It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and you’re even happier now that your SO has finally invited you to meet the extended family. And you should be happy — this is an important step forward in your relationship!
Then, reality sets in. You start to imagine all those crazy dinners you’ve had with your own family, except now it’s not your goofy uncle ribbing you — it’s someone you just met. Not to mention it’s someone you’re dying to impress! Needless to say, the first time you meet your SO’s family can definitely be awkward.
No one can blame you for being nervous. With some preparation and these dos and don’ts, you’ll have the confidence to sit back, chat it up and win them over.
DO bring a gift
Ithaca College freshman Caroline Pirozzolo, who spends part of her winter break visiting her long-distance boyfriend for the holidays, says she thinks it’s a great idea to bring a small gift for your SO’s family. “Even if it’s just Christmas cookies or a thank you-note for having you spend the holiday with them!” she says.
This gift doesn’t need to be anything fancy; in fact, overdoing it the first time you meet the family might not be the best idea. A bottle of wine, a festive dessert or an ingredient/recipe set (think cookie mix in a jar) are simple but sweet gift ideas.
Etiquette consultant and author Jodi RR Smith suggests being thoughtful when giving gifts to make a great first impression. “No one expects you to spend a lot of money as a college student,” Smith says. “Little things can mean a lot. If there are younger siblings or pets in the family, bring a little something for them as well.”
DON’T show up without doing your homework
Don’t neglect the best resource you have — your SO! Before you show up at the family’s house, ask your SO for the inside scoop on holiday traditions. How classy should your holiday outfit be? What are their quirky traditions? How does everyone get along? Are there any hot-button topics to avoid at the dinner table? Knowing these things before you show up can clue you in on what to expect and ease your stress.
“You should ask what the sleeping arrangements are going to be and if there is anything you need to bring, like a sleeping bag,” Smith says. If you’re sleeping over, you should be prepared with a robe or a long sweatshirt as well so that you’re not walking to and from the bathroom in a towel.
Finally, you need to help your SO’s family know you as well. “As the guest, it is your obligation to let the host or hostess know your dietary restrictions in advance,” Smith says. “You should bring a bag full of snacks that you can eat during your stay as well. Don’t expect them to be a short-order chef.”
Even just a little preparation for your visit can save you a lot of awkwardness later, so if you have any concerns, go ahead and ask your SO questions. And if your SO doesn’t know the answers, it’s totally okay to check in with the family before you arrive.
DO be polite
This is a no-brainer, right? Sometimes if you’re too nervous, you might forget your manners, so it bears repeating. Remember to say “please” and “thank you.” Also, make sure to complement the host or hostess on the house, meal or both.
“You want to be your best self,” Smith says. “This is not being polite to the point of being fake. Be ready to greet people. Say, ‘It’s so nice to meet you.’ You need to have your meet-and-greet skills at the forefront.”
When you’re having a conversation, be engaged! Ask questions and nod to show you’re listening and interested. Also, prepare a little something to say about yourself. “You need to be [prepared] to answer the question: ‘Tell me something about yourself,’” Smith says. “You can’t be stumped. It leads right into conversation.”
You want this family to think that you care because, well, you do!
DON’T be stiff
Sometimes if you’re too worried about being on your best behavior, you can come off as stiff and timid, especially if you’re nervous. Take some deep breaths, loosen up and remember that these are just people you’re talking to.
“If you’re not nervous, you’re not normal,” Smith says. “It’s okay to be nervous. The only way to deal with it is to go with it. Take a deep breath in and let it out.”
Don’t just talk to your SO’s parents. Have a conversation with a great-aunt and get to know the cousins, too. Spread the attention around, and it’ll start to feel like you’re part of the family. That means you’re going to have to stop clinging to your SO’s arm and strike up a conversation on your own. We know it can be scary, but we promise you can do it!
DO join in the fun
Odds are that even if your family and your SO’s family celebrate the same holidays, they’re going to do it a bit differently. Whatever traditions your SO’s family participates in, you should go all out and be enthusiastic about participating as well. Smith says that “you need to keep your eyes and ears open for the little differences in this family.”
Try to have fun adapting to your SO’s family. Do they play a particular game together after dinner? Do they all make dessert together? Sing holiday songs? You should do those things, too! If you don’t join in the family fun, then you run the risk of coming off as a total scrooge.
DON’T weigh in on the arguments
Before you enter into that discussion on the latest election, assess your SO’s family.
“[Some families] consider a battle of wits being the best activity you can have over the dinner table,” Smith says. “If this seems like one of those families, by all means join in if you are comfortable with it.”
But if the conversation turns toward more controversial subjects and you notice tension (like when your SO’s uncle looks like he’s going to pop a blood vessel in his neck), stay out of the discussion. You’re trying to make a good impression, so even if everyone else is arguing, you need to take the higher ground.
If someone specifically asks you about your political opinions, Smith recommends stating your opinion and then moving from that subject to a related, less controversial subject.
For example, if your SO’s grandmother asks you about your stance on gay marriage rights and she seems to disagree with you, you might state your opinion and then mention that your sister just got married recently. It was such a lovely service.
DO get ready for relationship questions
It’s not likely you’re going to escape the holiday season without having to answer a few intrusive questions. Of course, your SO’s family is going to be curious about your relationship. You might get questions about how you two met or what you like most about your SO.
When you get these questions, just be honest and positive. No need to over-share; just answer the questions and leave it there. And make sure not to complain about your SO, even in jest.
Let’s say your SO’s goofy dad asks you, “Why do you like this loser, anyway?” Keep it positive, but feel free to be funny.
“You can say something like, ‘Joe, you never told me you were a loser!’ or, ‘I knew I had to go out with him when he dropped his tray in the cafeteria,’” Smith says. “Never say something mean about your significant other. If [the family member] gets really mean, you can say something to throw them off, like, ‘But he’s such a good kisser.’”
DON’T engage in PDA
Hand-holding and sitting together (but not on each other) is one thing, but you don’t want to get too lovey-dovey at your first family gathering. Any more PDA than a slight touch could make the family or other guests uncomfortable. Save making out and cuddling for your quality time together, plain and simple!
If you’re spending the night and you and your SO are asked to sleep in separate rooms, you need to respect the wishes of your SO’s family.
“Say goodnight and each go into your own room. Wake up in your own room. What you do in the middle of the night is up to you,” Smith says. “You never want to make a parent feel uncomfortable in their own house.”
DO offer to help
Cleaning up is nobody’s favorite part of the holidays. That’s why you’re going to earn major brownie points just by offering to help out!
“When I’m [visiting my boyfriend], I try to offer to help out around the house, especially if his family is having other guests over for Christmas or New Year’s,” Caroline says.
Your SO’s parents may refuse the hand anyway, so don’t push the issue. Whether you end up with the dishes or not, offering to help clean up is a great way to show your gratitude.
You should also show your appreciation by tidying up after yourself. “If you use a glass, clean it,” Smith says. “If you slept in a bed, strip it, fold the sheets.” These small courtesies will take some of the pressure off of your SO’s parents. Plus, these gestures will leave a good impression!
DO escape for some “me time”
Let’s face it: Some of us are naturally more outgoing than others. If you start to feel overwhelmed by all the small talk and first impressions, don’t be afraid to excuse yourself and relax for a moment.
“It is fine to take a breather,” Smith says. “You can step outside or go into the basement. Be careful about occupying the bathroom; you don’t want to block it when someone else might need [it].”
According to Smith, it’s okay not to give a reason for excusing yourself. No one expects you to be brimming with energy all day long. Go outside and text a friend or read for a little while. Then rejoin the party feeling fresh and ready to talk.
DON’T have your phone out
There’s nothing that tells your SO’s fam you’re not interested in their festivities like being tethered to your cell phone. Forget whatever’s happening on Instagram and Snapchat. Nothing in the world is more interesting to you than this family get-together — or at least that’s what you’re going to make everyone believe! Keep that phone on silent and tucked away until you’re by yourself.
DO send a thank-you note
Make the last impression you leave as good as the first! Putting together a fantastic holiday is tough work, so make sure to show that you appreciate all the effort. After you’ve returned home, send your SO’s family a simple, handwritten note of gratitude. Smith recommends doing this right away so you don’t forget the note in the shuffle of the holiday season. No need to write an essay; it’s the gesture that counts.
DO be yourself
Your SO’s family didn’t invite a well-dressed robot over for dinner; they invited you! So even while you’re following these tips, make sure you’re staying true to yourself.
For example, if you tend to be more introverted, try your best to be sociable, but don’t feel like you need to entirely change your personality to be fun. Be honest and relaxed, and you’re sure to make a good impression. You’re not going to just survive the holidays — you’re going to have a blast!