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.