Wednesday, December 15, 2010

As I Blanch at the Thought of it All

Hello, Folksy Friends!  Today you will be hearing from Deb, the etiquette aficionado, regarding the thorny issue of gift-giving.

(Deb, as you know, is something of an etiquette maven (maven: a bird with wings of unequal length) and possesses the following qualities: she is judgmental and refers to herself in the third person.)

'Tis the season for joy and social awkwardness, and also for gift giving.  To whom do we give gifts?  Is it ever polite to refuse a gift?  Do I really have to write a thank-you note for every gift?  Is there ever a time when we must give gifts?  Relax, Deb already knows.  She's just asking to make herself look smarter when she answers.

1. To whom do we give gifts?  In theory, anyone, but in reality, only those with whom one has a relationship that makes a gift appropriate.  The gift should be in proportion to the intensity of the relationship in terms of money; it is inappropriate to give an expensive gift to someone who could not be reasonably expected to reciprocate, as in the following exchange:

Co-Worker 1: Mildred, thank you so much for the can of Pringles and scratch-off lottery tickets.
Mildred: And thank you for the Tiffany key ring.
Co-Worker 1: Indeed.

Giving gifts in the work environment can be tricky, which is why I hate to do it.  I do it, though, at the last minute, every year.

2. Is it ever polite to refuse a gift?  Short answer: usually not.  There are inappropriate gifts, such as the ones Deb receives from her stalkers that include medical waste, but a well-intentioned gift should usually be accepted.  If a gift has been brought to an event at which there are no other gifts, the gift should be set aside, opened later, and thanked with a personal letter.  The exception, of course, is if you are a young, unmarried woman of unquestionable virtue who receives a gift of clothing, jewelry, or something of extreme value from a gentleman, and it is 1909.  In that case, the gift would be returned with a gracious yet frosty, "I'm afraid our relationship does not permit me to accept gifts of this value."

3. Do I have to write a thank-you letter for every gift I receive?  While Deb, of course, routinely writes thank-you letters for everything, including some to dogs who refrain from decorating her lawn, the answer to this is no.  If a gift is opened in the presence of the giver, thanks should be verbally issued then.  No follow-up thank-you letter is necessary.  A gift that is not, however, must be acknowledged, and the correct way is with a letter.  Some relationships may permit phone calls, but Deb pretends that doesn't happen.

4. Is there ever a time when we must give gifts?  Of course.  Don't kid yourself.  Etiquette's official stance, "A gift is never required," is misdirection intended to fool greedy hosts who believe a social event can actually yield a profit if done correctly.  A gracious guest would never attend any of the following events without a tangible gift:

  • A shower (wedding or bridal)
  • A birthday party (regardless of the age of the recipient)
  • A formal dinner
  • A wedding
  • A bar or bat mitzvah
  • An overnight or extended visit
A "tangible gift" is just that: a gift that one can physically put into the hand of another person, that the recipient can then, in theory, put to some purpose.  Gifts can be consumable (food, flowers, tickets) or more permanent.  They do not have to be expensive, but they should be thoughtful.  (In fact, Deb is of the opinion that the less expensive a gift is, the more thoughtful it tends to be, because people with financial restrictions tend to be more creative when it comes to gift-giving.  A gift of money, including gift cards, tends to be larger in terms of financial worth because of the lack of creativity and thought involved.)

And now, Deb would like to address the notion that one's "presence" is "present" enough.  No, it isn't.  I'm sure that the hosts will say it is, or even sincerely feel that it is, but no guest can be considered "gracious" who goes through the following thought process:

  1. I've been invited to this wedding.
  2. I don't want to give them a present.
  3. They should just be grateful I deigned to attend at all.
  4. My presence is enough.
Unless one's last name is "Winfrey," there is absolutely no justification for anyone to think this way.  This is one of those classic etiquette disparities between the expectations of hosts and guests.  Hosts should be grateful that guests decided to take the time to attend their events.  Guests should feel grateful that hospitality was extended to them and they were included in such a special time.  Neither side should sit back and say, "Well, they should just be happy and shut up about it."  Guests, give your gifts.  Hosts, say thank you.  Life will be much more gracious.

And goodness knows, we need more graciousness.  Deb is going to lie down now.  


Billy Bob Bambino Bombabious Baby the Third said...

This is good stuff. I struggle with gift giving - mainly because I want to give gifts to everyone I see, but I know that it's (1) inappropriate, and (2) too expensive. Alas! But I long for a day when we can give gifts to each other without the baggage associated with it (a dozen long-stem red roses does not necessarily mean what you think it means).

(Of course, then again maybe it does after all).

If a gift is understood to be an expression of respect, admiration, and heart-felt appreciation, how could a gift possibly be awkward? Regardless of price or value? Hmm...

These are the questions that keep me up at night.

Until I fall asleep... :-)

Kristina P. said...

I think this should be a message board post. I'm sure people's heads will explode.

Barbaloot said...

I've got the judging part down, it's the referring to self in 3rd person I struggle with. Maybe one day I can be as good as you:)

Thank you for the etiquette guide. I guess I have about a million thank you cards to go write...

Joy and Dennis said...

5:51 A.M.?!?!?!?! Deb, what in the heck are you doing up writing on your blog at such an hour?!?!?!?! on with the subject. I too like Billy Bob have a hard time with gifts. I tend to want to give to everyone. When I hear someone say "Oh I'd just love it if I could get a ...." then my first thought is I should get that for them. They'd be so surprised. Yes, let me run right out. But then the awkwardness of the situation sets in...."What would they think?"..."What would others think?"...."Would my intentions be misconstrued?" And so I don't, and sometimes that is just fine, but other times I sort of regret not relying on my first instinct. My heart wants to do so much more than my pocketbook can handle. *sigh*

Deb said...

I am also someone who loves to buy gifts for people. I would spend every dime on gifts if those dimes weren't spoken for. It's so fun to give them, but then you have to stop and think about how they might take it, whether it will make them uncomfortable...

Gifts are awesome, but it's tough ground, relationship-wise.

Boy Mom said...

Dear Deb,

Thank you for your thoughtful gift to the public at large and me personally in the form of a printable gift-giving bible. Your thoughfulness is painfully needed in todays etiquettely challenged society.

I personally have made the mistake of showing up giftless at bat mitzvahs, overnighters and Sunday dinners (hangs red-faced head in shame).

Please accept my heartfelt apology for not appropriately gifting you each time I drop in for an extended visit to your blog. I have eaten your literary delicacies, giggled all night and on occasion in the shower over your delightful prose, yet nary a gift nor letter have I sent. I beg your forgiveness.

Send me your address post haste so that I may shower you with gifts, or at least a Christmas post card.

Your humble blogging fan.

Boy Mom

Ricky J. said...

Hey Deb, its me Dervish. I just made a blog I want you to check out. Since this is a comment, I have to say somthing you like, so I have been looking for a while, and the Spring Break 2009 adventure is my favorite but anyway, here is the name of the url to my blog:

I will be watching time to time and you need to tell about Immortal Isle

From the awesomest dude in the world,

Ricky J.

Joanna said...

Of course, one never gives a gift on Wednesdays with months with 'R' in them; or if the host's name is "Hepzebiah", or if the magic 8 ball counsels otherwise. A word to the wise.