Michelle Buteau Wants You to Establish Boundaries With Your In-Laws

Our etiquette expert, comedian Michelle Buteau, advises readers on sending wedding invites, being a plus-one at a party, and getting in-laws to respect you.


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Michelle Buteau is a mother, wife, dog mama, actor, writer, comedian, and TV host. Her book of autobiographical essays, Survival of the Thickest, will soon be a Netflix series. She also co-hosts the popular podcast Adulting on the Exactly Right network. With all this life experience, we trust Michelle's ability to navigate a number of social quandaries. Here's her advice to our readers in the December 2022 issue of Real Simple.

Have your own social dilemma for Michelle to solve? Tell us about it at modernmanners@realsimple.com.

You're Not Invited

SHIRA: I’m having a destination wedding, and we want to keep it super-small. What’s a classy and nice way of saying on our e-invite, “We are getting married, but really, no pressure to come!” We genuinely don’t want too many people there.

MICHELLE: Wow! Congratulations on getting married. Finding a life partner is pretty special. If you’d really love to have a very intimate wedding, I’d suggest mailing handwritten invites to the guests you definitely want there. Maybe even mention an inside joke or story so they know it’s personal and meant for them. Saying, “No pressure to come!” sends a mixed message. Like, do you want me there or not? It’s as if you were getting married and your spouse-to-be were like, “If you don’t feel like showing up at the altar, no pressure.” If you really want a guest there, tell them you want them there. If they can’t come, perhaps offer something else they could do—donate to a foundation of your choice in your name or contribute to a honeymoon fund—so they feel like they’re still celebrating you. But if you want a small wedding, definitely keep your list small from the get-go. Congratulations again!

When Snail Mail Is Too Slow

ERINN: When I receive a gift in the mail, I send a handwritten thank-you note to acknowledge it and share how I have enjoyed or plan to enjoy the gift. I have one relative who consistently texts or calls me to ask if I’ve received the gift as soon as they get the notification from Amazon (or wherever) that it was delivered. I then feel bad that I didn’t immediately text or call with a thank-you. The note is literally in the mail! Should I forgo handwritten thank-yous and send instant texts?

MICHELLE: Erinn with two n’s, why are you so cute and thoughtful? I love it so much. Clearly not everybody is patient enough for a thank-you note. But that’s OK. I kind of see where your relative is coming from because, nowadays, if you send a gift via someplace like Amazon, you just want to make sure it arrives. Even if you do receive notification that it’s been delivered, you don’t know it’s actually been delivered to the right place. I think with this particular person, you can skip a thank-you card and save yourself a stamp. Just text them a thank-you, send them a picture of yourself with the gift, and maybe, if you’re feeling jazzy, include a thank-you GIF. That way you feel like you’ve expressed yourself in the way you like to when you thank someone, and they’ve gotten the information they need right away. You can send me a thank-you card in the mail for this advice. It would make my day!

Feeling Invisible

SAMANTHA: I recently went with a friend to her other friend’s going-away party. For most of the people there, it was like a great reunion of folks they hadn’t seen since before Covid. As her acquaintances came over, they never once looked at me. They came and they went. Very few even said hi or introduced themselves. I felt like I was invisible and, honestly, like something was wrong with me. Should I have injected myself into the conversation? Was it my friend’s responsibility to introduce us? How should I have handled this situation?

MICHELLE: Samantha, I totally feel you. This is such a unique situation for everyone as a whole—getting back to social gatherings after Covid and feeling safe enough to do so. We’re sort of relearning our manners now. I think before Covid, it’d be on your friend to introduce you, but now we’re in the world of “Wow, we can’t believe we’ve done all the things we needed to do to get to this place.” After isolation, no traveling, and little to no socialization, I think a lot of etiquette has just gone out the window. In this situation, it was definitely not personal. Next time, take up your space! You’ve earned it and you’re worthy. You could say something like “I’m sorry, and you are...? And how do you know her?” Or compliment someone on what they’re wearing: “I love your shoes. Where did you get them?” Or “Can you believe we have to wear heels now after Covid? What world is this?” You can also talk about the music that’s playing or how nice the party is. These are all things that can lead someone to introduce themselves. It’s rarely personal. I’m sure you’re a very fun friend and everybody is just overwhelmed.

Don't Bite The Hand That Feeds You

S.F.: My loving mother-in-law always has her fingers in her mouth when she’s cooking and serving food. The thought of going over for dinner is so off-putting. I love her dearly, and I don’t know how to express how grossed-out I am without offending her. Help!

MICHELLE: Oh, oh, my goodness, S.F. This is a wild situation because fingers in the mouth is a big old yuck as far as I’m concerned. But when you’re just peripherally related to someone who has their fingers in their mouth—ooh, thoughts and prayers and thank you for your service! Question: Your spouse, your mother-in-law’s child you are married to—do they have their fingers in their mouth? Is this a cultural thing? Or is this mainly just a mother-in-law thing? Could you put the onus on your spouse to say, “Hey, Mom, I love you. Could you not do that? Because it kind of grosses us both out.” So it isn’t just on you? If not, I mean, you really can’t bring it up, because she’s so set in her ways. But I would eat before I go over so you’re not hungry. Oh my goodness, that is so disgusting. I’m so sorry.

It's My Party

APRIL: What can I or my husband say to my sister-in-law, brother-in-law, and father-in-law who bring food for the holidays? I make a full meal and have it ready to eat, and they show up at the time of the meal with a bunch of food that is not prepared and make a mess of my kitchen. Please help.

MICHELLE: April, wow. How do I say this without sounding like an older sister who knows better? Well, there’s no way to: We have to establish boundaries with your in-laws. I know that’s hard. We tend to forget that it took us such a long time to get used to our own families, but then we’re supposed to just figure it out with someone else’s? You have to tell them, “You’re coming to my house for food. Please don’t bring anything. I am doing it. If you’d like to help, you could do the dishes.” If they insist on bringing their own food, then you have to tell them, “Come at this time, and please clean up your dishes, because it’s like I’m hosting two parties. It’s double the work for me.” I have a sneaking feeling that maybe they don’t like your food or perhaps they think they know better, but this is a great opportunity for you to draw that line in the sand and say, “This is my home. This is my party. This is my food. These are my rules. And this is my life with your son.” You’ve got this.

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