Of all the fraught rites of new-relationship escalation—Facebook status changes and move-ins and one of you using the toilet while the other showers and so on—none inspires more anticipatory dread than the Parent Meet. And for a whole host of legitimate reasons: the psychic weight of parental approval on even independent, well-adjusted people; the general fusty badness and stingy these-kids-today skepticism of all generations prior to yours; and, most of all, your utter, absolute, feral-child-grade dearth of formal social skills. It's a minefield!
But, look. You are human and you need to be loved, just like anybody else does—and so, eventually, you are gonna have to get through one of these goddamn trials. Stamp your feet about antiquated notions of parental authority—We're goddamn adults! We don't need them to approve our love, which is too pure for this tainted world!—all you want, but this thing's still going down. Your significant other loves his/her parents, and respects their opinions and judgments (even if the crusted-over old bats haven't earned that respect and care, the retrograde sonsofbitches, they didn't fix all the world's problems when they had the chance, who are they to ju—shut up and quit making excuses, ya big crank). And now, he/she wants to show the ol' duffers the new exciting thing in his/her* life.
*I'm going to switch to using feminine pronouns to describe S/Os from here on in, in places where I'd otherwise have to contort uncomfortably to achieve gender neutrality. I feel weird and bad about it. I don't want to heteronormate all over everybody; the gender of your significant other shouldn't have much bearing on whether the tips below will help, but picking a set of pronouns just makes the thing easier to write. OK?
More than that, though: Parental approval of you, Potentially Long-Term Love Interest, doubles as an affirmation of your significant other's taste and perception and judgment. Which—again, even if you don't think your smoochin' buddy's parents deserve such an important affirmative power—means that, if you nail this thing, it'll work out pretty well for you, you selfish bastard. Because, if ol' Mom sidles up to her at some point during or shortly after this event and does the classic, furtive, hunched-shoulder, crinkled-nose Mom Face and half-whispers, "He's really nice!" this will, pretty much instantaneously, improve your girlfriend's feelings about both you and herself a good 11 percent, at least.
Apart from the selfish angle, this also is a thing you should care about in your capacity as, y'know, a person who cares about the happiness of the person you're with. And this, when you strip away all the encrusted patriarchal horseshit, is what you're trying to demonstrate to everyone involved—your girlfriend and her parents and the waiter and yourself: "I care about, uh, Hortense or Philippa or Whatever—enough to endure this grindingly awkward and psychically laden social obligation, for the sake of the sense of security and happiness she will get from a good outcome."
This is what her parents want to know about you: That you care about this person that they also care about, and care enough to endure mild discomfort on her behalf. That you will make a genuine good-faith effort for the sake of her happiness. This will make you seem like a trustworthy and decent person who likes good things. It will also give you something in common with them, since they have endured mild and not-so-mild discomfort on your girlfriend's behalf for decades. It will affirm the job they have done as parents, and their sense that the child they love very much now is a capable adult and not endangered by her own bad taste and judgment.
(Also they will want to know that you are not an insolvent meth-addled professional organ-donor. There's no accounting for taste, I guess.)
Here are some good, all-purpose tips that will help you earn that 11-percent boost. Here we are assuming that your girlfriend's parents are more or less broadly normal human beings—and, not, say, conspiranoid backcountry survivalist militiapersons who judge prospective sons-in-law by their field-dressing skills, or free-lovin'-ass hippie weirdos who will expect you to prove your sexual prowess on them, or Scientologists.
1. Present yourself respectably.
Yes, dammit, launder and iron your most respectable-looking grownup shirt, and (I know, I know) tuck it into your most respectable-looking (laundered and ironed) grownup pants, which you are wearing atop your least itinerant-derelict-looking shoes, wrapped around your freshest-smelling socks. If an intellectually honest inventory of your closet or bureau or clothes-heap does not yield any clothing items deserving of the "respectable-looking" descriptor, first of all, congratulations on assembling the kind of adult life that does not require the daily wearing of Respectable Grownup Clothing—but also, hie thee to a clothery and get some cheap single-use Grownup Clothes. We're not talking about a tux and tails, here; a stupid dreary Oxford shirt (cornflower blue looks nonthreateningly pretty with your eyes and literally all others) and a pair of Sad Office Drone slacks will do the job.
Wash yourself. Brush your teeth. If you have hair, do something with it so that it does not look like you just got hit by a truck full of hand grenades. If your normal practice is to wear your hair in some insufferably attention-grabbing scenester coif, I mean, moderate it a tad, willya?
Before you rail against the dishonesty of this—why can't I just beeee meeeee????—remember what you are trying to communicate, here. You're trying to demonstrate, to everyone involved, that you care enough to endure mild, transient discomfort. In that sense, this schlubby Responsible Dork getup isn't a lie; it's the truth. I don't dress like this all the time, but I'll dress like this to show respect for the occasion.
2. If they're hosting, bring something.
If it's dinner at their home, wine's probably fine. That's the standard Thing To Bring when you're a guest for a meal at somebody else's place. I think a modest, non-showy bouquet of flowers (not roses!) is a smooth move, too; not only are they just kind of a nice, pretty thing to put in somebody's house, but they give one of the parents (probably Mom) a way to move directly from introductions to finding a vase for the flowers, which gets you past the initial front-hallway awkwardness pretty nicely.
If you're meeting at a restaurant or coffee shop or (god forbid) their exclusive country club dining hall or some shit, that's a different thing. Bring a warm, genuine smile, a confident but not overeager handshake, and enough money so that you could pay, if it came to that, even though it probably won't. (We'll get to that in a second.)
If you're meeting in your home, bring yourself to the door and let them in yourself.
3. Have a—a (A!) (as in only one)—small drink a half-hour beforehand.
Before you brush your teeth.
No, this is not sad lush behavior. It's perfectly OK for a grownup to have a single (one) (just one) (no seriously if you fuck this up you deserve to be dumped) small ([stares intellectual-honesty daggers]) drink before a stressful social interaction, so long as that interaction is not a professional duty or childcare. This ONE SMALL DRINK will sand just the slightest sharpness off the edge of your anxiety, and that is a kindness you can do for yourself, and for everybody else, without lapsing into booze-dependent-sad-sack territory.
For God's sake, no more than that, though. If you show up to this thing visibly knackered, seriously, you deserve to be dumped. And if you can't trust yourself to abide by the one-small-drink restriction, you need intervention. Seriously.
4. Introduce your damn self.
You will want to do the thing where you kind of stand off to the side, smiling politely, while she hugs the parents, until she goes, "This is [your stupid name]." But actually, no, that's a chump move. Children wait to be introduced. Grownups introduce themselves.
Skeptical parents, regarding with a side-eye the entire notion of their offspring's adulthood, will be biased toward interpreting your behavior as a sign of juvenile delinquency. Don't blame them: It's a well- and honestly formed habit, borne out of years of their child swooning over slouching, furtive, pimply teenage shitbags. You can puncture this bias right off the bat, to literally everyone's pleasant surprise, by not hanging back and waiting to be introduced, but leaning in with a smile, making eye contact like a grownup, extending your hand, and saying, "Hi, I'm [your stupid name]." Repeat their names back to them with a nod when they introduce themselves, then say: "It's so nice to meet you."
If you are meeting in a restaurant of their choosing, you can prevent an awkward silence, here, by saying that this place looks great and you can't wait to try it. If you're meeting in their home, say that you love their house, and then present whatever you brought. If you're meeting in your home, ask to take their coats, or whether you can get them something to drink, or whether they had any trouble finding the place. The idea is to ask some damn thing, so that you can hop over the conversational crevasse immediately after introductions.
The thing is, if you treat these parents like two nice fellow adults you're meeting—rather than like two unstable buckets of napalm—this will put them at ease. That feeling of ease is another nice thing you can give them. Giving them that nice thing will make them feel good about you. And, their ease will put you at ease. And then everybody can get along. It's not complicated.
5. Don't be afraid to acknowledge the awkwardness.
Conversational lapses happen. When they happen during the first conversation with your significant other's parents, it's deathly awkward. If it happens (it probably will), it's totally OK—possibly even kind and disarmingly charming!—to just hang up a bashful smile and acknowledge it. If you can do it with a harmless little joke—"Just so you know, most of the time I'm Cary Grant, but I've been really nervous about meeting [Francine/Bertha/Eunice]'s parents"—this will, perversely, project exactly the kind of confidence you're currently lacking. That confidence, again, will put the parents at ease. Another act of generosity! What a generous youth that [your dumb name] is. Our Marjorie sure knows how to pick 'em.
6. Restrict yourself to one more drink during the actual event.
For one thing, because you want to guard against the inebriated judgment- or discretion-fart at all costs. For another, because if anyone is paying attention, your restraint is a sign of respect, and confidence, and maturity. And, finally, because booze is expensive, and you're probably not paying for this thing (unless it's in your home, in which case, I mean, the first two reasons ought to be good enough, so shut up and make with the temperance, ya big drunk).
7. Don't make any flashy displays to impress anybody.
You are not trying to prove your Masculine Virility, here. This is not 1940s Sicily. It is not even 1990s Sicily. If it is 2010s Sicily, OK, whatever, but pretend it's not. Your significant other's parents do not need you to make an ostentatious show of presenting their daughter with a $10,000 bracelet in the middle of a crowded restaurant. If presenting their daughter with a $10,000 bracelet is not the type of thing you ordinarily would do on a dinner date, do not do it now, or it will reek of sleazy obsequiousness, and make them not trust you.
If you are hosting this deal at your home, do not serve fuggin' goldleaf-wrapped king crab medallions with fois gras and beluga caviar and hundred-dollar bills artfully folded into decorative swans. Even in the alternate universe in which you could even dream of doing this without laughing aloud, this can backfire horribly, if it makes you seem like a status-conscious fancy-pants, and her parents turn out to be the kinds of people who value humility and moderation. Serve whatever decent, grownup meal you cook best. (Here are, like, a billion suggestions.) This will communicate groundedness and maturity.
8. Avoid all Meaningful Life Moment gestures.
Do not wait until your significant other goes to the bathroom, and then gaze solemnly at her parents and give them a grave, whispery speech about how you're gonna Take Care of Their Little Girl. Do not ask dad for permission to court his daughter. Do not propose marriage to her in front of them the first time you meet them. Do not elbow the restaurant's resident piano-player out of the way to perform a tearful rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," even though that is a lovely song that all the boomers love. This is a specialized double-date, not a fucking Joining Ceremony.
9. Handle the who-will-pay-for-this situation with grace.
Don't wait until the check comes and then do the whole "Oh, please, Dad, let me" thing, where you half-stand and reach for the check and it's this whole awkward game of chicken and then eventually you let the parents pay for it. And, definitely don't do the thing where you pull the waiter aside and give him your credit card halfway through the meal. You don't want to humiliate the folks, and you don't want to come off like a sneak, and you don't want to make things awkward.
Here is what you do: At some point during the engagement, either lean over toward one of the parents (it's usually The Dad who'll want to handle this, but sometimes not) or walk around the table and lean down next to that parent, and—in a friendly but slightly muted voice, one resplendent with I'm-OK-with-this-either-way-ness—say: "If it's alright with you, I'd like tonight's dinner to be [my treat/on me]. Is that OK?"
If The Parent says no, and wants to pay, you are allowed to ask, once, if you can split the check. After that, no pushing. Smile, say, "OK, well, thanks very much!" and state as a happy matter of fact that the next dinner will be your treat.
10. Nail the goodbye.
Again: No silly Meaningful Life Moment gestures. Don't say, "I just want to thank you again for birthing such an immaculate angel and allowing me to worship at her feet" or whatever the fuck. Thank them for a fun evening (even in the unlikely event that you paid for it), tell them that it was so nice to meet them finally, say that you hope you'll see them again soon, tell Dad that you hope whatever nagging Old Person Injury inevitably came up during the evening heals up soon, and get the friggin' hell out of there, so that you can ...
11. Make sex with their offspring.
I mean, don't say that's what you're doing. Just go and do it.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.
Art by Sam Woolley.