The Dos and Don’ts of Gift Exchanging

By Amanda Onion, ABCNews.Go.Com – 01/11/2005 – 12:00am


We’ve all had our low moments.

A friend at work gives you a gift the last day before the holidays and you have nothing to offer in return and no time to shop. Or your aunt gives you the same fondue set you got last year from someone else, and you don’t manage to hide your disappointment.

Gift exchanging can be hazardous, but for better or for worse, it has become a central part of the holidays. The key to surviving the gift-giving season unscathed, say etiquette specialists, is to follow a few simple rules and remember what the act of giving — and receiving — is all about. That means acting gracious even when you may not feel like it.

“I would never tell anyone that gives me something, ‘Oh, I already have one.’ Gift-giving is a gesture, it’s not about the item,” said Dorothea Johnson of the Protocol School of Washington, based in Yarmouth, Maine. “Instead I would thank them warmly and then quietly exchange it or recycle it.”

Recycle it? Yes, according to a number of etiquette specialists, including Johnson, it’s OK to re-gift. But proceed with caution. Peter Post, grandson of etiquette guru Emily Post, says you must rewrap the item and, of course, remove the original gift card. And be sure the person you’re re-gifting to could never find out the present wasn’t lovingly chosen just for him or her.

“If you see a lot of the person who gave you the gift originally, you have to make sure it would not circulate in your set of friends,” said Johnson. “But everybody recycles gifts.”

When It’s Better Not to Give

There are also occasions when you should not feel obligated to give a gift — recycled or not. If you are in tough financial times, people will understand if you skip shopping — especially if you tell friends and family ahead of time. Instead, Johnson says, you can offer other things, like cooking a meal or helping clean someone’s car, as a holiday gesture.

There are even times when buying a gift can be inappropriate. At the workplace, for example, it’s generally not advisable to give your boss a gift.

“It’s touchy. It can look like you’re trying to curry favor or, what do young people call it — sucking up?” said Johnson, who incidentally, has ties to the younger generation through her granddaughter, actress Liv Tyler. “Better it be a joint gift from everyone.”

Gifts to co-workers are OK, as long as they’re modest. And, if you’re only giving to a select few at work, do it discreetly, advises Post, so others’ feelings aren’t hurt. If you’re the boss, gifts to all your employees can be a nice gesture, as long as you don’t play favorites.

Also, Johnson points out people should be mindful that others may not celebrate the same holiday as they do, so be sure to label any card or gift with a generic message such as “Happy Holidays.”

What do you do if a friend showers you with a present out of the blue and you have nothing on hand to offer in return? Do you have to scramble to find something? It’s up to you, says Post, but there are issues you should keep in mind, namely the risk of beginning an inescapable obligation to exchange gifts every year.

“If you decide to give a gift, you’ll likely establish a gift-giving tradition with this person and you may not want to go that route,” reads a guide from the Emily Post Institute.

If you’re wary of an annual exchange with this person, a gracious thank you will do. Even better, write a note, says Ann Chadwell Humphries of Eticon, an etiquette consulting company in Columbia, S.C.

“Thank-you notes are as important as gift-giving itself,” said Humphries. “I’d say they’re more important.”
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The Magic Words

That means when the flurry of Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa days are over, the shopping is done and the wrapping is all torn open, your holiday duty is not done.

The general rule, says Sue Fox of Etiquette Survival in Los Gatos, Calif., is to send thank-you notes to all those who were not there when you opened their gift. The preferred form of thanks is a prompt, handwritten note, but, in some cases an e-mail or phone call can do.

“If you’re thanking the host of an office party or a close friend, an e-mail or phone call is fine,” said Fox, who adds that formal thank-yous usually aren’t required within immediate family. “But in these days of electronic communication, it’s generally a nice gesture to receive a handwritten note in the mail — that has become too rare.”

And if you hate the gift? Whatever you do, don’t show it.

“Some people may think it’s dishonest to act as though we’re happy with a gift when we’re not,” said Johnson. “But it’s demeaning to a person if you act displeased. You should always show joy when someone takes the time to give you something.”

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