Spending time with your significant other’s family during the holidays can be stressful, especially if you’re meeting them for the very first time.
While each romantic relationship moves at its own pace, Wyatt Fisher, a clinical psychologist in Boulder, Colo., recommends waiting about three months from when you first started dating to introduce your partner to family members. “Just to make sure the relationship has a good footing, and you’re feeling like this has some potential,” Fisher said.
To keep that solid standing while attending familial festivities — and maybe get invited back next year — here are some suggestions from relationship and etiquette experts.
Send or Bring a Gift
The general rule of thumb is never arrive empty-handed, said Myka Meier, a founder of the Plaza Hotel Finishing Program in New York, which provides etiquette courses. “It’s not only to show a gesture of that first meeting, but it’s also showing gratitude for the invitation.”
You can send a flower arrangement (not a bouquet) ahead of time. Or, if you prefer having a gift in hand, baked goods, holiday-themed candles or toys for the family pet are appropriate. Meier warns against gifting alcohol — in case they’re non-drinkers. “You may not know what their preferences are,” she said.
During holiday get-togethers, some families sport formal wear, while others opt for casual, matching get-ups (even pajamas). It’s always a good idea to confirm dress-code expectations with your partner or ask the parents ahead of time.
“Talk ear-to-ear with the hosts,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, the founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Boston. “Say, ‘I want to pack appropriately for your holiday. Do you dress up? Do you dress down?’ “ Parents are usually happy to discuss wardrobe coordination in advance, she said, so guests can plan accordingly.
Address Them Appropriately
Keep things formal for starters, unless otherwise noted. “I would always recommend having a title in front of their names to show respect,” Meier said. The parents, of course, may insist that you call them by their first names, or even a nickname. “Let them ask you to call them something else,” she said.
While speaking with family members, it’s important to make eye contact, establish a firm handshake and put away your phone, if you are able.
“Be truly present when someone is talking, and allow yourself a moment to respond genuinely,” said Anna Nicholaides, a clinical psychologist and owner of Philadelphia Couples Therapy. Nicholaides notes these practices display mindfulness while growing relationship intimacy. “Frankly, it makes people like you more when you’re a good listener.”
You’ll want to avoid discussing politics, religion and controversial subjects. Instead, talk about where you’re from, shared interests, hobbies and sports, and ask them questions, too. Also, avoid being critical. “No complaining about how hard your job is, or your bout with the flu,” Meier said.
Show, Don’t Touch
In the family home, cultural differences can affect how you interact with your partner, and this includes public displays of affection.
Meier suggests following the lead of your significant other. “If your partner is reaching for your hand and trying to hug or kiss you in front of family, that’s what they’re comfortable with,” she said.
If being physically affectionate is a no-no in that family, there are other ways to demonstrate your affection. “You can display kindness to your partner by laughing at their jokes,” Nicholaides said.
Lend a Helping Hand
You can be a team player by kindly offering to assist with chores such as setting the table or clearing it after a meal. “It could come off as lazy if you’re sitting there watching a host and hostess run around, and looking expectant to be served,” Meier said. “If they say no, then they don’t want you to, and that’s OK.”
Don’t Get Tipsy
Try to limit your alcohol consumption to one or two glasses of wine to keep your composure. “Don’t use alcohol as a social crutch,” Smith said, adding, “You don’t want to give them any reason to not like you.”
Besides, you can always enjoy your favorite cocktail when you’re back at home or meet up with friends later at a bar.