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My mother-in-law won’t speak English with us. Is this rude?

The question

Every spring my mother-in-law arrives from Europe. While she stays in her own home we see her often, usually for meals and then a four-day visit to the cottage with us. Although she speaks English very well, she seems to feel we should all be learning her language and accommodating her, to the point that she will often speak her language at these meals. So instead of saying "pass the butter" which is hardly a complicated matter in English, she will revert to her own language and then she hooks in my husband and they begin talking and no one has a clue what they are saying. I know it's a power grab so she can control the conversation and cut me out but my husband is afraid to stand up to her because she has quite a temper, and because he says that at 78 you get to do what you want to. This causes untold friction in my family and, judging from the number of mixed marriages in Canada, for many other families, I am sure. Is it rude to speak a foreign language in front of people who don't understand?

The answer

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That's Hungarian for "yes." I spent a couple summers in Hungary as a kid but all I remember how to say is "igen" and "langos" (a Hungarian specialty food, deep-fried dough slathered in garlic), and "nagyon hullamos," which means "very wavy." I think that's all I knew back then, too: Somehow I made it through two entire summers eating nothing but garlicky fried bread and agreeing with people, or pointing out myself, that Lake Balaton was very wavy that day.

I have to say: Your mother-in-law sounds like a real pain in the püpenschutter. I always thought that hoary sitcom staple – the controlling, scheming mother-in-law – was a myth. My wife Pam's mom, for example, is nothing like that. But I guess there's some truth to the stereotype, because we've received so many questions about mothers-in-law lately, it's crashed the servers of our problem-solving supercomputers in the Family Relations Wing, here at Damage Control HQ, located in an underground bunker.

(Oh, you didn't think I came up with all this stuff myself, did you? I have computers and a giant staff.)

But my attention is naturally drawn to her son – your husband. Where are his cojones? Or maybe I should say I'm impressed by his cojones. Because if I were laughing it up in some mumbo-jumbo lingo with my mother while Pam and fam steamed and stewed in an uncomprehending fog in the periphery, it wouldn't be long before the hauteur of Pam's froideur would resemble l'enfer.

I'm sure the Germans have some compound word for whatever your husband's being, basically an overgrown child embarrassing himself by abetting his mother in being rude, like, uh, eine grossekinderenablenzematerzuschadenrude.

Why can't your husband simply say the truth: that it's rude to speak a language no one understands in front of them when she speaks theirs perfectly well?

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(Though maybe it's payback time/karmic backlash for all the North Americans who go to Europe and figure the locals will understand English better if they yell: "HAMBURGER! Where can we get a HAMBURGER!" Followed by a pantomime of eating a burger: hands raised and tensed, teeth clacking.)

Perhaps your husband needs a little (10,000-volt) prodding. Take him aside and point out, in plain English, what seems eminently obvious and reasonable to me: that, along with his mother, he is being less than considerate towards you and the rest of the family – and unless he would like to be handed his Papiers du Bachelor he needs to initiate a two-pronged approach:

First, to tell his mother – nicely and respectfully, of course, we always talk nice to our moms, they gave birth to us and watched over us when we were little – in whatever language he chooses, something to the effect of, hmmm, in the short time they have with her, her family wants to understand what she has to say and that these pearls of wisdom will one day be cherished memories and yadda yadda yadda.

Then, if his mother continues speaking in her mother tongue he should answer in English.

Yes, I think things should get that pointed. She is definitely being rude. And this notion she's teaching her language to your family by jabbering it to her son in your vicinity: complete canard.

I think you're right on the money that it's a deliberate, sitcom-style mother-in-law ploy to draw a veil of verbiage around her son and he should let her know he's not having it while she is a guest in your home.

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Anyway, why is he more afraid of her wrath than yours? He only has to deal with her for four days and a few random meals a year – and you the rest of the time.

Make it clear to him he's playing Russian roulette with your affections and if he doesn't smarten up he may be trading the joys of your ultra-fluffy marital duvet for a solo stretch on the divan.

What am I supposed to do now?

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