By Angela Hill – Oakland Tribune
Giving may be good for the soul, but the oft-awkward details of increasingly complex social mores can be a strain on the brain. Things like …
Can you give something to the boss without looking like an apple-polisher? Is a bottle of wine acceptable for every occasion? What about bestowing bundles of Aunt Edna’s Coconut-Walnut Brownie Surprise? Sweet, but what if folks suffer from allergies? What about income-inequality issues? Your token offering of cute penguin coffee mugs looks low-rent when your friends are flinging around iPhone 6s like they’re going out of style … not that that would ever happen.
Anyway, to help out this time of year — and because we don’t know the answers, either — we took such uncomfortable gift-giving/receiving situations and ran them by a few etiquette experts.
We spoke with Mimi Raghian, founder of the Northern California School of Etiquette in Los Altos (www.norcaletiquette.com); Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival (www.etiquettesurvival.com); and Lizzie Post, Emily Post’s great-granddaughter and an expert at the Emily Post Institute (www.emilypost.com).
They’re giving. Feel free to take. You can thank them later.
LET’S TAKE IT FROM THE TOP. TO GIVE, OR NOT TO GIVE — TO THE BOSS?
Raghian: The correct protocol is that the boss should buy all the employees gifts. Not the other way around. It might be OK under certain circumstances — maybe if you’ve been working a long time with that person. Even so, give nothing personal. Opt for books or maybe a picture frame for his or her desk.
Fox: It’s generally not advisable to give your boss a gift. You may look like you’re trying to curry favor or, worse, bribing them. If you do feel a gift is in order, maybe as a thank you for a recent staff bonus, discuss with your co-workers about a group gift.
WHAT ABOUT GIFTS TO CO-WORKERS?
Fox: It’s OK, as long as the gifts are modest. If you’re only giving to a select few at work, do it discreetly so others’ feelings aren’t hurt.
GIFTS OF ALCOHOL WERE ONCE A GO-TO NORM. MAYBE A BAD IDEA IF SOMEONE MIGHT BE IN RECOVERY?
Raghian: You don’t give somebody wine or alcohol unless you know that person well. It’s not necessarily that they have a problem. They may not drink for religious or health reasons.
Post: Most people who abstain know how to handle it when it happens. I spent a good two and a half years where I abstained. I didn’t mind if someone gave me a bottle of wine, because it was something I could have on hand if people came over and wanted a glass. But if you don’t know the person well, probably not the best idea.
WHAT ABOUT FOOD GIFTS? SHOULD WE BE AWARE OF ALLERGIES OR SPECIAL FOOD NEEDS?
Post: You can easily spiral into not wanting to give anything this time of year for fear of offending someone one way or another, like not giving your famous chocolate chip cookies because you’re worried someone’s allergic to chocolate. If I have a friend who I know is allergic to nuts, I’ll make a special batch without the nuts. But generally, the treats I give out, I write the ingredients on the gift card. That said, It may be best to go with as safe a gift as possible. Some will say it’s cliché, but some really nice soaps, a beautiful candle, herb-infused olive oils — always a great go-to.
WHAT ABOUT UPPING THE ANTE? IT STARTS WITH TOKEN GIFTS BETWEEN FRIENDS, THEN SOMEONE BEGINS GIVING PRICEY ITEMS, MAKING YOURS PALE IN COMPARISON. DO YOU HAVE TO SPEND MORE NEXT TIME?
Post: Absolutely not. You stay at what your budget is. Never feel like you have to compete or “up the ante” on a gift because someone else did.
Raghian: To me, when you think about price — either way — it defeats the whole meaning of a gift, of something coming from the heart. Just enjoy their gift. They’re probably doing it to be nice, not just to impress you. And if they are, they’re probably not really your friends anyway.
Fox: No matter what they give, make your selection (of a gift for them) according to your best judgment, wrap it nicely and don’t worry about how much you didn’t spend.
YOU GET A GIFT UNEXPECTEDLY FROM SOMEONE WITH WHOM YOU DON’T USUALLY EXCHANGE PRESENTS. DO YOU SCRAMBLE TO RECIPROCATE, OR JUST SAY THANKS?
Post: Gift giving doesn’t have to be reciprocal. Rather than fudge around saying things like, “Oh, your gift hasn’t arrived in the mail yet,” just focus on the gift you’ve received and appreciate the generosity.
WHAT IF FRIENDS GIVE YOU SOMETHING YOU HAVE, OR YOU DON’T WANT OR NEED? DO YOU TELL THEM?
Post: Oh, no! Never, ever say you don’t really need this. Accepting it in the moment is the best thing you can do. Later on, you might call and say, “Beth, your coffee maker was such a great gift and clearly you knew exactly what we needed, but we had just purchased a new one of our own. Would you mind terribly if I exchanged it?” That way you’re still appreciative and being honest, and it won’t be awkward when she sees a different coffee maker at your house.
Raghian: They went out and bought that thing just for you. Even if you have it, look at it as a nice gesture. Too often we look at things merely as an item to add to our stuff. Look at it like someone did something nice for you. You want to make it positive energy, not negative. It’s as important to be a good receiver as well as a good giver.
Fox: Some people may think it’s dishonest to act as though we’re happy with a gift when we’re not. 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 (even if it’s a gift card). It is never a good idea to be too candid in this situation, even if it is a family member or close friend. You do not want to look ungrateful. Be gracious and thank them for the gift.
That said, once you receive a gift, it’s yours to do with as you see fit. The giver no longer has a right to ask what you did with it, though it happens. If you decide to “regift” the gift, be cautious. The notion of regifting is distasteful to many people. Others think of it as recycling, being practical and thrifty.
Ultimately, etiquette is about making others feel comfortable. You do not want to have any hurt feelings. If your great aunt happens to come for a visit, yes, go ahead and put out the ornate purple vase she gave you for Christmas. The goal is being gracious and making others feel appreciated.
Contact Angela Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @GiveEmHill.