Lovely Notes of Thanks, Vol. 13, Issue 62

Gift-Giving Holidays - Christmas being the most widely celebrated, followed closely by Hannukah and Kwanzaa - conclude with the most Perfect Propriety when gifts are acknowledged with Lovely Notes of Thanks immediately afterward. The late B.R. Johnstone made a point, the afternoon of every Christmas Day, of sequestering himself at his desk with a box of his stationery and thanking everyone who had taken the trouble to give him a gift. He remains the Perfect Example of Perfect Propriety for all of us who wish to be thought Ladies and Gentleman. (And if you don't wish to be thought a Lady or a Gentleman, Etiquetteer has grave doubts about your Character.) Who, some of you have asked, is this mysterious B.R. Johnstone? Why, it is none other than Etiquetteer's beloved godfather, seen here imparting the Spirit of Perfect Propriety to Infant Etiquetteer. Would that all children were so fortunate in their selection of godparents!

Now, let's get on with our Lovely Notes, shall we?

Holiday Gift Giving, Vol. 1, Issue 25

This was originally published on November 23, 2002. Dear Etiquetteer:

My older brother is deeply in debt. I don't see him very often because he lives in another state and we've never been very close. Is there any polite way I can let him know that in lieu of buying and mailing me a gift and getting more into debt, I'd prefer that he redirect that money toward paying off his debts? Personally, I'm not into gift giving and would prefer to make a donation to a charity in his honor or do community service.

This ties in with another gift-related question. My parents have retired and I know that their retirement income took a hit due to the stock market. In the past we'd talked about reducing the amount of family gift giving, and I'd like to broach the subject again. Any suggestions?

Dear Gifted and Astute:

Etiquetteer thanks you for raising this sensitive issue, with which so many well-meaning people wrestle in their attempts to alleviate the spending of others. Christmas has become so heavily identified with the exchange of gifts that many remain blind to the True Spirit of Christmas, the expression of Love.

It is never good manners to tell people how to spend money on you, so you’re skating on thin ice to tell your brother how to spend money on himself. Has he made it a practice to send you a gift each year? While you may not consider yourselves close, he could feel stung were you to announce that you’d prefer not to continue the one annual ritual that reinforces your connection.

Etiquetteer rarely recommends candor but believes you must be completely honest with your brother. Not about his debts, but about your aversion to holiday giving. This is more than Lovely Note material; a Lovely Letter is in order. Write and say as beautifully as you can that you’ve reached a stage in life where tangible things mean far less to you than people, including him. Recall for him in your letter particular memories of childhood (good ones, please), and express the wish that he do the same for you this Christmas. If he is as in debt as you suggest, Etiquetteer thinks he will leap at the chance to avoid getting you another gift certificate.

The formula changes only slightly with your parents, since you’ve discussed it before. Write or telephone “Mamma dear, remember once we talked about not putting so many things under the Christmas tree? Let’s do that this year and just give each other one little present apiece instead of a galaxy of gifts.” Don’t allude to their reduced income; fixing on your own disinclination to exchange presents will spare them embarrassment.

Etiquetteer is delighted to see your interest in charity and volunteer service, but urges you not to fall into the self-satisfying delusion that these activities will be considered gifts by the persons to whom you designate them.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I have problems about money gifts. First, the gift of money to friends and family. Unless one is in dire straits or the group is combining resources for an expensive item not suitable for shipping, sending money is like paying a bill: One writes a check to the credit card company, a check to the electric company, and a check to Georgie. And Happy Holiday.

Worse are the parents who say their teenager wants nothing less than a car so please send him/her money. These are also the parents to teach them that an endorsement on a check is a thank-you note.

Next, the custom of the Christmas List. First, it's tots who write to Santa. Sweet, cute, adorable, okay. Secondly, adults who make lists of stuff they want people to give them. I consider this the ultimate of tacky but to give that person something you know in advance they don't want . . . ugh!

Dear Exasperated:

Etiquetteer shares your preference for not giving gifts of money, your aversion to parents blind to all but the knowledge that they can’t afford a car for Junior, and your observation that adults have no business circulating their own gift lists unbidden. What if someone sent around a list of things one wanted and nobody was planning to get one a gift anyway?! One then looks like a greedy fool -- or a rapacious bride. To maintain a wish list at, say, amazon.com for one’s own reference is Perfectly Proper. It’s quite another thing to send everyone one knows a link to it.

That said, intentionally giving someone something one already knows is unwelcome -- the classic example is the fur coat to the vegetarian -- would certainly affront them. If you are approaching the holiday season with that sort of fierce-hot malice, Etiquetteer invites you to look deep into your heart (are you looking?) and to remember that Christmas is a time for healing, not hurting. If you cannot plan a present for someone in a spirit of Love, then perhaps you had better not give any presents at all. Use your shopping time to sit quietly and reflect on What and Who is Important to You, and Why. When you’ve figured it out, then you will be ready to give in a Perfectly Proper Spirit.

All this talk about the True Spirit of Giving forces Etiquetteer to recall that Christmas Custom to Create Camaraderie, the Secret Santa. For those not initiated in this Joyous Holiday Ritual, it involves everyone in an office or dormitory drawing names from a hat. (Does anyone really still wear a hat?) One then goes about preparing secret gifts and surprises on a periodic basis for the person whose name one drew to generate holiday excitement. Everyone’s Secret Santa is revealed at a holiday party just before Christmas or after Finals.

It has been Etiquetteer’s misfortune in these Exercises in Enforced Gaiety to draw either a complete stranger or sworn enemy. After a giftless two weeks, Etiquetteer always receives the apologies of the one person in the group who was too busy, lazy, or forgetful to bother to do a *@#! thing. Merry Christmas!

But Etiquetteer will never forget the exquisitely wrapped box left on his office chair by his last Secret Santa. Opening it with excitement in the presence of colleagues who “just happened” to be there, Etiquetteer burrowed through layers and layers of red and green tissue to find a carefully chosen lump of coal.

Since then, the Scrooge & Marley sign has remained firmly on Etiquetteer’s office door, but Etiquetteer is always more than ready to quaff a Beverage of Festivity at the Office Party.

Holiday Gift-Giving and Money, Vol. 12, Issue 13

Dear Etiquetteer: I take my god daughter and her brother to [Insert Large Traditional Holiday Entertainment Here] every year. Their parents come, but their tickets are not part of my gift. Last year they gave me a check for their own tickets. This year they did not. Is there a polite way to ask for the check, or am I [Insert Euphemism Here]?

Dear Godfather:

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year always reveals that Absentmindedness is the true Gift That Keeps on Giving. It's always more Perfectly Proper to assume Absentmindedness in such cases, rather than Malice or Cheapness. It's possible that you could introduce the topic with the parents by claiming the absentmindedness was yours rather than theirs, such as "In the excitement of taking Ethelred and Ethelredina to [Insert Large Traditional Holiday Entertainment Here] I did not remember to get your check. Would you mind awfully sending it to me? I do enjoy making this possible for the children!"

Etiquetteer must caution against the Worst-Case Scenario, in which the parents respond that they had no idea they had to pay for their tickets this year. Etiquetteer hopes you specified that in the invitation, but no one wants Max Fabyan hollering "Dees ees for lawyers to talk about!" as part of what is supposed to be a Happy Time. If they do, in the interests of Harmony, it might be best to drop it - but to be careful to specify it in invitations for all subsequent years.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I usually tip my cleaning lady the amount of a regular cleaning at Christmas. This year she will be cleaning the week after Thanksgiving and just before New Year. So, do I give it to her on early or late December. I am FIRMLY opposed to holiday creep, but . . .

Dear Householder:

Tip on your regular schedule. While the holiday cleaning is beginning earlier in your household this year, it's still ending at the same time.

Tomorrow night, Monday, December 9, Etiquetteer will a festive celebration of the anniversary of Prohibition's Repeal at The Gibson House Museum in Boston, including a few brief remarks on the Culture of Alcohol Concealment that Prohibition helped foster. It will be an amusing time!

Random Issues, Vol. 5, Issue 29

Dear Etiquetteer:

Do you think the term "Lezbollah" will ever take off as a way to describe lesbian activists?

Dear Tiresome:

Oh please. "Lezbollah" is rather like one of those words from the David Letterman Top Ten List of Words That Never Caught On, "Hitleriffic:" it sounds really catchy and upbeat, but it’s Wildly Inappropriate. Etiquetteer recommends another semester of PC 101 for you.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I’ve just had the terrible experience of cleaning out my closet and finding a Christmas gift I was supposed to give to one of my neighbors last Christmas. She must think I’ve snubbed her! How can I correct this now?

Dear Absentminded:

Clearly you must invite your neighbor over for "Christmas in August" one evening. Serve Christmas cookies on red and green napkins, pour a glass of cold eggnog, and give her her present. You could even put on a Santa hat and those annoying Christmas light bulb earrings that blink on and off. Just think of this as an opportunity to grovel in a reallyspectacular way. Remember what they say in real estate: if you can’

t hide it, paint it red!

Dear Etiquetteer:

Do you think you can handle another wedding question? My fiancé and I are getting married later this year and are working out what we want the attendants to wear. The women aren’t a problem; we’ve already told them to wear black (you’ll probably get us in trouble for that). We’ve come to a disagreement about the men, though. Both of us will have on tuxedos, but the guests are just being told to come in jackets and ties. We think that asking the men to wear a dark gray suit would be OK, but we feel bad about asking them to buy a suit. And they’d all have to be the same suit, so they’d look uniform in the photos. On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of rental places that will rent suits. What would you advise us to do?

Dear Grooming:

Elope, just to keep those poor ladies from having to wear black to a wedding!

No, no, seriously, let’s look at this from the beginning. Etiquetteer feels compelled to remind you that this is the sacrament of Marriage, not a summer stock production number. Etiquetteer has some grave concerns about the ideas you’ve suggested. First and foremost, what’s all this about you being in black tie and your attendants in suits? One is evening clothes and the other is day clothes; to combine them as you suggest will look tacky. While Etiquetteer is not fond of combining a formally dressed wedding party with casually dressed wedding guests – a particularly American custom –

Etiquetteer would rather see you and your men attendants all in tuxedos or all in dark suits (that need not match). That will certainly promote the uniformity you claim to seek. You can provide different boutonnieres for yourselves to shake up the mix.

 

Random Questions, Vol. 5, Issue 4

Dear Etiquetteer:Isn't "flipping someone off" a very strong gesture? Let's take it one step further: flipping off a total stranger who has done nothing to you. I'm a big guy and it makes me want to beat the crap out of the gesturer.A recent entry in one of my favorite blogs relates how the writer gleefully flips off Hummers. Just because the writer has misconceptions about that automobile and probably knows nothing about the environmental activities of the Hummer driver, what gives the writer the right to flip off an innocent stranger? The writer is under the misconception that his gesturing is protected under the "First Amendment" (he really should study the Constitution before writing about it). I truly believe the blog writer is a nice person, but needs to learn that polite manners are for useeverywhere.Dear Flipped:Etiquetteer is fascinated by bird life, but not this kind! Perfectly Proper ladies and gentlemen know what this "splendid gesture" means, but it is not a part of their body language vocabulary. When Etiquetteer wags an Admonitory Digit, you may be sure it isn't the middle finger.But what you're really interested to learn is how you can guide this digitally profane blogger into the paths of Perfect Propriety, yes? Etiquetteer will observe that true cretins frequently try to use the law or the Holy Bible to justify bad behavior. They may indeed have the right to offend in any way they wish; they ALSO have the right to suffer the consequences. So if this blogger is mowed down in a fit of road rage by a raving-mad Hummer driver, so be it.The roadways of the world are tense enough as it is. Please encourage your friend to promote Highway Harmony, Road Safety, and Perfect Propriety by refraining from shooting the finger. He really ought to channel his anger more constructively in other ways, perhaps by joining the Sierra Club or something.

Dear Etiquetteer:When is it OK to call a colleague honey, sweetie, sweetheart or sweetpea? I thought I could use it if I am intimate with someone, no? I am so confused!Ooh, honey:You just might have come to the wrong person with this question. Etiquetteer will admit to being very free -- perhaps too free -- with terms of endearment in the workplace -- shucks, just about everyplace! Etiquetteer once nicknamed a particular boss "BooBoo" to the delight of all, including the boss in question.But let's face it -- that's not really Perfectly Proper. Oh no.In the Politically Correct New Millennium, it's unwise to use terms Lecherous Old Men used to use for Beautiful Young Women when referring to anyone, especially of the opposite gender. Some overly sensitive person could sue you and you'd end up in front of Judge Judy. And this is especially true in the workplace.That said, a nickname can cement a close working relationship with a colleague. Long story short, save the terms of endearment for close colleagues.

Dear Etiquetteer:It's almost the end of January, and I'm sorry to say that I still have a box of Christmas presents at home that I have to give to people. Most of them are for friends, but one or two are for family members. Obviously I don't want to save these for next Christmas, but I also don't want to make people feel like an afterthought. We just couldn't find time to get together in December. Is it bad to give them their Christmas presents now?Dear Gifting:Yes Virginia, there is a problem here. What you're telling Etiquetteer is that you're too busy at Christmas for Christmas. You could take a tip from a group of friends Etiquetteer knows and have your Christmas celebration after Christmasand New Year's festivities. This group usually gets together for a meal around Twelfth Night (also known as Epiphany, when the Three Kings finally showed up with their gifts) and exchange gifts then. No reason you couldn't host such a gathering with modest refreshments and good cheer, and you could hand people their gifts as they leave.But trust Etiquetteer, if you're still hanging on to those gifts by Valentine's Day, you need to evaluate why you're still buying these folks presents in the first place. They may need to graduate to your card list.Dear Etiquetteer:I think some people in my office talk way too much in group meetings. I don't know if it's because they like hearing themselves, or whether they actually believe they are the only ones amongst us who work hard; either way they are loud, annoying meeting hijackers. The thing is, what they usually say in meetings is often not new because most have been either communicated via e-mail, reported at other meetings, or you've overheard it through the thin office walls. To those of us who work just as hard as these loud domineering colleagues, but are respectful of other people's time and space, we have passed the Advil and Tylenol way too many times to count. Is there a school these people can be sent to to learn that with a little bit of consideration they can actually save us a lot of time by keeping their mouths shut! Any advice you can give will be most appreciated.Dear Fuming:Etiquetteer is very familiar with this type of gasbag, and they can be fun toneedle in large meetings. Start questioning their basic assumptions and seethem lose their control. Try it . . . it's fun!Seriously, though, the person to whom you should speak is the person running themeeting. Large group meetings need to be particularly focused so that everyone'stime is most efficiently used. If you're able to approach this person (andEtiquetteer thinks you should before you lose your cool), work with them tocreate a more specific and tightly focused agenda that will dramatically reducethe bloviation of your colleague.Etiquetteer, who these days has more trouble disguising his impatience intime-wasting meetings, has also taken to announcing a "time check." "I'm very sorry to interrupt you Ermentrude, but it's now 1:37 PM and we have 13 more agenda items before our meeting ends at 2:00 PM." This can be a risky strategy in an organization with a complicated hierarchy, but it's better than blowing up at someone . . . or going out for a drink with gossipy colleagues after work and spilling all your frustrations so they can tell everyone how much you hate Ermentrude the next day.

Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify@etiquetteer.com.

 

Christmas Fallout, Vol. 4, Issue 1

Dear Etiquetteer: Is it OK to use a gift card someone gave you for Christmas to get him or her a gift? Dear Clueless Christmas Shopper: Well duh, were you going to march right up to them with the gift and tell them that’s how you bought it?! Just as guests at a restaurant party have no business knowing how their host pays for the dinner, so too should recipients of any sort of present have no interest in how their gift was paid for. Honestly . . .

Dear Etiquetteer: I want some clarification of your holiday tipping advice. My hair stylist’s salon closed down a year ago, due to the rising cost of real estate in the city. He retreated to his apartment, which he vacated as a residence and is now fitted with a hairdresser’s chair. The prices stayed the same and I continued to tip him, which I realized later was probably not the best thing to have done; I’ve always heard you don’t tip the owner of a shop, and now he’s the owner. He is the only person who cuts, but he does employ an assistant. I’m loath to stop tipping him now, because he expects it and I do like his work. But I balk at the suggestion that I have to pony up with a 100% tip at the holidays, when I’ve been gratuitously gratuitying him all year round. The base cut is $50.00; would I be considered a grinch if I give him half or a little more than that? Do I have to tip him at all if he is the owner? Dear Coiffed: Oh good gracious, this blasted tipping thing just will not go away! Can you all see why Etiquetteer abhors tipping so much?! Oh dear, please forgive Etiquetteer’s fit of pique. Not the most Perfectly Proper way to begin the New Year, is it? Under these new circumstances – now that your hairdresser has become the owner and you’ve been tipping him at each appointment – Etiquetteer thinks you can forego a holiday tip. But the next time you find yourself looking for a new coiffeur, permit Etiquetteer to suggest that you do your research in advance so that you don’t start tipping an owner from the beginning.

Dear Etiquetteer: This Christmas I feel like I committed the ultimate faux pas. While we were exchanging gifts this year I realized that I’d given a gift that still had the price tag on it! Rather than let [Insert Name of Recipient Here] see the tag, I snatched the gift away to remove it, but of course I felt very awkward. I felt really embarrassed! Dear Tagged: Your letter brought Etiquetteer back to a wedding party many years ago when Etiquetteer was honored to serve as an usher for two dear friends. Etiquetteer had found a lovely and appropriate gift at [Insert Name of High-End Purveyor of De Luxe Wedding Gifts Here], where the well-dressed saleslady arranged for it to be beautifully wrapped. Imagine Etiquetteer’s terror when, seeing the bride lift the lid off the box, the receipt was the first item to come into view! Two phrases rang simultaneously in Etiquetteer’s head: Ellen Maury Slayden’s "This is a test of breeding; keep calm" and the more general advice from the real estate world "If you can’t hide it, paint it red." Hoping for a panther’s grace and daring, Etiquetteer swiftly approached the table and grabbed the errant receipt, chuckling, "Oh dear, they weren’t supposed to wrap this!" Etiquetteer can only thank God (the Deity of Etiquetteer’s Choice) that Etiquetteer was present when the gift was unwrapped. So you see that keeping your cool is half the battle. Etiquetteer applauds your presence of mind in this situation – often discovery is so startling one becomes a deer in the headlights – but hopes that you were able to inject some humor to gloss over the awkwardness.This is where the recipient of the gift has the chance to help you out by making conversation on unrelated topics while you scrape away at those annoying adhesive tags that shred on contact. Etiquetteer once had to do this for 20 minutes while a dear friend took pricetags off every piece of a china service for six. This was, of course, mitigated by the delightful circumstance of having friends who give one china services for six . . . Of course Etiquetteer knows that you’re going to use this experience to wrap your gifts more carefully next year and include "price tag removal" as a specific step in your gift-wrapping assembly line.

Find yourself at a manners crossroads and don't know where to go? Ask Etiquetteer at query@etiquetteer.com!