What The Heck Do I Call My In Laws?

Down the aisle by Authentic EyeQuestion for Steven: I’ve been with my partner for two years now. When Diane first met my folks, she, being from the south, called them “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So”. After we had made several visits they suggested Diane call them by their first names, which she has done now for quite some time. As for me, Diane’s southern parents have never said, “Please call us Margaret and John” and I find it odd to still be referring to them as “Mr. and Mrs. Mason-Dixon” after all these years. Now that we’re planning to get married, I’d really like to suggest a name change to something less formal so that it actually feels like we’re a family. Is it okay to just ask them? By the way, did I mention we’re adults – in our late 30s!?

Steven Answers: Here’s the bad news: Southerners are funny about their names (and I say that with some authority, living in North Carolina and having a born-again Southerner as a mother-in-law). For those of a certain generation down south, it’s been a long tradition to refer to one’s elders as “Mr. and Mrs.” – or any honorific like “Doctor” or “Colonel.” In fact, I know one straight couple from South Carolina where the daughter-in-law (now 65!) still calls her mother-in-law (now 92!) “Mrs. Fancy Pants.”

The good news is that, in general, the convention is for parents to make the offer to have us call them by their given names. This is especially true when the “kids” are – dare I say it? – almost middle aged. (In fact, I called my mom-in-law “Mother Bean” for a short time until she relented and said, “Please, just call me Helen!”) Many parents go a step further, suggesting “Mom” and “Dad,” which you may or may not cotton to. So as your wedding day approaches, the Mason-Dixons may take the initiative themselves. But no, I would not ask them directly – although you could ask your fiancé to do so behind the scenes.

I queried other partnered folks on my Facebook page (Facebook.com/gaymanners) and found – not surprisingly – some real creativity and lots of choices. One fellow who is partnered with a Filipino lover refers to his in-laws by their local honorifics, Lolo and Mama Ginny. Another posted that he started out calling his partner’s mother, “Mrs. Gossett, which over time became ‘mama,’” adding, “One of the happiest days of my life was when she began to refer to me as her ‘fourth son.’ Quite a few resorted to what I’m sure is good natured humor, referring to their in-laws as “the outlaws.” Some dodged the question until they had kids, at which point they could start calling their in-laws grandma and grandpa. And then there are many who simply avoid the issue altogether. Explained one son-in-law: “I think I don’t ever address her by mom or by name! Just realized that when I read your question! Oh my!”

Two last points: Being accepted as a family member is less about what you call your significant other’s parents and much more about how their treat you – as an individual and as a couple. So, try not to get hung up on the wrong thing. And, ask yourselves this: What do any straight spouses in the family call “Mr. and Mrs. Mason-Dixon”? If it’s one-size fits all – regardless of sexual orientation – understand that that’s the nature of this particular beast – I mean, family.

Photo Credit: Authentic Eye Photography

Editor’s Note: This column also ran on the Advocate.com.


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Steven Petrow is the go-to source on contemporary etiquette, as cited by The New York Times, People, Time, and NPR. His sometimes gentle, sometimes snarky, always insightful advice has made him a nationally recognized expert on modern manners. In addition to his three prize-winning etiquette books, Steven writes the “Civil Behavior” column for The New York Times and is a sought-after speaker on all matters of civilized living in the 21st century.