If you are going home for the holidays with your new plus one chances are he or she will be “meeting the parents”. And it is precisely because you are deeply, madly and passionately in love with your boyfriend of six months that you’ve managed to keep him from meeting your motley crew of a family. You love your family, but fear they will have him making a beeline for the nearest exit! The truth is newcomer nervousness is normal; we’re hardwired, as well as taught as toddlers, to fear strangers and the unfamiliar. It is often a stressful situation anytime you have a new “significant other” and find yourself invited as “the new one” to a family holiday gathering. You’re worried about making a good first impression, fitting in, and often just surviving the event unscathed.
1. Plan ahead. Ask your significant other to describe the event with details that can help you prepare in advance and know what you’re getting yourself into. Some important questions to ask include:
a. Who will be attending? Is this a regular event or an unusual gathering?
b. Does everyone know each other or will there be others that will be new (and I won’t be the only one)?
c. Who do I most need to introduce myself to and get to know (e.g. grandma, stepmom, skeptical uncle, etc.)?
d. What topics should I avoid bringing up (and with which people)?
e. Any unusual characters I need to be aware of in advance (and how to deal with them?)
2. Be prepared to introduce yourself. In the chaos of a family gathering you may be left alone at times and not have your significant other to introduce you. Have the courage to approach people, introduce yourself, and state your relationship to your SO (and thus why you’re here). Sometimes being proactive in this regard can send positive signals.
3. Show interest and ask questions. Great first impressions are less about regaling others with your deeds and accomplishments, and more about how you make the other person feel. When you’re interacting with them, make them the full focus of your attention. Ask questions – it shows respect and interest, and people tend to gain energy by talking about themselves. Of course, you may get stuck with the elderly aunt that drones on and on, but the rest of the room will pity you for “taking one for the team” and enduring her endless stories.
4. Spend some time with the kids. Show interest in people’s children. Get down to their level when being introduced, and make some small talk. If the opportunity arises, play a game or two with the little ones. It sends wonderful signals to others about your friendliness, humility, and future potential as a parent.
5. Be helpful. Offer to help bring out dishes, clear away the table, set up chairs, or whatever needs to be done. Again it sends signals that you’re “that kind of person” who is willing to pitch in, and not above doing the little things.
6. Study and remember names. Ask your significant other to give you an attendee list, ideally with the family tree so you know all the relationships. If you study this in advance and become familiar with the names, then connecting names with faces will become that much easier in the heat of the moment. If you also learn a bit about each person in advance, it shows you care enough to prepare yourself and makes a great first impression.
7. Avoid the smartphone. These days it can be almost unconscious for us to pull out the smartphone to check messages. Doing it at the wrong time can send signals that you’re bored or uninterested in who you’re talking to.
8. Say thank you. Gratitude goes a long way and makes a good impression.
9. Participate in the family games and rituals. Even if you’re bad at it or it seems embarrassing, just give it a try. You show yourself to be the good sport, and trying to fit in.
10. Be yourself. Above all, don’t try to be someone you’re not. You may need to be more social and outgoing than you want to be, but being a total fake is easily detected.
11. Have fun. Approach the new situation as an interesting opportunity to meet and learn new things about people, and not as a litmus test of family acceptance. You’ll be more comfortable and respectful, and that will make a much better impression than looking like you’re just enduring a painful experience.