Not Sure What to Call Your In-Laws? Here's What the Experts Suggest

Getty Mother In Law Couple At Table
Photo: Mareen Fischinger

Getting married brings about a whole host of new situations that you'll need to navigate with your spouse. Beyond just determining how you'll divide up your time during the holidays, you might find that you run into a snag when it comes to knowing what to call your new in-laws. Should you stick with Mr. and Mrs. Last Name? Are you on a first name basis now? Do they want to be Mom and Dad? If you're not quite sure what to call your in-laws, here are some tips on gracefully navigating this important situation.

Respect is Never Wrong

"As a rule, respect and formality is never a mistake," says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the founder of Mental Drive. If you haven't had a specific conversation about the topic, it's typically best to err on the side of caution.

Address the Elephant in the Room

But how do you start that conversation? Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert and the founder of The Swann School of Protocol, advocates for addressing the elephant in the room.

"The key here is to possess enough confidence to have an awkward conversation. Embrace the awkward and push through it. You'll come out better because of it," says Swann. "Next time you're in conversation you can say, 'You know, I don't really know what to call you. Should I call you Bob or Mr. Smith?' and then listen to what they have to say."

Consider Your Comfort Level

If this conversation leads to your in-laws suggesting you call them something you're not totally comfortable with, Dr. Klapow recommends asking yourself why you feel strongly about not accepting their wishes. For example, if your in-laws would like you to call them Mom and Dad and your own parents have passed away, you might realize that calling someone else Mom and Dad feels upsetting to you.

"If circumstances make it so you're not comfortable referring to your in-laws as Mom and Dad, it's okay, with respect, to express your wishes to call them by an alternative name," Dr. Klapow says.

It's not just calling your in-laws Mom and Dad that might create an issue. Swann notes that in some cultures, it's not acceptable to address your elders by their first name. If your in-laws encourage you to drop the Mr. and Mrs. in favor of their first names, this might create a complication.

Be Transparent

Regardless of which preferred moniker has you feeling uneasy, Swann says transparency is helpful to avoid hurt feelings.

"You can say, 'I don't feel comfortable calling you Mom because it's a word so near and dear to my heart. Do you have a suggestion for another name I can call you? I love you so much and certainly want to respect you," she says.

Prepare Your Own Parents

And if your own parents aren't thrilled with the idea of you calling someone else Mom and Dad?

"Have a conversation with your parents and explain, 'The inflection and love in my voice when I'm referring to you as Mom or Dad is completely different from me addressing a motherly figure in my life.' I want to equip and empower individuals to say that if your parents have a problem with this, talk to them. Let them know that it takes nothing away from your relationship with them, but this is a new relationship you're forging," Swann says.

If there's still hesitation on your family's end, Swann suggests digging into the root of what might be causing this trepidation. For example, maybe Mom is dealing with some jealousy or worry about being replaced. Once this comes to light, it's easier to tackle the underlying concern so you can find a way to address your in-laws that leaves everyone feeling comfortable.

Above all else, transparency is essential in order to find a name that everyone feels comfortable with as you work to merge two families together.

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