How Do I Accept A Gift From Someone Less Fortunate Than Me?

juicyflexDear Uncommon Courtesy,

Could you please comment on the etiquette involved in taking gifts from people who can’t afford much in life?  I have occasionally been offered small things from people who have almost nothing including a man who asks for money on the street, to whom I have given money from time to time. One time the gift was a pen that I thought looked pretty hefty and fancy when I took it. though it turned out to be dried up when I tried to use it. Another time, it was a bunch of little single-serve juice cartons, which I think had been given to the man by a store, as they were a bit past their expiration date—but still good. He wanted me to take several, and I did.

I feel strange taking anything in a situation like this, but I always accept on the theory that the gift wouldn’t be offered if it was truly unaffordable, and it would be rude and unfriendly to refuse.  Your thoughts?


Kindness From Strangers


All the standard etiquette mavens emphasize accepting gifts in the spirit in which they are offered and thanking people. I haven’t found much discussion of a situation like this, though in a case of one person being very generous with gifts and favors, Miss Manners suggested to the writer that they try to reciprocate with what they can.


Jaya: This is a really interesting question. I totally see how you’d feel guilty in that situation.

Victoria: Yeah. You don’t want to offend someone. And I’m definitely in the thought of taking things in the spirit of which they are offered.

Jaya: How often is this happening to this person!?

Victoria: This does not happen to me.

Jaya: It’s sort of the flip side of “a gift is a gift.” Do not expect that someone put themselves in a bad situation to give this to you!

Victoria: And these gifts are not that elaborate.

Jaya: So this makes me think of this quote that I see on Pinterest all the time (I can’t believe I’m gonna quote pinterest): “When a child gives you a gift, even if it is just a rock they just picked up, show gratitude. It might be the only thing they have to give, and they have chosen to give it to you.” It’s really weird, but it sort of applies?

Victoria: It totally applies. And some people are just givers.

Jaya: I think the best course for this particular guy is maybe just keep giving him change as normal.

Victoria: Yep, especially since they’re more like found objects. There’s this one guy near my subway stop who sells a whole spread of pretty nice stuff he finds.

Jaya: That’s awesome.

Victoria: Yeah, so these gifts are probably not costing him anything. Though I think if you have very close friends who are doing this gift giving and you know they are super poor, you can bring it up and suggest that they don’t need to be doing it. Or say that you feel badly that you can’t reciprocate. But still, you don’t necessarily know their circumstances; a lot of people get free stuff through work that they like to give out.

Jaya: Totally. No one should ever feel pressured to give a gift, but if they do, assume that they had the means and kindness in their heart to do it.

Victoria: And say thank you, wholeheartedly.

What To Wear To That Formal Event (Which Is Probably A Wedding)


Please, wear clothing. [Flickr user]

Does anyone else get insanely excited about planning outfits to wear to a wedding? Or other formal event? I’m going to assume that most of the events you’re getting a formal invitation to are weddings, because if you’re getting invited to a ton of awards shows and other galas…you probably don’t need this post.

I know it can be a chore, but personally, I love getting dressed up. I love seeing my friends wearing ties. I love having an excuse to not just be wearing sneakers and a ponytail. So it’s fitting that I get excited when I see the dress code printed on an invitation.

Firstly, I want to say to anyone planning a wedding, engagement party, or otherwise “official” event–have a frickin’ dress code! Otherwise you may be inundated with calls from friends going “Is this purple dress ok? But I also have this blue one I really like, but that one is longer. And I never wear the purple one. But what are you wearing?” and it will make you want to punch all your friends. Explicitly stated dress codes mean you don’t have to talk to anyone, which really is our goal right?

Now, on to what to wear once you know the code.

Do not wear a wedding dress (men, this goes for you too).  Unless the invitation says to wear white, you want to steer clear of any type of white dress, even if it looks nothing like the bride’s gown. Though this rule only applies for our “traditional” American/European wedding ceremonies. My cousin wore a white dress to a family member’s wedding and it was fine…because the bride was wearing a red and gold sari. Don’t wear a red and gold sari to an Indian wedding.

What you wear really depends on what it says on the invitation, and the season. Usually the couple will specify something like “Black Tie” or “Cocktail Attire” on the invite, which should give you an idea of what to wear. Here are the basics for that.

White Tie: You will never go to a White Tie wedding. We can pretty much guarantee this. But if you do, men should wear an evening tailcoat tuxedo with a white bowtie. Women should wear a floor-length ballgown and usually elbow length gloves, and really elaborate hair/makeup/clothing. Good luck shopping. (I would also like to note that a Google Image search of “White Tie” brings up the suggestions “Fred Astaire,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Obama.” Interpret that how you will.)

Black Tie: This is the most formal wedding you will probably go to, which has men wearing tuxedos (sans tails) and women wearing either floor-length gowns or more formal cocktail dresses (think darker colors, satins and silks, etc.). Think red carpet gala for clothing inspiration.

Black Tie Optional: This is most likely what the wedding you’re going to is, and IT SUCKS. PEOPLE, STOP PUTTING “BLACK TIE OPTIONAL” ON YOUR INVITATIONS. For men it’s fine; they either get to wear a tuxedo or a dark suit, which pretty much every man has. But for women’s attire, The Knot suggests “A long dress, a dressy suit, or a formal cocktail-length dress.” That is literally every possible clothing option, and it’s infuriating. You can’t go wrong with a nice cocktail dress in a deep color, though. But seriously, either put Black Tie or Cocktail Attire on your invitations, and stop the madness.

Cocktail Attire: This is what people most likely want when they say “Black Tie Optional” but they don’t know about it, so NOW YOU KNOW. It may also be written as Semiformal or Dressy Casual. This means a dark suit for men, and a cocktail dress for women, which is pretty much exactly what everyone thinks of when they think of what people wear to a wedding.

The main differences in these attire suggestions concern the time of day and the season. Most people do not host a daytime Black Tie wedding, because making women sweat in heavy satin dresses in the sun is a mean thing to do (on this note, according to Official Etiquette, tuxedos should never be worn before 6pm, but omg who cares anymore). So consider the information on the rest of the invitation. Is this going to be a winter wedding? Think darker colors and thicker fabrics. Outdoors in July? Lighter fabrics work better, in a brighter color or pattern. A blouse and skirt combo also works for this for women, and men can go for lighter fabrics and colors too in the summer, like light grey or blue.

There are a slew of others, from “Creative Black Tie” to “Evening Resort” to “Festive Attire.” Some may ask you to wear a specific color, or dress to a certain theme. Sometimes there are even costume changes. One person we know said it was tradition in his community to wear suits to the wedding ceremony, then change into jeans and t-shirts for the reception. When in doubt, ask! If a couple is asking for a specific, more non-traditional dress code, they’re probably ready to receive some questions about it.

A Note on Black for Women: Wearing black to a wedding is still a tricky subject. My mother-in-law enthusiastically told me to wear a black cocktail dress to my sister-in-law’s black tie optional wedding, but in many circles, black is an absolute no. “But UC!” you cry, “I have just the cutest black dress in the world, and I need to wear it because it makes my legs look fantastic and I need to bang one of the groomsmen!” Use your best judgment! If you’re running with a more traditional and conservative crowd, then perhaps not, but if it’s a chic evening wedding in the city, go for it! To be on the safe side, dress it up with colorful or sparkly accessories. You just don’t want to look like you’re going to a funeral.

Is This Gift A Ploy For An Invitation?


Could it be…a passive-aggressive gesture?!?!?!

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

One of our wedding guests wanted to bring a +1 to the wedding. Initially we said no, but the guest then got us multiple nice gifts off our registry (Le Creuset, Lenox crystal…). Should we now say “yes”?


Almost at Venue Capacity


First of all, your guest is being extremely rude in requesting a +1 to your wedding. Never ever should a guest ask the host if they can bring someone to a formal event such as a wedding. We have established this. As to the gifts, it’s obviously rude to bribe someone to get them to do something you want them to do. Since this is so obviously rude, you should just assume the best and take the gifts as a simple sign of generosity.


Victoria: So this invitation bribery question…

Jaya: Yeah. Oy.

Victoria: Right!

Jaya: Though I mean really, fuck no you don’t have to invite anyone, right?

Victoria: Yeah, of course. I mean, there’s actually nothing more to say than that, except discussing feelings about it.

Jaya: Hahaha yeah. I can see where the guilt comes from, absolutely. If a stranger gets you a crystal vase worth hundreds of dollars, a nicely worded thank you note seems a little lame in return.

Victoria: Haha, a little bit!

Jaya: (My thank you notes are worth a million crystal vases.)

Victoria: Gifts have DEFINITELY gotten out of hand, but I also get it for older people who are all excited about young love and are feeling a bit flush and really are just very generous.

Jaya: Yeah, that can make sense. And that is what everyone should assume is the motive, because that should be the motive!

Victoria: Yep! And in like 90% of cases it probably is.

Jaya: I’m sure there are some sneaky people out there who think they can buy their way into a good party, but not many.

Victoria: Maybe the guest is even buying extra nice gifts to make up for their rudeness in asking! Best case scenarios!

Jaya: Yeah, and in general people need to consider their relationship to the couple. If you’re their best friend, go ahead and get them a nice gift. If you went to high school with the groom’s mom and keep in touch with her but haven’t seen her son since he was in grade school? A gift is probably not necessary, and will probably just make them feel uncomfortable and pressured to invite you.

Victoria: I think the only thing you can really do in this instance is accept the gift in the spirit of generosity in which it was offered and send a nice thank you note immediately. That’s it. What a mess.

Jaya: Yes. Write them a thank you note, figure out a way to use/return the gift, and if it’s a secret ploy for an invitation, that’s their problem, not yours.

Victoria: When in doubt, write a thank you note.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: The Trousseau

"provide sanctuary for her downy woolens, her dainty, beribboned silks...until that day she starts a home of her own."

“provide sanctuary for her downy woolens, her dainty, beribboned silks…until that day she starts a home of her own.” [Via]

Ladies! You know how when you were a kid you went to school and stuff, and it sort of sucked, and you spent all day wishing you could maybe not do that? Well, what if instead you spent your youth sewing tablecloths and blankets and clothing for your future husband? Childhood solved!

The Trousseau goes by many names–glory box, hope chest, bottom drawer, dowry–but essentially it was a collection of linens ‘n’ things for the bride and groom’s new home and/or clothing to last the bride the first few years of marriage. And for a long time, the bride was expected to make it all herself, and stow it all away until a groom finally appeared. According to Lillian Eichler’s 1921 Book of Etiquette, “The development is most marked in Roumania. Here we find the tiniest girls, some of them as young as five years, working on bridal finery each one striving to outdo the other in beauty and elaboration of work.” In many cultures female relatives pitched in too, and wealthier families simply had the maids do it.  However, once a suitor did arrive, he “had the privilege of examining the trousseau and deciding whether or not it was complete.” So tough luck if you sucked at sewing. Maybe you could find a job as a chaperone?

The whole reason you needed to do this is because your husband just wanted to come home to some comforts, ok?! Part of any western marriage, especially before the 20th century, was the agreement that the woman was the head of the household, and responsible for all the comforts found there. Lots of men looked forward to marriage as a way to finally have some nice things around the house. The irony was that often men were older and more established, so they could buy things like linens and blankets their damned selves.

Here’s an idea of how elaborate these things got. From “Lights and Shadows of New York” by James McCabe, 1872:

The society woman must have one or two velvet dresses which cannot cost less than $500 each. She must possess thousands of dollars worth of laces, in the shape of flounces, to loop up over the skirts of dresses… Walking dresses cost from $50 to $300; ball dresses are frequently imported from Paris at a cost of from $500 to $1,000… There must be traveling dresses in black silk, in pongee, in pique, that range in price from $75 to $175… Evening robes in Swiss muslin, robes in linen for the garden and croquet, dresses for horse races and yacht races, dresses for breakfast and for dinner, dresses for receptions and parties…

Ok, this was Vanderbilt Level Trousseauing, but that shit trickles down.

Thankfully, as time went on, the idea that a girl needed to spend all of her pre-engagement time sewing and collecting things for her household got a little ridiculous. Eichler argues “It seems rather a foolish waste of time for the girl of means to sit for endless hours sewing on rows rows of lace when machine made garments may be at reasonable figures. If she chooses her things carefully they will bear the stamp of her personality almost as as if she had fashioned them herself.” The 1920s were also the dawn of the Department Store in America, and buying pre-made items was a way to show off your middle-class status. So it was out with the homemade trousseau and in with buying one at Lord & Taylor’s…a modest improvement.

Traditional trousseaus fell out of fashion around the 1950s, replaced with the modern idea of the wedding present and registry. Until then, wedding presents were expected to be small, decorative items. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the idea became for all the guests to provide the gifts that would set up the new couple in their home. However, with many more couples living together before marriage, or choosing not to marry at all, the idea of setting up a new home is becoming a little dated, isn’t it? Does this mean there is an opening for the trousseau to make a comeback?!

What To Do When You Find Yourself In An Argument


Just make puns! Everyone loves puns!

Growing up, my grandpa always said you should never discuss money, politics, or religion at the dinner table. As a young New Yorker who was used to every conversation eventually becoming a discussion of how much you paid in rent, I was pretty sure that this left nothing to be discussed but the weather and perhaps the nice color of the wood on the floor. However, there is something to be said for not bringing up wildly divisive topics in diverse company. For instance, I would have no problem discussing transsexual porn at a meal with close friends (this has happened), but you probably don’t want to bring this up with your parents’ friends (who were at the lunch table when this happened, oops).

Conversation is a tricky thing, and what may seem like an obviously neutral topic to you may soon become a heated discussion. If you find yourself here, there are a few ways to tackle it.

1. Run awaaaaaay

This works best when you’re at a large party, or anywhere with ample distractions. At my family Christmas party a few years ago, my fiance and I were speaking to one of my uncles about Obamacare. Soon, another family member came up to us and began to argue about socialism. Quickly, my fiance and I looked at each other, and politely excused ourselves to refill our wine glasses. We were never seen again. (JK we basically hung out in the living room until my uncle showed up an hour later and was like “YOU BAILED ON ME!” and we were like “Dude, we were not getting into that.”)

2. Change the Subject

A nice way of doing this is to find a neutral kernel within the tricky subject and focus your comments on that. Let’s say I was stuck in a conversation with someone who didn’t share my views on legalizing marijuana, and who was becoming very vocal about that. I could perhaps transition that into talking about the episode of “True Life” I saw about smoking pot, and then mention how I’m a sucker for trash TV, and then ask if she watches “What Not To Wear.” Try not to say much, and listen for an opening into a topic that won’t get you both so riled up.

This is old advice. According to A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette by Cecil B. Hartley, published in 1875, “Even if convinced that your opponent is utterly wrong, yield gracefully, decline further discussion, or dexterously turn the conversation, but do not obstinately defend your own opinion until you become angry.”

But easier said than done, right? I mean, you’re never going to know what someone’s trigger subjects are. Maybe this person hates Clinton Kelly with a fiery passion and this sends the whole thing into a tailspin. One trick is to turn to things in the present. Discuss the beautiful Christmas tree, or a friend’s lovely necklace, or the host’s great selection of beer. Hell, discuss the nice color of the wood on the floor. I’ll concede that it’s better than arguing about abortion.

3. Politely Disagree

The thing you need to know about arguments is that there is pretty much no chance you are going to change someone’s mind. You may have all logic and evidence on your side, but parties, dinners, business meetings, etc. are not the place to convince someone that tattoos are not a sign of moral inferiority, even if you’re totally right. A quick “I’m going to have to disagree with you on that” in a light tone usually suffices, if followed by a brand new topic. If you’re pushed to explain why you disagree, you can give an example (“I know plenty of friends who have tattoos who have great careers/I have a tattoo and I’m not a monster”), but keep the focus on personal experience, not why the other person is Objectively Wrong.

Of course, some people are just looking for a fight, in which case it’s perfectly acceptable to be a bit more forward and say something like “I really don’t feel like talking about this right now.” And if they get upset, return to Step 1 and walk away, knowing full well that they’re the rude ones for pushing the issue.