Vacation Interrogation

Carolyn’s Sunday column (both of her weekend columns come out Friday afternoon) features a letter from a woman who feels that her daughter-in-law is too nosy:

Dear Carolyn:

How do I handle the multitude of questions that come from my daughter-in-law regarding activities or trips I’m taking? To my son I say, “I’m going to the mountains for the weekend.” He responds, “Sounds like fun,” and that is it.

Daughter-in-law says, rapid-fire, “When are you leaving, is X going with you, what will you do there, when will you be back?” I know it is her nature to be a bit nosy and I have nothing to hide, so I find myself pouring everything out like she was a soul-sister.

Unfortunately, she stores the information and later throws little digs my way, like she is keeping a scorecard on where I go and whom I’m with. Her timing with these digs is remarkable, always implying that I don’t spend equal time with her kids. I need help in not buying into her nosiness in the first place.

Snow Bunny

Wow.  So, my personality and habits put me squarely in the MIL’s camp.  I don’t proffer a lot of information and detail about my plans unless explicitly asked–and even then, sometimes the questions make me feel a little defensive (Why do you care what the conference is about that I’m going to?).  I’ve completely neglected to mention trips I’m taking to my parents, because it didn’t come up in conversation, and it didn’t seem like it would have any bearing on what they were doing, so why bring it up?

But guess what?  I’ve usually discovered that the people who are asking aren’t trying to control or interrogate me.  On the contrary, they’re showing impressive interest in what’s often an incredibly boring and unfamiliar subject for them (text encoding?).  They’re doing this because they care about me and are interested in what I’m up to.  And because they want to be social and make conversation.

To them, responding to someone’s announcement of an upcoming trip with “Sounds like fun” and changing the subject would signal not, “I will respect your privacy” but rather “I couldn’t care less about your trip.” It shuts down friendly conversation, and an interesting topic, when one is right at hand.

SK’s family often asks detailed questions that throw me off guard, until I realize that they’re perfectly normal.  I mean, why announce “I’m going to X!” unless you expect it to be followed up with questions like when, why, or with whom? Revealing this information to an inquiring family member, really, is not the same as “pouring everything out like she was a soul-sister.” And all questions feel “rapid fire” if you give monosyllabic answers.  If you don’t want to talk about the trip, for Pete’s sake, don’t bring it up.

The piece about the DIL using the information later as ammunition complicates things, but I’m a bit skeptical of MIL’s report (probably because she equated sharing the details of her itinerary to pouring out her soul).  I wonder about the apparently “remarkable” timing of these digs.  A sentence like “Billy’s recital was so wonderful, we wish you could have been there, but it was during your trip to the mountains,” doesn’t seem that unreasonable or unlikely to me.

And, yes, it does seem like a guilt trip.  But in that case, the real problem is MIL and DIL’s differing expectations of how much time they should spend together, not the DIL’s tendency to ask questions.  Unless she says, “While Billy was giving his first public musical performance at 5 p.m., you were drinking hot toddies and playing bridge in the ski lodge with Doris and Steve,”  I think it’s unlikely DIL is obsessively “storing information,” noting and cross-referencing MIL’s travel plans.

Instead, it sounds to me like DIL is desperately trying to build a relationship with MIL, by asking lots of questions, making conversation, and wanting her to be around and spend time with the kids (can’t tell from the letter if these are MIL’s grandkids or stepgrandkids), while MIL is uninterested in, or threatened by, a relationship with that level of intimacy.

Carolyn was less sympathetic to the DIL than I was.  I wasn’t thrilled with her answer.  Nevertheless, her advice–which tells MIL how to set boundaries that she’s comfortable with–might be applicable even if DIL’s questions are totally innocent.  MIL has the right to do things her own way in any case, and Carolyn’s answer will help her do that.  It will certainly help her keep DIL at a (un)comfortable distance. But Carolyn is usually really good at encouraging folks to take an expansive and compassionate view of others’ motives, and I wish she’d done so here.  It seems to me that DIL’s questions might be about so much more, and so much less, than just annoying and punishing MIL:

You do want to cut her ammunition supply, but she’ll always have something; the sniping is what you need to stop. Call your daughter-in-law on the nasty asides: “If there’s something I do that bothers you, please say so — I’m happy to talk about it.” This serves notice that her snark attacks don’t scare you — they only make her look petty. After that, ignore her jabs, except to say occasionally, “Is there something you’d like to say?”

Once you’ve established a firm boundary, you’ll be free to address her future inquisitions with prepared non-answers. Have a few handy that you can use in repertory: “So many questions!” “I’ll fax you a detailed itinerary.” “I’m touched that you care.” Or give your trip dates (which may be of legitimate use to her), then change the subject. With people who throw you off balance, anticipation serves as a brace.

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