Time to mind your manners
By Ami Albernaz
No matter how tactful we consider ourselves to be, the holidays can be fraught with faux pas and bruised feelings. This year, economic woes are making festivities particularly perilous, as costly traditions are jettisoned and expectations recalibrated. We consulted a handful of etiquette experts about how to handle some common and potentially awkward seasonal situations.
You're spending the holiday with your significant other's parents, whom you've never met. You'd like to give them something, but aren't sure what, and your S.O. is no help. "Specialty food items are great," Senning says. "I live up in Vermont, so if I were visiting someone in New York, let's say, maple syrup or maple candy would be great."
Having a floral arrangement delivered on the day you arrive or just after you leave is also a nice idea, Senning says. "Or, you can bring a plant . . . orchids make great gifts. The blossoms last a long time with just a little water and little care."
Smith advocates getting a lay of the land in advance, particularly if you'll be spending a few days. "I'm going to call the significant other's parents and say, 'I'm so excited to go to your house next week.' I'll ask about the dress code, are we going to be going out to dinner, or to someone else's house, or are we staying home. I'll ask if there's anything I could bring - depending on where they live, does anyone go cross-country skiing or play tennis."
The idea of phoning your significant other's parents might be unnerving, but not knowing what to expect could be worse, Smith says.
Naturally, the experts recommend a handwritten thank-you note once the holiday visit is over.
"Of course, you've already said 'thank you' while you were there," Senning says, "but when you've been a houseguest, you should always send something written."
You've made all the preparations for a small, intimate holiday dinner. At the last minute, your mother-in-law asks to bring a friend. If you feel imposed upon, you have a right to, Senning acknowledges. "The person probably shouldn't have done that," she says.
However, she suggests being flexible, since your relative is "probably asking to bring someone because it's someone special."
Accommodate as best you can - though if there are 10 lobsters on the way, having an 11th guest simply might not work, she says. You could always suggest the extra person arrive after dinner, and stay for drinks and dessert.
Smith, meanwhile, recommends taking a step back.
"Never feel like you have to say yes or no on the spot," she says."If my sister, who's a divorcee, says she just met someone and wants to bring him, I might not particularly want someone she just met at my holiday table. I'll say, 'You know what, let me think about.' "
Upon reflection, having an extra guest might be advantageous, she says.
"You might see you had an odd number before, and having another guest would make it even.
Or, maybe Uncle Bob always gets drunk and out of hand, so it may be nice to have another man there."
You had too much to drink at the office holiday party and said some things you shouldn't have. Once the liquor has worn off and the regret has set in, how should you handle it? "Going to any office holiday party is still the office party. These are still the people you have to see at the 9 o'clock meeting on Monday morning," says Bowman, president and founder of the Smithfield, R.I.-based Protocol Consultants International. Her advice?
"Err on the side of conservative, and refrain from drinking," she says. "You can have a cocktail when you get home."
Hold up, you say: The question was you had too much to drink. (Hindsight is, of course, 20-20.)
"If [something you said] was really dreadful or outrageous, have a private word with the individual [you said it to]," Bowman says. "But less is more. If you don't make a big deal of it yourself and don't remind people how awful it was, people will forget."
And what if you, say, complained to a co-worker about your boss?
"I'd call the co-worker and say, 'what I said about x, y, and z is in total confidence,' rather than say, 'Oh my gosh, I had too much to drink, I shouldn't have said that.' You always want to be the person in the control seat."
When is it OK to bring the kids to holiday parties? "It's very important that you understand invitations," says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Salem-based Mannersmith etiquette consulting. "That's one of the dangers of this electronic age. When you use snail mail, all you have to do is look at the envelope. If it says 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith,' you know it's just you two invited. If it says 'The Smith family,' you know children are welcome."
Evites can make knowing who's expected trickier, Smith says, particularly if the host is more of a casual acquaintance. "I'd pick up the phone and say 'Hi, I just wanted to know what kind of party this is,' " she says.
In general, Smith advises, it's best to be cautious in adding children to the mix. "If there's a neighborhood block party and you can't find a sitter for your 6-year-old, you might call and say you can't find a sitter. The host might say, 'It's OK, my children are off at college, so Johnny can stay upstairs in their bedroom.' But if you call and say, 'I'd love to go, but can't find a sitter,' and they say, 'I'm really sorry,' you know kids aren't OK."
Though children are generally frowned upon at adults-only cocktail parties, a guest might be allowed to bring an infant who is still nursing and will sleep through most of the evening. Once a baby is "up and crawling," though, it's best to find a sitter, Smith says.
You'd like to bring your girlfriend to the office holiday party, but she gets snippy about your best buddy at work, who happens to be an attractive woman. It's completely platonic, but your GF is the jealous type. Setting the right tone for these events is key, says etiquette expert Judith Bowman.
"It's up to you to control the vibes. You could frame it in an upbeat and positive way by saying, 'I'm so excited for you to meet this person.' "
A boyfriend or girlfriend might be relieved at meeting your colleague and discovering he or she is not a threat.
"They might see they had nothing to worry about," she says. It also doesn't hurt to start a conversation about an interest the two share.
For years, you and your friends have gotten all dressed up at the holidays and gone out for a swanky dinner. This year, you can't swing it. "When it comes to suggesting venues, be the one who suggests one that's more moderately priced," says Rosanne Thomas, founder of the Boston-based Protocol Advisors, Inc. "You can say, 'Let's tone it down this year and do something a little more informal.' "
There's no need to belabor your financial situation, though if your suggestion doesn't elicit the response you hoped for, you might need to be more direct. Your friends will be understanding, Thomas says, and at least a few will probably be relieved.
Your extended family tends to spend a lot on gifts. This year, you and your spouse would prefer to scale back or even make a charitable donation, but you don't want to seem cheap. There's no need to apologize or even announce you're cutting back, says Cindy Post Senning, a director of the Emily Post Institute in Vermont. Just give what you can afford. "If you give your gift cheerfully, and in the spirit in which it was intended, you're good to go," she said.
The guiding considerations in gift-buying are your relationship to the receiver and your budget, Senning says. "If you try to match expense for expense, you can end up where you're operating on someone else's budget, and you don't want to go down that road."
If you're planning to make a charitable donation in the recipient's name in lieu of a gift, including a note in a card is perfectly acceptable, she adds. "You can write something along the lines of, 'I decided to do something different this year and am so excited about it, so I hope you're as excited as I am.' "
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.