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We call our own mother "mum". What should we call our mother-in-law? In China, we call our mother-in-law "mum" as well. Do English speaking people feel comfortable calling their mother-in-law "mum"? Could we simply call our mother-in-law by her first name?

EDIT: I thought it was just about everyday conversation and not about complicated cultural practice. To be clear, I'm not asking what to call mother-in-laws in different cultures. Rather, I just want to know what native people in countries like U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand call their mother-in-law in daily conversation.

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This is more a question about culture, than about English language. –  kiamlaluno Dec 19 '11 at 14:58
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Per my comment to an earlier question that I can't find now, if you're unsure how to address someone "correctly" - ask them. I'm voting to close as "off-topic", since this is etiquette, not language. –  FumbleFingers Dec 19 '11 at 15:14
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For what it's worth, I've called my own parents by their christian names since I was a teenager, and I don't think this is particularly uncommon. I did once know someone who occasionally addressed his father as "sir", but I thought that was really weird. –  FumbleFingers Dec 19 '11 at 15:41
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This is a regular problem for Americans. Most people consider "Mr/Mrs Jones" too formal and distant. First names seem inappropriate to someone who is in a pseudo-parental relationship, but "mom/dad" or equivalents don't seem right because they're not really your mother and father. Most opt for avoiding calling them anything, just say "hi", until you have a baby, when they become "Grandma/Grandpa". Someone should invent a word for this and somehow get it into common use. –  Jay Dec 19 '11 at 15:59
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@FumbleFingers: RE calling parents by first names: Maybe you move in different cultural circles then I do. I don't recall ever hearing anyone I know ever address their parents as anything other than "mom and dad" or similar words, or to refer to them in conversation other than as "my mother", "my dad", etc. I'm not aware of any surveys, but I suspect that in the U.S., at least, calling one's parents by first names would be extremely rare. –  Jay Dec 19 '11 at 16:06
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closed as off topic by kiamlaluno, JSBձոգչ, FumbleFingers, Irene, jwpat7 Dec 19 '11 at 15:36

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3 Answers

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There is no consensus on this in the UK, and I'm sure there is even less if you take the whole of the English-speaking world into account. It varies from family to family.

Choose from:

  • Mrs Surname, e.g. "Mrs Jones"
  • Her given name, e.g. "Susan"
  • "Mum" or one of the many other words for mother - not common in my experience

One special case: I've noticed that when a couple has a child, they will often refer to the father-in-law and mother-in-law according to their children's perspective. "Grandma" or "Nanna" etc. -- even when the child isn't present.

I think this is both because of habit, and because it makes differentiating between the two mother-in-laws easier. Commonly, the grandparents on each side of the family have different pet-names.

In addition, it's surprisingly easy to get along without using any name, most of the time.

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I called my inlaws "Mom" and "Dad" and in North America it was considered normal to do so. I would add to your list "Mom G" or "Dad B" - using the first letter of the last name, also "Mrs G" or "Mr B". Generally the inlaws will tell the new spouse, on the wedding day or when the engagement is announced "call me Mom" or "you must call me Susan now" or whatever it is they want as part of welcoming you into the family. –  Kate Gregory Dec 19 '11 at 15:01
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It works if the relationship is good.

You can also use the first name of the mother too if the relationship is good. This seems to me to be the preferred way when you're in an adult context. I could imagine though, that it sounds totally unthinkable to you in a Chinese context.

In a high school context, when you are introduced to your boyfriend's/girlfriend's parents, you usually use the Mr./Mrs. form to address them until they tell you to call them by their first name. They'll only do that if they like you.

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Yes, good point. A child must be invited to call an adult by a first name. Children can however bestow variants indicating closeness like "Mrs G" without permission. –  Kate Gregory Dec 19 '11 at 15:03
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There is no explicit 'call-name' for mother/father-in-law in English. It is mostly a personal choice, either 'Mrs./Mr. X', the first name, the same call-name the spouse calls them, etc.

Related to this awkward ambivalence in naming (not really a parent/conflicts of control/relation/propriety/economics), one has a tendency not try to avoid using a call-name, or even talking to them at all if one can help it. But that really is a matter of culture, not language, at that point.

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