Category Archives: gifts

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.

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Thank you, thank you very much….

I was cruising around The Stranger tonight to see if the new Savage Love column was posted yet (it’s supposed be published on Thursdays, but sometimes shows up on Wednesday and even, occasionally, Tuesday).

It’s not there yet, but while wandering, I happened upon “I, Anonymous.”  This is not an advice column at all, but instead a place where people can rant (you guessed it) anonymously about….whatever they want.  Of course, since people most often rant about their co-workers, family members, and their own and other people’s weddings, they frequently cross over into advice column territory–especially when the commenters get involved.

For an entertaining survey of How People Feel About Thank You Notes, see the July 20th edition.  The rant is below.  The comments I’ll leave for you to discover on your own.

I suck at writing thank-you notes. Yes, I am a shitty self-involved human being for being a non-thank-you-note-writing person. You all talk about me behind my back for it, you all complain to my husband about it. Funny, none of you helped me pay for my wedding, and every single one of you had an opinion about where it should be held and what time of day it should occur. I don’t want your gifts if I am going to be cast in a horrible light for not killing trees and wasting time on something that is going to be thrown away when you get it. And why do you not think my husband is the bad person for not writing the notes? Why is it always the woman’s fault?

I’m not even going to pretend that I don’t LOVE the number of commenters who blasted this person.  The only point I’ll grant her is that this is a task that should be shared between partners, and too often the responsibility (and blame) falls disproportionately to women.

Other than that, I could rant right back at her for paragraphs and paragraphs.  (Really?  You’re mad at everyone who gave you a wedding gift for not helping you pay for the wedding?) But I won’t (well, maybe just a little), because the commenters have done it for me–from the point that gifts create way more waste than notes (they do!  I had to fight with SK to save all that paper! And it was so worth it.  We’ll never have to buy tissue again for the rest of our natural lives) to the point that she’s….just rude.

It’s a big job, and of course it’s possible that someone may get missed, mixed up, or forgotten (I’m terrified now that someone’s going to read this post and call me out on not sending them a wedding thank you!) But to not even care, or try?  It’s just mean, in the OED definition 5a sense: “lacking moral dignity, ignoble; small-minded”

The last thing I’ll add is that not everyone throws away the notes.  Or even if they do, they keep the memory of the gesture.  Thank you notes are probably most important for the people you’re not so close to–folks who don’t make it to the wedding at all, or to whom you barely talked because they’re your great aunt and you were distracted. It takes a very small amount of effort and about 50 cents to let these people know that you know who they are and you’re grateful they put themselves out for your sake.  It’s not just a social obligation.  It’s a genuine kindness.

On the flip side: I guess I tend to feel sort of how this woman does about things like birthday cards and balloons.  They’re like $5 apiece, half the time you don’t even write a personal message, the recipient is getting 50 of them at once, half probably duplicates.  I’d rather greet the person, um, in person, and spend the money on a beer or ice cream to toast them.  In fact, I’ve been blessed with a number of friends who are masters of creative, thoughtful, joyour birthday celebration, and they’ve been curse with….me.  So it’s fair to say that I am negligent in some areas of social correspondence.

But on thank you notes, I will not bend.

Still sulking two months later…

…or at least Abby’s editors give us that impression, by waiting until April 14 to print this:

DEAR ABBY: For Valentine’s Day I bought a dozen red roses and had them delivered to my girlfriend’s workplace. On her way home that evening, she made a stop at the grocery store and encountered a distraught young man near tears because he couldn’t afford to buy flowers for his girlfriend. She offered him money but he refused, so she gave him the roses I bought for her. (Abby, they had cost me more than $82!)The whole episode still has me upset. I know the roses were a gift and she had every right to do with them as she wished. But I think what she did was thoughtless and insensitive and didn’t take my feelings into consideration. She says I am narrow-minded because I don’t see it from her perspective. What do you think? — GRINCHED IN IOWA

DEAR GRINCHED: I can see how, having spent as much as you did for the roses, you could be upset. I can also see how your kindhearted girlfriend might have had pity on the guy and acted on impulse. While the roses were hers, she could have accomplished the same thing by giving him one or two of the roses to give to his girlfriend. However, if you care about this relationship, you’ll stop brooding and drop the matter.

Yikes!  I know flowers are expensive, and I know prices are hugely inflated around Valentine’s Day, especially for your classic DRR.  But I did not know that a dozen roses ever cost more than $82.

My first guess is that, like me, the girlfriend has (or had–I’m sure by now she’s been made well aware) no clue how much the flowers cost.  It’s tricky, because she encountered this guy at the grocery store–she offers him money for, say, a $30 bouquet, and he refuses–so she gives him her fancy schmancy one.  Kind of like offering your diamond ring to a guy who can’t afford CZ.  A person who understood the difference–if only in market value–between the two would probably never do it.  Sounds like, when it came to roses, the girlfriend didn’t.

If she’d known, she might have thought twice about giving away her boyfriend’s pricey gift.  And if she’d known in advance that he was going to spend so much on flowers for her, she might have suggested a nice dinner out instead.  I know I would have.

I have a sneaking  suspicion that, given his resentment over this, no delighted reaction from her could possibly satisfy him.  What if she’d forgotten them at work, or simply didn’t feel like hauling them home?  What if she’d given one rose to every lonely co-worker without a Valentine’s Day date, keeping only one for herself?  What if she’d dropped the bouquet, not in the hands of a stranger, but at a hospital or nursing home?  What if she’d simply dropped it, in a puddle or in front of a bus?  Or what if she’d brought them home, buds and vase intact, and simply shown lukewarm appreciation?  Would any of these outcomes bring him any more satisfaction?

I sort of doubt it.  Because he simply spent more than he should have–more than the entire situation was worth.  For some men, $82 may be a small price to pay for 12 roses and a free pass on the weeks of punishment I’ve heard some women can inflict on their partners for failing to provide Valentine’s Day roses.  Our letter writer has learned that for his $82, all he got was….12 roses.  All that extra Valentine’s day baggage that justifies the huge price tag?  His girlfriend doesn’t seem to have it.  That’s a good thing.

So if it makes him happy to give her flowers, he should do it–but he should choose what to spend with the knowledge that at least one of the following is true:

  • She’ll get the most happiness from his gift by sharing it with others
  • She doesn’t distinguish between grocery store flowers and florist flowers
  • All he’s guaranteed is that flowers will show up wherever he pays for them to be delivered.  No guarantee on her reaction, what she does with the flowers, or how this reflects on him, in her eyes.

And as a final note…if you find that your girlfriend doesn’t swoon for red roses (and some do, I hear), put some effort into finding out what she does swoon for (lilies?  Coach gloves?  beer?).  Red roses can say “I love you.”  They can also say, “I haven’t bothered to figure out what you actually like.”

Ho, Ho, Ho, Merrrry…..wait, we missed it!

After a couple of weeks of lots of holiday horror stories and “shocking” breaches of Christmas etiquette, I was a bit surprised to see that on Christmas Eve, most of the columnists didn’t even touch Christmas. (Maybe they figured any train wrecks are now far beyond stopping….).

  • Abby revisited the issue of reading or not reading collections of private letters between deceased relatives (I responded to this one after the original October column)
  • Kathy and Marcy of Annie’s Mailbox counseled a high school student who’s being buillied about her Jolie-like “duck lips”
  • Dan Savage, whom I read weekly, but rarely write about here (partly because most of his answers are a bit out of my range of expertise, and partly because when I started this blog I checked the “no adult content” box, and generally try to avoid profanity, etc.) gives a slight nod to “last minute Christmas gifts,” but mostly covers the standard Savage Love grab bag of spanking, smelliness, and electro-stimulation.
  • Miss Manners hits on foreclosure and telecommunications
  • And Carolyn wrote about HPV, of all things!

Golly gee whillikers, where can a girl get a little holiday spirit, or at least a little festive forehead slapping?

  • Amy hits the spot, featuring a woman (I’m guessing) who is obsessed with the fact that her relative cannot send Christmas gifts on time. The gifts always arrive eventually, but she’d apparently do away with gifts altogether rather than have them show up late. How old is she, 9? Unless there are kids thinking Santa’s been run over (by a reindeer?) because the presents aren’t there, what’s the big friggin’ deal? Amy conveys basically the same sentiment, though not in so many words.
  • Prudence devotes all four of her weekly featured letters (plus the video!) to Christmas conundrums (conundra? help me, Latin speakers!). Get ready for simmering sibling entitlement, multicultural mishaps, mysterious gifts from married men, and my two favorites: absurdly political Christmas cards and prank gift wrapping that would give Wile E. Coyote a run for his money.
  • Carolyn’s last pre-holiday live chat also had a few doozies: gourmet cooks griping about lame holiday food, obnoxious custody arrangements, and this, my favorite one (scroll all the way down to the bottom):

Washington, DC: Carolyn

Any tips for surviving driving my sister from one parent’s house to the other this weekend? It’s a three hour trip and she commandeers my radio, criticizes my driving, and generally drives me nuts every time we’re in the car. Plus, she’ll be ready late and want to stop at every Starbucks we pass, which will make her have to pee. I’m anticipating the three hour drive will take roughly 4.5 with her in the car. How do I do it so we arrive at parent no. 2’s house with me still in the holiday spirit?

Carolyn says: Read this, see how funny this is, and treat yourself to a foofy hot somethingorother on one if not all of the stops.

Gentle readers (to snag a phrase from Miss Manners), thanks for sticking around for year two of A Little Help Please?! Happy holidays, and see you in the new year! (unless things are boring at home, in which case I’ll see you, like, tomorrow).

Pick a card, any card…

This complaint to Amy Dickinson is amusingly timely, since it was published over the weekend, as I was having this exact experience myself:

Dear Amy: I found out that my husband’s side of the family is yet again having a “gift exchange” in which we give a gift to the person whose name we’ve picked out of a hat.

There is one rule — no gift cards. I am not fond of this idea, but in past years I’ve exchanged a gift despite my objections, and kept quiet.

All relatives are adults, and I can’t see the purpose of giving a gift to a person whom I do not really even know and see only once a year.

I would much rather pool our money or donate it to someone in need. I’ve made this suggestion, but no one wants to mess with their tradition. I understand that the grandparents get joy out of seeing all of us open our gifts and then pass them around, but we are adults. Isn’t this a bit childish, or am I just being selfish? How can I get out of this silly tradition?— Bothered


Dear Bothered:Not only do I approve of your in-law family’s gift exchange tradition (especially the “no gift cards” rule), I am tempted to try to marry into the family myself in order to participate in it.

Drawing names is a great way to cut down on the number of gifts exchanged; it also gives you an opportunity to get to know the person whose name you’ve drawn.

When you draw “Aunt Myrtle’s” name before Christmas, you have an incentive to do a little research with other family members to try to figure out what she would like to receive. When Aunt Myrtle opens her gift in front of others and expresses her delight at your thoughtfulness, this forms a connection between the two of you that will last beyond Christmas Day.


Bothered’s wish to donate the money to an organization or people in need is certainly in the right place. It’s a worthwhile thought at a Christmas (and any time of course) where every person is buying for every person, the floor is covered wrapping paper, the bellies bloated with pie, and the excess of it all starts to get a little nauseating. But I agree with Amy that drawing names so that each person buys only for one other person is a great way to drastically decrease the madness, while keeping the “silly tradition” (that goes WAY beyond Bothered’s husband’s family) of placing gifts under the tree and opening them together. Indeed, often the idea of such a name draw is to ease the financial strain on each family member–leaving enough in their pockets to make a charitable contribution that season, if they choose to.

Bothered seems to be missing the point that, typically, a name draw gift exchange isn’t an add-on to a gifts-free Christmas, but a welcome relief from every person bringing a present for every other person. Would she find buying gifts for 17 people she doesn’t know well and sees only once a year preferable to buying for one?
If even a single gift seems wasteful to Bothered, certainly she could mention to the person who has her name, “I think the efforts of the ASPCA are so important and underfunded, and I would be honored if you’d make a contribution to their organization as a gift to me.” She could even find out what causes are important to her assigned recipient, and make a contribution to that group (though in this case it’s important to honor the recipient’s cause, not the giver’s pet project).
I spent this weekend in Ohio with SK’s family, where they have virtually the same tradition. They, too, have only one rule, but it’s a different one: there’s a $35 limit on each gift. Unlike in Bothered’s family, in SK’s, gift cards are allowed–though I wish they weren’t. Basically, everyone winds up trading $35 gift cards (another explicit rule of the game is that you don’t have to spend $35–or anything–on your gift, but when all you’re giving is a piece of plastic that required no thought or effort, it seems cheap to go under the limit, and no one does. SK’s brother received a $25 gift card and a $10 bill.)
I’m not excusing myself in this case–I wound up with the name of SK’s uncle, to whom I’ve barely spoken before. At his wife’s suggestion, I got him a Home Depot gift card. Were gift cards “outlawed,” I really have no idea what I would have gotten him instead–but it would have been neat to learn more about him: what teams does he cheer for? what does he do in his spare time? What projects is he working on around the house? Having spent just a day with him and his family, I have several ideas of things that might have made funny or useful gifts–what might I have come with if I’d actually tried, instead of taking the easy way out?
Then again, of course, the reason many givers turn to gift cards in the first place is that recipients are hard-to-please, and letting them shop for themselves turns out to be the best gift. How sad, though!
There were enough creative, thoughtful, and reasonable gifts in our mix (most of them rule-breaking, going above and beyond the name draw) to make opening gifts a lovely and festive occasion: homemade soaps, adorable sweaters craftily plucked from the thrift store, a book of wedding photos, a pine cone Christmas ornament put out by the national wildlife foundation–for every ornament purchased, a tree is planted, etc. I rather wish they’d ALL been that way. Shopping can be overwhelming and exhausting–not to mention a huge financial burden!–but when you’re only buying for one, I think it’s worth taking the time and making the effort to get to know something about that person, and trying to come up with a gift that will show you, um, care.
And to get back to Bothered’s question….no doubt, Christmases can get way out of hand–but her husband’s family sounds like they’re doing a decent job of keeping things reined in, and focusing on being thoughtful and family-minded at the holiday. (Bothered doesn’t mention what her own family’s tradition is re: gifts).
Claiming silliness and overkill when the tradition is to give and receive a single gift once a year seems excessively self-righteous and Scrooge-like to me.

O traytours homycide, o wikkednesse!

Props to Prudence for a Chaucer reference:

Dear Prudence,
My wife and I have been married for four years, and we have a 2-year-old son. She’s going to school full time, our son’s in day care, and I work in a rapidly declining industry for mediocre pay. Times are hard financially. My wife was born in another country and abandoned by both of her parents as a child. She met her father only once, when he arrived unexpectedly at our wedding. Over the past year, she has begun talking to him on the phone and trying to build a relationship. He has recently offered her a substantial amount of money as a gift, an amount that’s close to my annual salary. We are living in the United States, and he is in my wife’s homeland, an impoverished nation that has suffered through several brutal wars over the past 40 years. The issue is complicated by the fact that my father-in-law fought for the faction that killed millions of civilians. He apparently rose through the ranks and is now relatively wealthy and owns a vast swath of land. Can accepting this money be rationalized in any way?
—Empty Wallet

Dear Empty,There’s a reason the phrase “blood money” chills the blood. You know your father-in-law is able to give you such a generous gift because he’s become a wealthy man through murder and confiscation. You and your wife may be lovely and will use the money only for the most benign purposes, but Lady Macbeth can tell you evil stains don’t wash out so easily. I talked to Charles Tucker, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University, and he mentioned a couple of possible legal complications to taking the money. First, look up the Alien Tort Claims Act. This allows people who are the victims of human rights abuses to bring suit in the United States, even if the crimes were committed elsewhere. It is a legal growth industry, and if your father-in-law is caught up in such a prosecution, his victims could lay claim to his money—which could lead back to you. Also, if your father-in-law’s country is listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism, you could be subject to restrictions on accepting money from that country.
But let’s face the ugly fact that a good way to get away with murder is to commit it on a mass scale and assume your father-in-law remains rich and free. That still doesn’t remove the moral taint that you already acknowledge. Additionally, perhaps this generosity comes with some future strings. Maybe he contemplates a time when it would be useful to leave his country, so he’d like some relatives in America who feel an obligation to help him. Or maybe he wants to draw you in with a gift, then propose you start doing some financial laundry for him. Finally, Chaucer’s story “
The Pardoner’s Tale” is an instructive take on ill-gotten cash.—Prudie

Isn’t it Ironic?

A week or two ago, we met a woman who was enraged at receiving 18 bottles of booze, a clock and a set of towels” for a housewarming party where she had told her guests gifts were not expected. (She was enraged not because gifts really weren’t expected, but because she was hoping her guests would spontaneously refurnish her home, and felt she got a low ROI on the $$ she spent on the party. Yes, really.)

Last Friday in Carolyn’s live chat, the same question surfaced:

Housewarming parties?: I bought my first house in December. At the time, my coworkers were bugging me for a housewarming party, but I didn’t have one then because the house was NOT in order. Now, it’s mostly organized and clean, and it’s barbecue weather. I’m thinking of having a belated housewarming party in August.

Now, housewarming parties are completely new territory for me, so what’s the deal with these things? Is eight months later too late for one? What kind of food/drinks do I serve (I’m still low on funds from buying the house)? I do NOT need gifts–still got a garage full of stuff to sort through from the move–but a couple of coworkers mentioned registering somewhere (I thought that was just for babies and marriages?). Should I, just in case? Augh! Help me, I’m clueless!

Carolyn Hax: Have a party, and don’t call it a housewarming. Ta da.

Housewarming parties: LOL, ok, fair enough. 🙂 But I really am curious about the etiquette for these things, since I expect a lot of my friends (20-somethings) will be having them in the next few years. I’d probably bring a bottle of booze as a present. Good?

Am I right that registering for a housewarming party is tacky? Just curious about that one. I promise not to be rude if anyone I know develops a housewarming registry.

Carolyn Hax: Good, if it’s a booze you know they like.

Registries are a convenient evil that solve the very narrow problem of helping guests from afar buy appropriate gifts to acknowledge major milestone events to which they’re invited. Extending the definition beyond this narrow one is among many culprits in the commercialization of feelings, and presumably you’re not inviting your Aunt Whosie to come from the opposite coast to celebrate your housewarming, so I would say yes, ixnay on the housewarming registry, thanks.

The echoed phrase “bottle of booze” almost makes me think these two are connected–like the chatter read the column or something. Especially because I’m used to the idea of bringing a bottle of wine, but I don’t know that I’d call that “booze.” I’m less used to people showing up with a fifth of bourbon (or something), but maybe that’s what’s done for homes (as opposed to dinner parties?).

Advice columnists in general tend to be very skeptical of the registry. Like Carolyn, they often suggest it’s only barely tolerable if you’re having a large event where many people who don’t know you well are expected to present you with gifts. And in general, they follow that up with something about how forcing strangers to give you gifts is in bad taste anyway. However, I think it’s fair (and not an excuse) to note that they’re also useful for allowing guests to coordinate…eliminating lots of duplicates for events where a similar “type” of gift is common, and also allowing guests to purchase a small part of a larger set (silverware, dishes), or even get a sense of your style and preferences in order to choose something on their own.

That being said, I think the registry HAS gotten way out of control, especially for baby stuff and just plain old parties–little kids’ birthdays, etc.–where neither the stranger factor nor the matched set factor apply.

Maybe I’m just not familiar with housewarmings, but it seems strange to me to expect all your friends to give you stuff for your new house. Foolishly spoke the recently showered bride. Old traditions die hard, I guess. So I will rationalize: it seems to me in very poor taste to expect people to do this for you more than once in your lifetime (e.g. a wedding and five years later a housewarming…or a wedding and five years later another wedding).

But on the other hand, if you choose not to marry (or are prevented from marrying by law), shouldn’t you also get YOUR big celebration (ala Sex and the City and the shoe registry)? I think so. And in that situation, the milestone of a new homestead (which, to be fair, was probably equated with a wedding in days of yore) seems as good an opportunity as any to celebrate. But it still goes both ways: a big lavish housewarming where the gifts equate to wedding gifts shouldn’t be followed by a traditional wedding registry down the road, if that time comes.