Now that you've committed to Mr. Right, it's time for your folks to mix and mingle: Yes, for better or worse, it's time to introduce your parents to each other.
Traditionally, the groom's parents call the bride's parents first to introduce themselves and to make plans to meet. (It's also completely acceptable for the bride's parents -- or you two! -- to make the first move.) If either or both of your parents are divorced, the parent(s) that raised each of you should meet first. If your parents live far apart, one set should send a note of introduction to convey their excitement at the impending joining of your two families.
Choosing a Location
If your parents live in the same hometown, you can all meet for brunch, cocktails, or dinner at someone's house or at a moderately priced, fun restaurant. However, the best way to encourage conversation is for parents to meet during an interactive meal (a backyard barbecue or clambake, say) or activity such as canoeing, bowling, or attending a sports event together. This will supply something to talk about and distract them from any differences they may have.
If your parents live in different parts of the state or across the country (or world), make an effort to find a convenient time and place for everyone to meet before the wedding. If it's absolutely not possible, be sure that everyone convenes a few days before the wedding to get acquainted. One good way to kick-start relations is to assign them last-minute wedding duties (favors, decorations) to tackle together.
Accept the fact that you can't control what happens after the introductions. Instead, take steps now to brief the primary players, make a good impression, and defuse any landmines that may lie ahead.
Forewarn but Don't Flip Out
Everyone has issues or experiences you know to steer clear of. From small annoyances (one parent hates cigarette smoke, for example) to major issues (his grandparents are Holocaust survivors), now is the time to share do-not-go-there subjects with your parents.
In addition, all parents -- and couples -- have their eccentricities. If you foresee clashing quirks, forewarn those likely to be most sensitive. Be careful not to exaggerate the situation, as that will bias those involved and give them ammunition if they're not crazy about your fiance or the idea of your getting married (so fast, so young, so whatever). Couch the concern, then let them make up their own minds.
Have Conversation Topics at the Ready
To bridge awkward silences, stockpile interesting conversational topics for emergency saves. What do they have in common? What's in the news? Read the paper for current events (beware political or controversial topics) and make a mental list of your parents' hobbies, recent trips, or community activities. Think of things that reveal more about their personalities than their paychecks (so as not to alienate parents of lesser means).
Set the Ground Rules Before You Go
If you're meeting at a restaurant, be sure everyone understands that each couple will cover their own share (not split it three ways or down the middle). In fact, call ahead to choose a restaurant that will do separate checks. Or, bite the bullet and pick up the tab for everyone. Doing so will eliminate awkward efforts to treat each other and bitterness when someone orders the most expensive thing on the menu or downs six martinis.
Kowtow to Miss Manners
Common courtesy mandates that when someone invites you over for dinner, you bring a gift or contribute to the menu. When parents are meeting parents, pour on the politeness. Bring a gift, food, or a special sweet treat. Offer to help finish last-minute prep and to help clean up or clear the dishes. Eat light so you can go for second helpings and ask for the recipe of something they served (even if you never plan on making it).
Know Your Cultures
If you're marrying someone from another culture, religion, or race, ask your fiance if there are any beliefs or protocol you should know about and/or heed before this pivotal first meeting of the minds.
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