Miss Conduct

The nervous girlfriend

Solving a meet-the-parents paradox, plus finding a home for baby gear without snooping.

By Robin Abrahams
May 8, 2011

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> I will be meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time in a few weeks. In the past, parents have usually asked me questions about my life that I would answer with enough detail to stimulate conversation. Though I dislike how one-sided the conversation is, I’m not sure how appropriate it would be to ask my boyfriend’s parents questions about their lives, seeing as I’m in high school. I don’t want to seem self-centered, but I also don’t want to be nosy and inappropriate. What are some acceptable questions I can ask his parents to show I’m interested in them?

K.G. / Winchester

You’ve correctly identified an etiquette paradox inherent in the meeting-of-the-parents: It shows respect to allow yourself to be questioned and not to question in return. However, it also shows respect to allow the other person to take the spotlight. I’m not worried about your ability to make a good impression, as anyone sensitive enough to notice this sly social trap while still in her teens is way ahead of the game.

But as conversational gambits go, “Miss Conduct thinks I’m socially precocious” is probably not your best opening move. Surely your boyfriend has told you a bit about his parents’ interests, and you can bring those up: “J.D. says you are planning to start a garden this year; what are you going to grow?” or “So, I hear you are a fan of Mad Men, too! Do you think January Jones is a good actress?” Ask them about upcoming summer projects or trips; ask about what kinds of changes they’ve seen in their work worlds over the past decade or so; ask them what they like and dislike about their neighborhood. If you are facing any decisions – where to attend college, what kind of car to buy, what kind of summer job to apply for – ask them for advice. Don’t ask about what your boyfriend was like as a child, or how his parents met, or their secrets for a successful marriage, or anything that looks as though you are auditioning for a role as daughter-in-law. (The parents might not mind, but their son will.) Then relax and let the conversation go where it will. Your mind is sharp, your heart is in the right place, and while your elders have the right to your respect, they also have the responsibility to do the heavy lifting, socially, and make you feel welcomed and comfortable.

> I am eager to get rid of baby gear that my husband and I no longer need. I’ve been holding onto some of the more expensive items because I have a younger brother who may eventually want them. He and his spouse don’t appear ready to have kids now, but they’ve mentioned having them at some point. My husband thinks it would be rude to ask them if they have any interest in our gear and that it could lead to awkward situations. I think it’s not such a big deal. My husband agreed that he would go with what you think.

R.K. / Jamaica Plain

I don’t see why it would be a big deal either. He’s your brother, and surely you know better than your husband what would be awkward to discuss with him. Also, you aren’t nosing about in your brother’s business for the giddy glee of voyeurism or to be first with family gossip. There’s a difference between interrogating a man about whether he has the means, motive, and opportunity to commit fatherhood, and asking him if he might want your gently used Bugaboo or if you should put it on Craigslist.

And do phrase it more or less like that – he either takes the gear now or he forgoes it. If you store it for him against a day of anticipated need, it could be awkward and painful for everyone should that day come late or not at all.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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