10 Things to AVOID Saying to Your International In-Laws This Holiday Season

by Corey · 5 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: istockphoto.com

Are you in an international marriage? Are you going to be visiting your spouse’s family this holiday season? For many of us, this will be a wonderful time of sharing food, stories and laughter. For others it will be frustrating, uncomfortable and nervewracking.

Whether you are looking forward to your visit with the in-laws or not, below are 10 things that you really should avoid saying unless you are absolutely sure your in-laws know that you mean well:

1.  “In my country we never prepare this meal/dish this way.” When it comes to holiday meals or dishes, resist the urge to explain how differently you or others prepare them in your home country. Most likely your in-laws want to impress you with the meal they’ve prepared for you so give them the pleasure of knowing that you enjoyed it. If your in-laws are sincerely eager to hear about the differences, first focus on praising their dish before pointing out the few things that are different from what you are used to. But be careful, they may only be asking out of kindness and end up feeling hurt if you discuss the differences too much.

2.  “I am looking forward to when we can move back to my country.” If you live close to your in-laws, talking about moving to another country can be painful to them. Even if you and your spouse are excited, the thought of grandchild(ren) and family being thousands of miles away can break a grandparent’s heart. Even if moving back to your country is the plan, there is no need to bring it up during the holiday season unless your in-laws are able to talk about it without getting heart-breakingly emotional (which may be very difficult for them).

3.  “The way [x,y,z] is done in this country is horrible.” Even if your in-laws criticize things in their own country, it is different when you do it. Just because everyone might agree that things are done better in your country, don’t emphasize this to your in-laws unless they are able to discuss the differences wholeheartedly. If you do agree with your in-laws about elements in their country that aren’t done very well, let them take the lead.

4.  “How can anyone live in this climate/weather?” If we grew up in a warm climate and are now living in a cold one (or vice versa), we should try not to point this out every chance we get. The first few times we say it, it is an interesting discussion topic. After that it is a bother. If we are truly uncomfortable where we are living, then we should show what we are doing to try and deal with our situation. Our in-laws may enjoy the climate where they live so telling them how horrible it is doesn’t help anything.

5.  “The government in this country is so… .” Talking about politics with anyone can be a touchy subject, especially international in-laws. Even if you agree with your in-laws’ political views, if you speak too strongly about certain elements, it could come across as an attack. This in turn may cause your in-laws to feel they have to go on the defense. Keep things light and find areas that can be discussed without sounding like an attack.

6.  Your son/daughter doesn’t like that anymore.” Marrying someone from another country may mean that our traditions, habits and preferences change a lot. Often our in-laws don’t realize which preferences have changed in their son/daughter and which have remained the same. If you try to educate your in-laws, it is possible that they will feel embarrassed and at least a little bit left behind in their son/daughter’s life. Instead, let your spouse tell his/her parents directly how his/her preferences have changed.

7.  “Please mind your own business.” Spending time with the in-laws often means hearing their advice, especially when it comes to parenting. Just because we do things differently from our in-laws doesn’t mean that we can’t at least listen to their advice. Do we have to take it? No. If they insist that we do things their way, then we can simply say that we are doing things we feel is best and leave it at that. As time goes on, who knows, we may end up taking advice now and then from our in-laws so it is best not to burn any bridges ahead of time.

8.  “Our kids love spending time with my parents.” Whether your in-laws are great with your children or not, try not to make them feel as if they are being compared with your parents in any way. If your in-laws aren’t the most comfortable in their role as grandparents, mentioning the other set of grandparents might make your in-laws feel insecure. Instead, focus on the areas that your in-laws do well and let them know how appreciative you are for everything that they do.

9.  “The way your family does things is really strange.” During the holidays, in particular, we may feel uncomfortable participating in traditions that aren’t our own. It may seem harmless to point out the things that annoy us (“Why does everyone open all of the presents at the same time!”) but it is not always taken well, even by our own spouse. In-laws can take our comments as a criticism of their parenting skills or their family as a whole. Best is if we can simply acknowledge to ourselves which things are done differently and then talk with our spouse individually after the holidays. Coming up with a plan for the next holiday season can be very helpful.

10.  “Can I give you some advice?” Just as we may not eagerly invite advice from our in-laws, we should be sparing in giving our in-laws unsolicited advice (even our spouse’s younger sister who seems completely lost in life). Even if you think they should do things differently, if it doesn’t influence your life directly, bite your tongue and wait it out. Tell your spouse your thoughts since maybe he/she can mention it to his/her family members. If our in-laws ask for our advice on a certain matter, then we are more than welcome to share our thoughts but we should do so carefully and cautiously. We need to remember that sometimes people ask for advice but aren’t really interested in the answer.

The above statements are only examples of areas that can cause rifts in our family gatherings with in-laws. The things that usually get most under our skin are topics that focus on comparisons between countries/cultures/foods/traditions/parenting styles/etc. Getting into a battle of comparisons is similar to two children arguing over the qualities of imaginary heroes – it just doesn’t really matter in the whole scheme of things. Plus, our comparisons are almost always based on preferences, not subjective qualities, so arguing about them will get us nowhere.

During the holiday season, keep things as festive as possible. If we really need to talk about something that might be a touchy subject, we should try to keep the conversation as light as possible and should always say what we have to say using “I” sentences. For example: “I am not used to doing it this way, but I am willing to learn how to do it differently.” For the big subjects that don’t have anything to do with the holidays, bring those up at a separate time after the holiday festivities.

Happy Holidays!

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sabine Panneau December 23, 2011 at 6:52 am

Hi Correy

I love your post! I learned many lessons by making the mistakes you are referring in your post! Like many other expats, I am about to spend another great Christmas with my Argentine in-laws and I’ll certainly be thinking of you when they’ll ask me [again] about how we celebrate Christmas in my country! 🙂
Merry Christmas to you, your family and your in-laws!!!


2 Corey January 4, 2012 at 12:23 am

Oh goodness, yes, my in-laws often ask me how we celebrate certain holidays (or if we celebrate them at all) and then they seem surprised what I tell them (even though we’ve talked about it a million times before). LOL! I figure it is simply part of the joys of having in-laws – international or not. 😉

I hope your Christmas was filled with a lot of in-law love, attention and not very many questions! 😉


3 Steph December 10, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Corey, this article cracked me up! I would give my last penny to be able to say just ONE of these things to my German in-laws, as they have been so unkind and cruel in the past. I’m glad you can work things out with your out-laws 😉 Maybe that will provide a glimmer of hope for those with challenges.


4 Ellen December 10, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Interesting. I don’t have those problems however as my Taiwanese in-laws don’t celebrate either Xmas or the New Year. In fact December 25 is a normal working day in Taiwan and kids are expected to go to school!!! No Xmas spirit whatsoever! Speak about different! We do however take the kids out of school and celebrate as a family.


5 Frank December 11, 2013 at 4:23 am

Loved it! It’s all about having common sense, right? This year We’ll be having holidays with my family in Chile while my mother-in-law is flying from Germany to celebrate with us. It’ll be a lot of fun but also a lot of work since my family only speak Spanish and hers only German. Let’s see what the season brings!


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