Stuck Between Two Cultures: In-Laws


By Nadia Shah @desiinlaws & online at

bigstock-Biracial-Family-Portrait-1255574As most of you already realize, in-law relationships vary from culture to culture and even from family to family. For example, in South Asian countries you’ll probably find many daughter-in-laws (DILs) moving in with their husbands’ families. But in America (and approximately 30% of the other countries in the world) you probably won’t see that occurring much.

Why? Different cultures. And the differences aren‘t just geographic, they highlight the two main types of cultures: Collectivism and Individualism.

Individualistic groups place emphasis on independence, self-sufficiency, and are motivated by individual desires. Collectivists, on the other hand, focus on group or family desires. Neither approach is wrong, but mixing them together can create difficult situations. What happens when you place a South Asian son-in-law raised in an Individualist culture (like America) with parents and parent-in-laws raised in South Asia? You probably have misunderstandings. A lot of them.

nadia shah, desi inlaws, masalamommas

Columnist, In-Law Corner

That’s why I feel it’s so important to understand why certain cultures are different. When you know why someone is acting the way they are, you’re naturally more inclined to head off misunderstandings before they occur. Because we tend to use our own culture as a reference point when judging someone else’s, we can improve our relationships by understanding (or trying to understand) each others’ reference points. This concept goes hand in hand for building healthier relationships with in-laws.

As I mentioned earlier, the main value in collectivism is placing more emphasis on family and group goals over individual needs and desires. In contrast, Individualism places more emphasis on personal goals and achievements, often at the expense of group and family goals. Communication is also different among the two cultures. Take a look below to see a few of the main differences.

Of course, as many of you know, a common conflict among South Asians comes from deciding whether or not to live with in-laws. An individualistic DIL may want to live independently of her in-laws, while her collectivist in-laws may want and actually expect her to live with them. And if the DIL and her husband agree to live with his family, they will most likely face challenges while adjusting to living in a collectivist household that places more emphasis on group goals at the expense of individual desires.

An example could be in-laws questioning your desire for “alone time” with your spouse, expecting instead for you to spend time with the family together. If you are living with in-laws, hopefully your cultures have been able to coexist as smoothly as possible. I encourage you to post about your experiences and any challenges you’ve faced.bigstock_Playing_With_Grandma_2089392

Now to the difference that probably causes the most conflict: communication. As many of you know, I’m a fan of direct, clear communication (but by no means am I exempt from having my occasional indirect moments), which is natural given my individualistic upbringing in America. That‘s not to say, however, that my way is the right way; it’s just that: my way. It helps me keep my relationships less complicated. Collectivists, on the other hand, prefer to use indirect communication and often times avoid conflict when possible. It’s fairly easy to see why misunderstandings between individualists and collectivists are so easy to create.

Here’s an example of a communication misunderstanding that could easily occur between collectivists and individualists.

A father-in-law (FIL) wants his son-in-law (SIL) to help him assemble a desk. The FIL may say “this desk seems hard to build. I hope I can do this by myself,” implying that he wants his SIL to help. The SIL (raised in Canada) may not understand his FIL’s indirect request and say “well good luck with that. You’re smart, I’m sure you can do it.” While the SIL is trying to be encouraging, the FIL’s needs are not being met.

Or imagine an “Americanized” DIL asking her Indian mother-in-law (MIL) in front of a few friends directly to clean the backyard.  The MIL may be offended by the DIL’s bluntness and furthermore may attempt to “save face.” Saving face is often a consideration for Collectivists, which basically means preventing loss of dignity or maintaining self-worth., this sometimes means insulting or denigrating the DIL in order to restore the MIL’s status in the relationship (vertical hierarchy at work, by the way).

East Indian Elderly Woman with her husbandAs for monochronic vs. polychronic time systems, I don’t think I need to elaborate too much. How often have you heard of (or used) Desi Standard Time (DST)? DST would of course fall under polychronic time. Individualists on the other hand may not understand or cope well with DST, so it‘s important to understand this before you show up a couple hours late to an individualistic friend’s wedding.

Lastly, lets expand a bit about the hierarchies. Recently a South Asian In-Laws DIL posted about her MIL, who expected her to put in all the effort to improve their relationship. This didn’t surprise me much, given the vertical hierarchy in the MIL’s collectivist culture.

Within a vertical hierarchy, “superiors” (bosses, elders, parents) deserve (and often demand) more respect, simply because of their statuses as such. This MIL was most likely expecting the DIL to put in more effort because the DIL is inferior in “power”. In contrast, in an individualistic family, the DIL would refer to her MIL by first name, typically talk directly, and expect her MIL to put in just as much effort as she does. If the DIL is an individualist and the MIL is collectivist, then naturally there will be some level of conflict.

I apologize for getting a bit technical, but I wanted to give you a very basic summary of the two main types of cultures. Remember, there are exceptions to every rule so you’ll of course have people that express characteristics of both collectivism and individualism. But by understanding the preferences of both, we gain additional tools to improve relationships. Maybe we can consider approaching a conflict from the cultural perspective of the other person?

Go back to the scenario with the FIL “asking” for help from his SIL. What if the SIL understood his FIL’s culture and realized that he was indirectly asking for help? The FIL’s needs may have been met and the relationship in turn would have been impacted by a positive and helpful act.bigstock_young_indian_couple_arguing_on_29804087

Take a moment to think about what your personal culture is and see how that compares to your family members’ preferences. Maybe you take a little from each culture, or maybe you favor one heavily over the other. As a first generation Pakistani American, I lean more toward individualism but also hold a few characteristics of collectivism.

Check out the following link and answer the questions to see what culture you lean more towards. We’d love to hear your score and your thoughts!
Am I a collectivist or an individualist:


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