Paying A-tense-ion

Miss Manners recently answered a question about how to respond to a valuable gift that isn’t to the recipient’s taste.  Her reply? Thank with abandon, wear with reservation. No, you don’t have to put on something you dislike every day, but to express disappointment or dissatisfaction to the giver is downright rude.

Fair enough.

But I think Miss Manners missed a key element in the language of the question. Take a look:

Dear Miss Manners: My husband bought my daughter a pair of diamond stud earrings that she had told him she didn’t like/want. She appreciates the thought and gesture but doesn’t care to wear them.

Would it be wrong to politely ask him to go with her to trade them for something that she would wear more?

Gentle Reader: Why miss another chance to show him that his outpouring of sentiment and generosity was a failure?

All presents are laden with symbolism, Miss Manners warns you, but jewelry is explosive with it, and never more so than when given by a gentleman to a lady or relative to one of the next generation.

The young lady who rejects Grandmother’s ring, telling her that it is too old-fashioned, should probably not have high expectations about the will. Ladies should never confuse gentlemen by accepting jewelry if not prepared to accept the gentleman who offers it—nor by criticizing a proffered ring when intending to take the gentleman himself.

This is not to say that those on the receiving end must wear jewelry they dislike, except on occasions when doing so would feel worth it to please the person who chose it. If a grateful fuss is made at first, it may not be crucial, as time goes by, if the jewelry is worn less. Or one may explain having stones reset to strengthen the prongs or modernize the setting.

Miss Manners’ choice for your daughter would be for her to throw her arms around her father, claim that she had been too overwhelmed to know how to react (which is certainly true), give him a huge kiss and put on the earrings.

She can then put them aside “for special occasions.” They will not lose their value, and later, if she does not come to value the sentiment enough to keep them, perhaps for the daughter she may some day have, she can privately trade them without embarrassing her father.

Miss Manners answered the question as if the young woman had opened the gift, snorted, reached for her iPhone, and tweeted “diamond earrings!? #donotwant”

But the LW actually writes that her daughter  “had told him she didn’t like/want” them. Which suggests to me she had been asked about or shown the earrings ahead of time, expressed a preference, and then her father bought and bestowed them anyway.

This sounds more to me like calculated manipulation than imprecise generosity.

Miss Manners reminds us that “all presents are laden with symbolism,” and that accepting a gift–especially an expensive one–has implications for the relationship between giver and recipient. Well, it goes the other way, too. Giving an expensive, symbolic gift– in full knowledge of the intended recipient’s discomfort with it–is about power, not pleasure.

We don’t need to debate the etiquette of prospective recipients instructing their family and friends in their tastes and preferences every time a holiday rolls around. I’m not suggesting that all givers need to get the recipient’s approval before selecting a gift. But if he did have that information and chose to act against it, something about the spirit of this gift is way off the mark.


2 responses to “Paying A-tense-ion

  1. Agree. Either its manipulative or extremely thoughtless of the father to get her a gift she had said she did not want. I don’t think it matters at all if the gift is nice or valuable if the recipient wasn’t kept in mind when buying it. If I were giving someone an expensive gift I would want to make sure it was something they would like… but also how ugly can these diamond stud earrings be?

  2. Ha, true. I can’t imagine them being that offensive to the eye. But there are so many *other* reasons: could be she doesn’t wear earrings at all, has political/ethical reservations about diamonds, or even feels that in her family (or in this relationship) there’s no such thing as a gift without strings attached, and doesn’t want to be indebted to the tune of diamond earrings. Lots of reasons this might make her uncomfortable, and therefore why, if she said explicitly ahead of time, “I don’t want diamond earrings,” giving her diamond earrings was not a cool thing to do.

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