" Even if you don't like something, you can skirt around a compliment without making one. For example, say with a smile, "This is an interesting dish. How do you make the meat so tender?"
Experts agree that you'll need to respect the house rules. If you're staying overnight, and they put you in separate rooms, obey their wishes.
Parents pay close attention to how a new beau treats their beloved princess. One of the best ways to prove your good intentions is to treat your girlfriend will all the respect and attention they know she deserves. Offer to take her coat, carry something for her or refill her glass.
But don't go so far as to show unseemly public displays of affection (or PDA). Anything more than holding hands or a peck on the cheek will probably make the parents uncomfortable and suspicious of you.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Some estimate that we express and receive 90 percent of communication not through words, but through body language [source: Reiman]. Whatever the exact percentage is, no one can deny that body language speaks volumes, especially during first impressions. Dr. Jim Houran, a psychologist specializing in relationships and dating, recommends using strong body language when meeting the girlfriend's parents. This means smiling, having an open, inviting posture (don't cross your arms), and maintaining a lot of eye contact [source: Houran].
But your actions don't have to be so subtle. Bring a gift -- a peace offering of sorts to lighten any potential tension. Wine and chocolates or flowers are a good stand-by. But get your girlfriend's approval to make sure they drink alcohol, and to check what kind of chocolates or flowers to get.
Overall, experts recommend being respectful to parents, without going so far as to cower in their presence. Likewise, offer compliments without being sycophantic. Most importantly, this will all prove to your girlfriend that you care.
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- Abrahams, Robin. "Meet the Pa-rum-pum-pum-parents." Miss Conduct's Blog. Boston.com. Dec. 3, 2008. (Oct. 1, 2010)http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/missconduct/2008/12/meet_the_parump.html
- Bryner, Jeanna. "Study Reveals Why First Impressions Matter." LiveScience.com. Jan 8, 2009. (Oct. 1, 2010)http://www.livescience.com/culture/090108-betraying-trust.html
- Kim, Jennifer. "To Hug or Not to Hug: Meet the Parents, East West Style." EastWest Lifestyle Magazine. April/May, 2007. JenniferKim.net. (Oct. 1, 2010)http://www.jenniferkim.net/index_files/hug.htm
- Houran, James. "Office Hours With Dr. Jim: Tips on Meeting the Parents." Online Dating Magazine. (Oct. 1, 2010)http://www.onlinedatingmagazine.com/datingoffice08/meetingtheparents.html
- Reiman, Tonya. "First Impressions Really Matter." Communication World. July/Aug. 2008, Vol. 25 Issue 4.