The vast majority of the time, dating a great girl is a wonderful thing. As the relationship progresses, you reach exciting new milestones, like staying overnight for the first time and introducing her to your friends. But not every milestone is so enjoyable.
In the back of your mind you know that one day she’ll pop the dreaded question: “Would you like to meet my parents?” Meeting your girlfriend’s parents may be a sign of a healthy relationship, but it’s also a nerve-racking event. Like a job interview, the stakes are high. You can almost see them working through a checklist in their minds, grading you against a secret ideal to determine whether you’re worthy of dating their daughter.
And let’s be clear: It’s up to you to convince them that you’re worthy. You have to show them that you’re a responsible adult with good intentions, that you bring value to the relationship, and that you’re worthy of their trust. Like it or not, their opinion of you matters. If all goes well with your girlfriend, they’re going to be a part of your life for years to come. They might be your future in-laws. They might be your children’s grandparents. If you’re not on good terms with them, it’s going to affect your life in a lot of significant ways.
But don’t despair. Here are some tips on how to start this important relationship on solid footing.
Do Your Homework
Any preparation you can do before meeting the parents will be helpful. When she mentions her mom or dad in offhand remarks, file it away in your brain. Feel free to ask her direct questions about them, too. Ask about any potential surprises. If there’s anything you need to know before going into the situation, it’s better to find out early.
Do her parents have different last names? Is her mom deaf in one ear? Will you also be meeting her siblings when you get together? The fewer surprises you encounter when you meet them, the better. Find out about their jobs and interests. Conversing with people from a different age bracket can be challenging, as both parties struggle to find common topics to discuss. Before you meet her parents, ask your girlfriend about them. Do they vacation in Cape Cod every summer? Does mom teach Spanish classes? Does dad restore old cars?
Equipping yourself with this knowledge can help you keep the conversation flowing – especially when your girlfriend isn’t around to facilitate.
Make a Good First Impression
When you actually meet the parents, it’s wise to practice all of the things your mother used to bug you about: tuck in your shirt, sit up straight, and smile. Mom’s pestering might have been annoying at the time, but she knew what she was talking about. She was teaching you how to make a good first impression.
Dress well. Whether you’re having dinner at the parents’ house or meeting them at a restaurant, you need step it up beyond a t-shirt and jeans. A general rule of thumb is to dress “business casual.” A button-down shirt and slacks is appropriate for most occasions.
Bring a gift. Especially if you’re meeting at their house, you’ll get bonus points for bringing a small gift. A bottle of wine (even a cheap one) will be appreciated. Don’t know a single thing about wine? Fear not! Primer has you covered.
Call them Mr. and Mrs. Yes, you’re all adults, but don’t call her parents by their first names unless they ask you to. Using Mr. and Mrs. ____ shows respect and illustrates your good judgement.
Be confident. When you meet them for the first time, smile and greet them with eye contact and a firm (but not crushing) handshake. Some families are more touchy than others, so her mom might go in for a hug. That’s fine too, but a handshake is standard.
Be Your (Best) Self
Once you’ve made your introductions, the group will probably sit down somewhere to chat. This is the all-important “getting to know you” portion of the festivities, and it’s where the real test begins. As a general rule, you want to be yourself here, but be your best self–not the foul-mouthed brute you are around your buddies. Your girlfriend obviously thinks you’re someone she can bring home to her parents, so it’s time to prove her right.
Be present. One mistake guys sometimes make when meeting the parents is to engage mostly with their girlfriend or through her to her parents. Don’t do that here. If you’re shy, force yourself to talk to them. The whole point of this meeting is for the three of you to get to know one another. To do that, you have to engage with them.
Turn off your phone. This one’s important. You may be used to checking Facebook any time there’s a lull in the conversation, but resist the urge. Looking at your phone during a social event like this is considered rude, particularly to people from older generations. Stay present and attentive.
Be affectionate with your girlfriend. It’s good to show that you care for your girlfriend, so feel free to be affectionate with her in front of them–just don’t overdo it. Think “doting.” Pull out her chair for her when she sits down. Hold her hand. Just don’t grope each other.
Be positive. Talk about your interests, your hobbies, and the things that make you happy. Involve your girlfriend in the conversation. Talk about what the two of you enjoy doing together. It’s important for you to come off as a positive person, because no one likes being around a grouch. Do you hate your boss? Don’t bring it up. Leave negativity at home.
Remember you’re being judged. If you’re lucky, her parents will be easy to talk to. Amid all the laughter and good will, you may start to feel like you can do no wrong. Hold on there, tiger. Being confident is helpful, but being over-confident is dangerous. No matter how comfortable they make you feel, remember that they’re watching you.
Be polite, even if they are rude. Parents are people too, which means they have the capacity for making offensive comments. For example, some families love to talk politics at the dinner table. Don’t engage, especially if you disagree with what they’re saying. Try to steer the conversation into safer territory.
Be helpful. If you’re eating at their house, ask if you can help make dinner or set the table. After dinner, offer to help clean up. They might decline, but they’ll appreciate the offer.
Don’t drink too much. Regardless of how well you hold your liquor, limit yourself to one or two drinks in front of the parents. Have more than that, and even if you don’t seem tipsy, they’ll notice your indulgence and disapprove.
Thank them. Whether you had a blast or not, thank them at the end of the night. Later, tell your girlfriend you had a good time. Even if it’s not entirely true, she’ll let them know, and it will reflect positively on you.
Make the Best of It
Some guys luck out and truly enjoy spending time with their girlfriend’s parents. For others it’s a chore. Either way, try to make the best of it. You get to choose your girlfriend, but you don’t get to choose her parents.