Can I Hand Out Tissues to Strangers?

Spread tissues throughout the land and you too might get your own postage stamp.
By USPS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Women Ladies,

After a particularly harrowing experience in 2nd grade where Ms. Cipriani didn’t have a box of tissues at her desk, I’ve always carried a pouch of pocket tissues on my person where ever I go. This resource became known throughout high school as I would happily dole out a mini-Kleenex tissue to anyone in my area with the sniffles. Now I ride the subway to work every day and am surrounded by strangers doing the last-gasp hard snffffpphh every thirty seconds in a desperate bid to keep the viscous waterfall from cascading down their noses, horrifying themselves and any small children in the vicinity.

My first instinct is to help and offer the tissues, but this seems like its own social gaff: eavesdropping on someone as they sniff; offering help to someone who might not want it; making them feel like scumbags in a moment of weakness, essentially saying “oh God ,you horrible snot-filled monster, please, for the sake of decent society, take some fucking tissues before you make the rest of us civilized folk gag, you uncaged, ravenous animal!!”

So, how do I politely help my fellow human people, countesses of courtesy?

– Johnny Tissueseed

Official Etiquette:

Miss Manners says it is good to offer a tissue to a crying stranger. She also doesn’t oppose offering a tissue to a coughing or sniffling stranger.

Anna Post, of the Emily Post Institute, says it’s fine to hand out tissues to strangers.

I had thought that older etiquette required that men relinquish their handkerchiefs to any damsel in need, but a perusal of old etiquette books did not support this theory.

Our Take:

Victoria: This question! So adorable I could die, but I also don’t know the answer.

Jaya: Haha I know! Well okay, I think if I were the sneezy person, I would like being offered a tissue.

Victoria: Totally.

Jaya: I think of it like offering a seat to someone who clearly needs it. Some old people are gonna get offended like “why do you think I’m so old I need a seat?!” but i think most 80 year olds would appreciate it.

Victoria:You can ask nicely, like, “would you care for a tissue?” So you don’t imply they are gross. Tone is important here, I think.

Jaya: Definitely. you need to make sure it’s an offer, not a requirement. Though, from that person’s standpoint, what do you do when you blow your nose? Just put it in your pocket?

Victoria: Just… whatever you would do if you remembered to carry tissues anyway. But yeah, put it in your pocket.

Jaya: But on the subway specifically there’s no place to throw it out! Okay, i guess that’s alright. Eeewwwwww.

Victoria: Let’s make UC handkerchiefs and hand them out on the subway.

Jaya: Hahahahaha

Things Not To Do Ever, According To This Lady

This woman does not like it when you hum in her company

This woman does not like it when you hum in her company

As we’ve mentioned before, the Victorian era was the height of the etiquette boom, and all it takes is a quick look on Google Books to see just how many people fancied themselves experts and got book deals (hint hint, anyone in the position to give us a book deal). One such book I came across was Woman in Her Various Relations: Containing Practical Rules for American Females by Mrs. L.G. Abell, which she introduces by saying “the allotments and responsibilities of Woman, in her own appropriate sphere, should be brought before the mind in their true weight and importance.” Whatever that means.

There are chapters on parlor care and the duty of benevolence, New Year’s Calls and a chapter specifically for young girls. But the one that caught my eye was entitled “Things To Be Avoided By All Persons.” It is every rant I’ve ever wanted to give. So here you go, a list of things to never do ever no matter who you are.

Loose and harsh speaking; making noises in eating and drinking; leaning awkwardly when sitting; starting up suddenly and going unceremoniously out of a room; standing in the way when there is scarcely room to pass; going before any one looking at a picture or sitting at the fire; taking possession of another’s seat when you know they are to return soon; intruding opinions when you know they will give offense; leaving acquaintances in the street or leaving a room abruptly and without taking leave; whispering in company; making remarks on the dress of those about you; using slang expressions; or a habit of saying “says he” “you know” etc.; helping yourself at meals without first asking others to be helped; scratching or touching your head; paring or cleaning your nails before company; spitting, picking the nose, or looking at your handkerchief after blowing it; standing or sitting with your back to the fire, when others would enjoy the warmth; alluding to subjects that would give pain to those you address; neglecting to answer letters; leaning the chair against the wall or furniture; spitting on the carpet or floor; drumming with the feet or fingers; whistling or humming tunes; reading papers, letters, and books in company; looking over another’s shoulder when reading or writing; talking lightly of serious matters; jesting when none take pleasure in mirth; sitting with the hat on in the house; touching any part of the person not usually exposed; rocking eagerly; showing yourself glad at other’s misfortune; being disrespectful in language or motion; continuing conversation when others come in without an explanation of the subject; showing marked attentions to some more than others unless they are strangers; neglecting to call on friends that have sent their card informing you they are in town; not informing your friends who have entertained you of your safe arrival home, and thanking them for kindnesses received; using deceit; making expense without benefit to yourself or others; being disturbed about trifles or accidents, common or unavoidable.

“Jesting when none take pleasure in mirth” you guys I’m dying. Why did she even write a book? This is the only list you ever need.

A Discussion of Gift Giving

For something as ubiquitous as gift giving at Christmas, there certainly are a lot of different ways to do it. We talked about some different ways we do gifts and the etiquette involved, but we would love to hear how you do gifts, in the comments!

Victoria: So Christmas is coming up, and that means buying presents!

Jaya:  Oh how do you do them? I mainly suck at giving gifts.

Victoria So I pretty much only buy stuff for my sister, my parents, and my grandmother. For all my friends, I do some kind of homemade thing. Last year I made jam. This year…I’m not telling because I haven’t given you yours yet!

Have you ever been in a group that did Secret Santas or like, a present exchange. or white elephant?

Jaya:  Some friends of mine and I actually do that, there’s this sort of automatic Secret Santa site that you put your names in and it assigns you someone. And it’s useful because instead of getting gifts for everyone you just have to do one person, so cheaper, and still nice. Last year I got two really good books, and I gave a cute vintage clutch.

Victoria Oooh that sounds awesome. I think if a friend group really wants to do more than token gifts, some kind of exchange is the way to go. It’s fun but it doesn’t cost TOO much money.

Jaya:  Exactly. I think we have like a $25 cap, but we’d probably stay within that anyway.

Victoria:  Yeah, then everyone gets something nice that they’d really enjoy but you don’t end up spending insane amounts of money on presents for people.

What do you think about a situation where one person gives another a present and doesn’t get a present in return?

Do you feel pressure to then go out and get one?

Jaya:  I mean, the nature of gifts is that they’re gifts, right? You give them out of love, not out of the expectation that you get another one.

Victoria Exactly!

Jaya:  Though with a holiday like Christmas, where the idea is gift giving, maybe that changes.

Victoria And I would feel terrible if my friends thought they had to get me something because I made them some jam.

I mean, its jam, it’s not a big deal.

And I do it because I like doing it!

Jaya:  But your jams are so good!

Victoria: Haha, thanks.

How do you open presents on Christmas morning in your family? Do you all tear in or do you open one at a time in turns?

Jaya:  We take turns, and draw it out. Basically you open your stockings as soon as you get up, and tear into that. And then we have breakfast, and then after breakfast is tree presents time.

Victoria Us too!!!

Jaya:  Aww yay! It was always torture waiting for breakfast to end as a kid but now I like waiting.

Victoria It always seemed the more “polite” way to me too, because then you have time to properly admire each gift and thank the giver.

Jaya:  Exactly. And easier to record things for thank you notes.

Victoria Exactly!

Jaya:  My grandma always kept the list, now my mom does.

Holiday Traditions and Etiquette

A Bûche de Noël, the tastiest of logs[via Wikimedia Commons]

While holiday traditions are not etiquette, strictly speaking, they carry a lot of etiquette associations. After all, the only difference between trick or treating and begging is that one is sanctioned as a single evening of fun with a lot of etiquette rules and the other is considered pretty rude.

Christmas/the late December period has many old traditions, some of which have fallen out of favor. Here are some Christmasy traditions you may not be familiar with, with some etiquette pointers in case you find yourself faced with one.

Yule Log

The origin of the Yule Log is in Scandinavian midwinter festivals, providing lots of light which to drink by. It was imported to England and other northern European countries over time and became a symbol of Christmas. Traditionally, you would light the Yule Log with a scrap from the previous year’s Log. But you had to wash your hands first, as touching the Log with dirty hands was disrespectful. Then the log had to be kept burning for twelve hours- this could be difficult as no one was allowed to tend to the fire until everyone was done eating the lengthy Christmas feast.

These types of Yule Logs are uncommon today, however, the French make a delightful Christmas cake called a Bûche de Noël (Christmas Log), which is a cake that is decorated to look like a log. My personal favorite modern day Yule Log is the log that is burned on TV with Christmas carols playing (I grew up in a house without a fireplace, give me a break!) which I watch every Christmas morning.


Everyone knows that if two people stand under some mistletoe, they must kiss. What you don’t know is that mistletoe was sacred to the Druids and when two enemies met under some, they had to stop fighting for one day. This eventually led to the custom of hanging it in a house and kissing beneath it in friendship or romance. While this can leads to lots of fun and frolicking, remember, if a person doesn’t want you to kiss them, don’t! Mistletoe be damned! Even Washington Irving wrote that every time mistletoe was used for kissing, one of the berries must be plucked from it and once the berries were all gone, no more kissing! Also beware mistletoe if you have pets in the house, because it can be poisonous to dogs and cats.

Boxing Day

Americans may be unfamiliar with Boxing Day, but it is still an official holiday in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. And despite the name, it has nothing to do with throwing out the boxes your Christmas presents came in. Basically, Christmas gifts were exchanged between friends and family on Christmas day, and then people gave gifts to their servants and other people of the lower classes on December 26. There is a lot of dispute about the origin of the name, but most ideas revolve around putting money or goods into boxes as gifts. This practice does have a modern counterpart in holiday tipping (a topic far too huge to discuss in this particular post), but unfortunately, we don’t get a whole extra day off for it.

La Befana

I really love witches (obviously), so I was quite excited when I discovered that instead of Santa Claus, a witch brought presents to good little boys and girls in Italy. La Befana traditionally comes on January 6 (Epiphany) which is when the Three Wise Men arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus. Apparently she drinks wine (don’t forget to leave some out for her!) and will sweep your floor, which to me, sounds way better than a fat dude eating all your milk and cookies.

The origin of La Befana is that she was a woman who gave the Three Wise Men shelter on their journey. They invited her to join them, but she declined. Later, having a change of heart, she set out to find the Wise Men and Baby Jesus with some small presents for the baby and her broom to help clean up. However, she never found them and has been searching for them ever since, leaving presents for the children on her way.

Christmas markets in Italy sell La Befana doll-decorations. I have one and I love that it can do double duty for Halloween AND Christmas.

The Real War on Christmas

Not a tradition, per se, but did you know that the Puritans heartily disapproved of Christmas as being frivolous (and rightly pointing out that December 25 had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus). When they Pilgrimmed it over to America-to-be, they brought the dislike with them and were able to ban Christmas entirely in Boston from 1659-1681, charging 5 shillings to anyone who seemed extra merry that day.

After the Revolutionary War, Christmas continued to be seen with some suspicion as being too English. In fact, the first session of Congress was held on Christmas Day in 1789.

BTW, Christmas wasn’t even a federal holiday until 1870 when President Grant was trying to find cheerful way to unify the North and South.

Tell me about your favorite holiday traditions in the comments!