Etiquette Confessions: I’m Terrible At Giving Gifts

tumblr_llk5tj6wJI1qayyfbo1_500If there’s one thing we don’t want this blog to be, it’s untouchably aspirational. Too often conversations around etiquette require their readers exhibit superhuman feats of kindness, organization, and memorization. That’s not how life goes. Pretty much everyone I know is trying to be a kind, courteous person, and pretty much everyone, including me (oh god especially me) fails at some point. In hopes of proving that you don’t have to be perfect in order to be courteous, we’re going to confess some seemingly simple bits of etiquette that we’ve never been able to do well. Here’s one of mine.

I think there has been one time in my life when I’ve given a good gift. I didn’t even actually give it, I just orchestrated all my friends to chip in and buy this thing for my boyfriend, and the idea of even getting that thing was someone else’s idea. I’m pretty good at telling other people what to do! But I am awful at giving gifts.

It’s not like I don’t care about people enough to give them gifts. I very much do care! I can just never think of anything to give. All of a sudden it’s a week until Christmas and I have no clue what anyone wants. So I find a local store and buy some token thing for everyone that needs a gift (husband, parents, siblings). They’re all fine but they’re never great. I’m even worse at birthdays, which seem to come out of nowhere, and often end up buying a friend a drink or dinner.

When I was a teenager I had this idea that, instead of gifts, I’d write all my friends heartfelt letters on their birthdays, telling them how much they mean to me and what great people they are. This lasted for about a year, and I think got to the core of what my gift-giving abilities are lacking–it’s not that I can’t buy a gift, but I lack the creative gene to give a thoughtful gift. I long to be the type of person who shows up with a present my friend didn’t know they wanted but now can’t live without. Something that wasn’t on a registry or gift list. I will likely never be that person, but I like to think I’m thoughtful in other ways, so hopefully that makes up for it.

I am GREAT at gift wrapping though.

How to Have a Holly Jolly Holiday Season

If all else fails, watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians because it is on Netflix and it is amazing.

The holiday season can be fraught with etiquette perils. You mostly already know how to deal with your family and all the assorted drama. But how do you handle a whole month of holiday parties with their own different rules?

White Elephant Exchange:

I think White Elephant exchanges are the most fun type of Christmas present giving exercise, followed closely by it’s cousin, the White Elephant where you bring nice stuff (is there are a real term for this?).  The premise is that you find something in your home that is pretty new, maybe it’s something someone else bought you as a gift that you do not want, and you bring it (wrapped) to the party. Then all the gifts go in the middle and the guests take turns selecting a gift and opening it. The fun part is that instead of opening a new gift, a guest can “steal” one of the already opened gifts. Some people put a limit on how many times a gift can be stolen before it is “dead” and must be kept by the last person to steal it. If one person’s gift is stolen, they can choose to open one of the wrapped gifts or steal someone else’s gift.

This type of party is best for groups that don’t know each other well.

Etiquette Pitfalls:

  • Decide on the rules ahead of time as everyone plays slightly differently.
  • Be sure whether the party will be a true White Elephant with silly, useless types of gifts or the “nice” kind where people bring real gifts.
  • If it is a “nice” White Elephant party, be sure to set a price limit so the gifts are roughly the same.
  • If it is a true White Elephant, make an effort to bring something fun, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” types of things rather than true junk. [Ed note: Unless it’s a “Spite Elephant” party, in which case bring the most ridiculously awful thing you can find]
  • Try to avoid getting too competitive about stealing gifts, this is supposed to be fun.

Secret Santa:

The Secret Santa is a more refined gift exchange, in which you are assigned a person to get a gift for ahead of time. This is a nice way of doing gifts because everyone gets something personalized that they will probably like, but you only have to buy a gift for one person.

Etiquette Pitfalls:

  • If you sign up to do a Secret Santa make sure you follow through! If you are exchanging gifts in a group and you don’t show up, it will muck the whole thing up. Even if it isn’t a group exchange, if you don’t buy a gift that means that your person doesn’t get one and that is terrible. Don’t be a Secret Santa flake.
  • If you are the host, again, make sure to set a price limit, so everyone knows they are spending about the same amount.
  • Part of the beauty of doing a Secret Santa is getting a personalized gift, so put some effort into it and don’t wimp out with a gift card (unless they are really into that!)

Cookie Exchange:

A cookie exchange is a party in which everyone brings one type of cookie and brings enough that they can give, say, a dozen of those cookies to each party guest. That way, each person brings, say, 6 dozen of one type of cookie but brings home 6 dozen of six different types of cookies. This way, you can have a wide variety of cookies to eat during the holiday season but only have to bake once. A big time saver if you are really into cookies.

  • I wouldn’t say it’s RUDE to participate if you are bad at baking, but you might want to seriously evaluate your skills and perhaps bring very nice store bought cookies rather than burnt ones.
  • Don’t be stingy with your recipes, the holidays are all about sharing!
  • Make sure you follow the rules about how many cookies to bring so there are enough to go around.
  • If you are the host, be sure to inquire about any allergies and pass the information around.
  • If you are gluten-free, perhaps a cookie exchange is not the party for you (but maybe it is and your friends don’t mind gluten free cookies, we don’t judge!)
  • Try to make something a little out of the ordinary so the party doesn’t end up with all chocolate chip cookies (if you are the host, you should do your best to communicate with your guests about what they want to bring to facilitate variety- or ask everyone to send a recipe ahead of time).
  • Bring something to carry all your cookies home in!

Office Party:

Jaya just wrote a killer piece in The Guardian about office holiday parties, so you should go read that first. I’ll wait.

Etiquette Pitfalls:

  • Everyone says it, but getting drunk (unless your work culture is all about getting drunk- life’s a rich tapestry, etc etc) is a pretty big no-no most places.
  • Not going- sure office parties are, (usually) technically, optional but unless you have a REALLY good reason, you should suck it up and go because as much as we don’t like it, these types of things are noticed and contribute to the perception of your team spirit which can come into play when it comes time for promotions, etc.
  • If you are in charge of organizing the party, really think about what the people you work with are the most likely to enjoy. Some offices are big party goers, others will appreciate a dinner at a fancy restaurant more.

Gifts for Everyone:

Presumably you know what to do when it comes to getting gifts for close friends and family. But what do you do when you have to get gifts for other people?

  • A secret santa you don’t know too well- ask around and try to find something they will really enjoy.
  • Your brand new significant other- if you’ve been dating less than, say, three months, you should probably skip it or do something simple. At least talk about it! (You should also talk about it with longer term partners- you don’t want to be the one giving diamond earrings when they are getting you a new scarf. It’s uncomfortable for both parties [again unless that’s just how you guys roll!]).
  • Someone who gave you something out of the blue- you don’t necessarily have to reciprocate. Sometimes its nice to just give without expecting anything in return. But some very classy people have “backup” presents- a box of generic but nice gifts that can be given in just that kind of situation.
  • Your boss- you DON’T. Gift giving should always flow down power structures. Giving a gift to your boss can look like a bribe/sucking up. You can usually get away with little tokens, or especially home baked treats. Group gifts for bosses are usually against etiquette as well, but honestly, in some small offices, it can work because everyone truly wants to do something nice (and really only if that boss is also handing bonuses and/or gifts down.)

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to do that Anymore: Gift Giving

Rhett Butler shows he’s a cad by giving inappropriate gifts.

Obviously, people give each other gifts all the time, so this not truly “thank goodness we don’t have to do that anymore,” but there used to be a lot more RULES about these things that we don’t really have to follow anymore. These rules mainly pertain to gifts given by a man to an unmarried woman (because sexism! And maybe women weren’t really supposed to give gifts to men and this was so well known no one even had to write it down.)

Social Life (1896) by Maud Cook gives these rules about gifts to an unmarried woman:

  • The only acceptable gifts for a gentleman to give a lady are flowers, fruits, and candy (despite how expensive these items can be made to be). Since these are perishable items, they leave no obligation upon the lady.
  • However, if the lady and gentleman have been talking about a book or musical composition that she does not possess, he may offer to send her a copy and she may accept.
  • If inappropriate gifts are given, the lady may say “I thank you for the kindness but I never take expensive presents;” or, “Mamma never permits me to accept expensive presents.” Or her mother might discover the gift and send it back saying “I think my daughter rather young to accept such expensive gifts.”
  • After an engagement, the rules would slacken, but real, expensive, useful gifts were supposed to saved until after the wedding.

In the 1920 Etiquette, Emily Post gives a list of rules that an engaged couple must follow about gifts:

  • If the man is saving money so that they may get married, he shouldn’t waste his money sending flowers and other little gifts.
  • A woman may accept all presents except: wearing apparel, a car, a house, or furniture.
  • Basically, a man should not provide his future wife with any real useful objects until after they are married and it becomes his duty to take care of her. For example, a fur scarf would be a fine gift as it is a mere ornament, but a fur coat would not be because it is a useful piece of clothing.
  • If an engagement is broken, all gifts must be returned.

My 1954 copy of Etiquette For Young Moderns is unusual in that it has rules for the girl giving gifts to the boy:

  • For both genders, it is suggested that gifts not be too expensive or too personal.
  • Girls should be especially careful not to give a gift more expensive that what he is giving her AND she shouldn’t give the gift first.

In Sex and the Single Girl (1962), Helen Gurley Brown says: “Don’t give expensive presents to men. Madness!” And also highly encourages women to get expensive presents from men. She also thinks it’s fine to be someone’s mistress, so take all advice with a grain of salt.

In my 1967 copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s etiquette book her rules for unengaged people very strict:

  • A man’s gift to any girl (other than a relative) must be impersonal until an engagement is announced. The idea is to not imply intimacy or be so expensive that people talk about the girl.
  • Acceptable gifts: scarf, gloves, handkerchiefs, small things for the house such as a cocktail shaker or toaster (if she lives alone). Unacceptable gifts: dress, hat, underthings, stockings, or fur. Books are fine, but not a particularly expensive book or set of books.
  • A man who visits a woman’s home frequently might restock her liquor cabinet but would never insult her by trying to pay the grocery bill or anything.
  • If a girl receives an inappropriate gift she should return it to the giver and tell him “I know you didn’t realize it, but I couldn’t possibly accept such a gift from you, much as I appreciate your kindness in wanting to give it to me. A little present would be better.”
  • “To do anything that puts a girl in untenable position is to be less than a gentleman”



Are Housewarming Registries Tacky?

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

What are your thoughts regarding housewarming gift registries, are they tacky or no? I think yes but a friend thinks no.


Confusing New Territory

Official Etiquette:

Miss Manners discusses the history of housewarming parties, which were traditionally thrown when someone had deemed his or her move permanent. However, she says, “suddenly, housewarming parties are being given for every move, and not just temporarily rented quarters, but dormitory rooms and vacation sublets.” And while many would bring token gifts to congratulate the new homeowners, “hoping to furnish one’s quarters on other people’s budgets is not a proper reason for giving a party.”

Our Take:

Jaya: Oooh I have so many thoughts on this. My initial reaction is “eww, tacky,” but that’s pretty much my reaction to any hint of asking for presents. Like, it took me a while to get over the fact that I even had a wedding registry.

Victoria: Well, wedding and baby registries came into existence because weddings and baby showers were already events where people bought presents. And a lot of people were buying you presents at the same time, so it made sense to make a list of what you need so that the chaos would be a bit organized.

Jaya: Yeah. You know people are going to get presents for you, so you just make sure you don’t get four waffle irons. But anyway, thinking about it, I think in the right situation it’s pretty great. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how weddings are the only instance in most peoples lives that they get this sort of celebration for, and where it’s OK to have a registry, but the fact is that a lot of people aren’t going to get married. What if you’re single and you buy yourself a house? Is that any less of a thing to celebrate than two people getting married? Or what if you’re a couple but just don’t feel like getting married, but still achieve some stuff in your life that you think is important?

Victoria: I think they are tacky, not so much because they are asking for presents, but they are asking for presents in an instance when no one was planning on getting you a present, so now they feel like they have to? Obviously, hey, maybe you won’t get married, but you do get a PhD or buy yourself a house and why shouldn’t you get gifts for those things to? BUT the thing is, where do you then stop with all the gifts? What if you throw a big housewarming when you buy a house at age 25 and then get married at 30? Do the people who gave you housewarming gifts not have to get you a wedding present?

Jaya: You wouldn’t plan on getting your friend a present if they just move into like, a home they bought that they’re going to be in forever? Like Miss Manners says, I’m not getting you a toaster for having a dorm room, but I feel like housewarming gifts are pretty common, and if I’m gonna spend $30-50 on something like that, I’d rather do it on a small kitchen appliance they need or some nice hand towels than a bottle of wine and flowers.

Victoria: I think that most people are only really willing to give a person one major gift per lifetime (aside from parents, siblings, grandparents, etc), if that makes sense. Yeah, there are baby registries, but aside from extremely close relatives, most people give you an outfit or a toy or something else fairly small, or go in together as a group to buy a carseat or whatever. (I might be wrong about this though!).

Jaya: But if you’re doing one gift per lifetime, this could be it! If you know that you’re not gonna get married and you don’t want kids, I think a housewarming is a perfectly acceptable time to give that gift. Though you’re right, if you’re signing up for some registry every five years of your life, that’s going to come off as greedy.

Victoria: I think for housewarming registries to be acceptable, there would have to be a MAJOR cultural shift in expectations, and we are just not there yet. The root of the “rudeness” or “tackiness” about housewarming registries is that you are asking for gifts from people who were not planning on getting you a gift in the first place, which comes off as looking ridiculous. And if you are sending the registry information with the invitation, then that is RUDE—it makes it look like you are only interested in what someone is going to give you rather than wanting them to come celebrate with you. At least with weddings, you can have a website where you can include registry info as just part of a ton of supplemental information so that it never becomes the focus. And with baby registries, someone else should be hosting the event and thus requests for gifts are coming from the generosity of someone else.

Jaya: Yeah, if you do one it’s a place where you need to tread really, really carefully. As a side note, I remember my sister-in-law did a really big wedding registry, and ended up having to keep most of the stuff at her parents’ place because they did not have room in their tiny New York apartment, and figured when they moved into a house they’d take it all back. And then lo and behold she gets pregnant, so they just took all the stuff they couldn’t fit back to the store and got baby stuff instead. So that’s a built-in baby registry right there! You might not even need one!

Victoria: Honestly, celebrating someone buying a house is kind of like…congratulations, you have enough money to make a down payment? And therefore a probably a lot better off than a lot of your guests so, I should spend my money buying you a present to celebrate that rather than saving up for my own down payment?

Jaya: I think looking at it like “congratulations, you had enough money to make a down payment” is just as ridiculous as any of the other reasons we do registries. For a wedding it’s “congratulations, you met someone you like enough to live with forever,” and I don’t see why a relationship is that much more of an accomplishment. And especially since wedding registries were the original housewarming registries! I think it’s much tackier for a married couple to set up a registry asking for nicer versions of stuff they already have since they’ve been living together (which, yes, I am doing and I’m tacky and whatever) than a single person to set one up for their first house.

Victoria: While I think that we should be celebrating other accomplishments other than weddings and babies, I also think the bigger issue is instead of adding more “gift giving opportunities” (as my mom likes to call them), we (as a society) should be steering the focus away from gifts more. It’s just getting ridiculous, and even thinking about housewarming, and graduation, and birthday, and first car, and first job, and retirement, and funeral registries on top of everything else is just EXHAUSTING.

Jaya: That’s a great point. As a society we tend to associate celebration with gift giving. You get presents on occasions when people are celebrating you, when that really doesn’t need to be the case. So now someone sees a wedding and thinks “they’re being celebrated more because they get a registry, why can’t I be celebrated for my accomplishments?” And everyone should be celebrated for their accomplishments! We can just step away from celebrating with gifts!

Victoria: Yesss, who needs gifts? I bought myself a KitchenAid stand mixer and a Le Creuset Dutch Oven so I am already set for life.

Did My Friends Forget To Give Me A Present?

Have you ruled out wedding Grinches?

Have you ruled out wedding Grinches?

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

At our wedding, after going through the gifts, we noticed that 4 of my close college friends had not given a gift. It seemed really weird, and I was concerned that maybe they all put their gifts somewhere together and they got misplaced or lost. If that were true, you’d think they’d want to know. What would you do here?


Expected A Toaster


The official etiquette stance here would be to say nothing for a few reasons. 1) Guests sometimes send gifts a while after the wedding so they might still be getting around to it (obviously this is more likely if it’s only been a few months since the wedding). 2) guests aren’t really obligated to give gifts at all, and if they spent a lot of money travelling to your wedding, they might not have given a gift at all. 3) If the gifts DID get lost, what’s going to happen? It’s too late to try to find them and your guests will just feel bad that they were lost.

What you could do is send a thank you note thanking them for coming to the wedding without mentioning gifts and hope that if they did give a gift that was lost that they will call you up and ask if you got it.


Jaya:  So I do like that advice, but I agree that if I had given at gift and it was lost, I’d rather know about it than wait until the thank you note. Because if they don’t mention it in the thank you note, you’re thinking “wait, did they get the gift and just not thank me for it?”

Victoria:  Yes, I totally agree, with close friends, I would ABSOLUTELY ask.

Jaya:  Yeah! And these sound like close enough friends.

Victoria:  Just be like, “omg this is really awkward, but I’m really worried someone misplaced your gift at the wedding.” And this actually happened to me sort of! I went to a wedding and sent a gift ahead of time, but then I never got a thank you note. The groom thanked me verbally at the wedding for the CARD I had sent separately, which made me think maybe they hadn’t gotten the gift.

Jaya:  Ooh! What did you do?

Victoria:  Nothing, haha, it was a couple years ago. But I didn’t really know them well enough to feel like I could say anything. I should have just emailed and been like, hey, I sent you this thing, did you get it? But at the time, I didn’t want them to think I was chastising them for not sending thank you notes.

Jaya:  Yeah, that’s the tricky part. Or on the bride and groom’s side, you don’t want to make it seem like you expect a gift. But I still think it’s ok to just send a thank you note to the people for being there, and then maybe it’s up to the guest to say “wait, did you get my present?” 

Victoria:  Yeah, after my experience, I would strongly advise people to follow up if you haven’t heard from the couple about your gift. Especially with sending gifts to their house, there are so many ways it could get lost and you want to find out ASAP so you can follow up with the store and try to get a refund/replacement.

Jaya:  Definitely. But in general, I think if you’re going to send a gift, do it through the mail or give it to them in person. Leaving gifts on a table at the wedding seems like a good way to have them go missing.

Victoria:  Yeah, I am not a fan of gifts at the wedding- though I know its a regional thing- there’s way too much going on and things easily get misplaced or their cards get detached and you don’t know who gave what.

Jaya:  Cards getting detached! That’s happened to me, and it’s no fun doing the process of elimination to figure out where they belonged

Victoria:  Hahaha yeah! Exactly!

Jaya:  So yeah, I think for this, given that they say these were close college friends, you could ask if they brought a gift but if it’s some outsider, just thank them for coming in the thank you note and wait for their response.

Victoria:  Yep, and just phrase it like, “we noticed there was a big chunk of people who didn’t bring gifts and we were concerned they might have gotten misplaced at the wedding, so we were wondering if you had given us anything, but don’t worry if you didn’t! We just want to make sure we don’t miss a thank you note.” It’s going to be horribly awkward, but if you do sound a bit sheepish, your good friends won’t care.

Jaya:  Absolutely. They know you’re awkward anyway. People just need to suck it up and communicate.

Victoria: Oh! Or! If you have a bridal party member/close friend who is also good friends with these people you could send them on a little reconnaissance mission and have them ask them what they gave you. Only if you can trust them be to extremely subtle.

Jaya:  Ooooh yes, that’s a great solution.

Victoria:  I would totally do that for you, btw.

Jaya:  Aww, you’re so sweet.