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Christmas in September 

Gift-giving protocol

Wednesday, Sep 20 2000
Comments
Dear Social Grace,
I respectfully disagree with you about the existence of a "standing rule" ("Standing Order," Sept. 6). While some men may stand when women come to their table or enter a room, it is an unfortunate ritual left over from days when women were thought to be more delicate, precious, and/or worthy of more-special treatment than men. Men are every bit as beautiful and special as women, and since I've never seen women getting up, opening doors, etc. for men, it seems silly for men to do such things for women, as it fosters a culture of inequality. There was a time when people of color were expected to defer to those more pale; may such deference of men to women (and women to men) someday disappear as well.

Yours Truly,
Mark Skowronek

Dear Mr. Skowronek,
First, allow me to correct a misconception: Despite all-too-common practice, true good manners never called for varying our treatment of others based on the color of their skin. Worthy American etiquette writers have insisted on this point (often in vain) for a very long time. Indeed, just as crimes have been committed in the name of "freedom," crimes have been committed in the name of "etiquette." That does not make the true definitions of these words less noble. Racism is uncivilized -- at the very least -- and for that reason alone is and always has been anathema to the truly polite person.

Fundamentally, we are in complete agreement: Human beings are of equal worth, regardless of gender. You feel that remaining seated when a woman joins your table is part of the fight for gender equality. Well, all right, then. Many Bay Area folks won't even notice your remaining seated. Frankly, they have more important things on their minds. In an informal poll, four Bay Area women between the ages of 25 and 40 (admittedly my friends but with largely liberal-feminist attitudes nonetheless) agree that the "standing rule" is "nice but completely unexpected" and "unnecessary but kind of charming."

We as a society are still working out some of this man-woman stuff. Thank goodness, we've mostly weeded out the blatantly misogynistic practices, but we're left with some traditional rules, such as standing for women, that are current in many situations; perhaps these are more obvious outside the rarefied casualness in which we San Franciscans loll. You might one day dine with people for whom standing is expected behavior. They might not recognize your remaining seated as a feminist statement; indeed, they might think you something of a clod. For that reason, I published what I knew about this extant rule. Do with the knowledge what you will.

I'll allow that men are every bit as beautiful and special as women, and therefore I encourage you to stand for the special men in your life, too. As I explained the last time this came up, it is not incorrect to stand for any friend or acquaintance who approaches your dinner table. I'd rather, if we are to stop making any gender distinctions whatsoever, that we move toward treating all with elegant respect rather than with lazy disregard. If you haven't noticed women opening doors for men, you haven't been paying attention.

Dear Social Grace,
As the holiday season approaches, my husband and I are caught in the cleft of a dilemma. As Christmas is the season of giving, we have decided that we would rather donate money to charity than spend money on frivolous gifts for family and friends. Our problem, however, is one of presentation, as most of said family and friends engage in the traditional exchange of gifts. For the last two years, we have given cards in lieu of gifts, and in the cards, we explained that we had given money to charity instead of buying gifts. We felt like heels presenting these cards to people who had bought us nice gifts.

We would like to do the same this year in a way that is more comfortable for both the recipients and us. Any suggestions you may have to this end would be most appreciated.

Sincerely,
Holiday Misgivings

Dear Misgiving Madam,
The holiday season is already upon us? And here am I, still drinking piña coladas and wearing my summer parka -- making everyone uncomfortable by insisting that gentlemen stand when ladies stop by -- without the merest daydream given over to my holiday shopping list. Shame on me.

Your charitable impulses are commendable; however, notification of your charity does not a "gift" make, and you may not present it as such. You have decided not to give gifts, and that is quite all right. There is nothing wrong with forgoing presents at the holidays, but you mustn't expect thanks from your loved ones for gifts they have not received. Making a big show of one's philanthropic activities is, well, tacky -- and your "gift" might make Aunt Lillian feel that her present to you of a fruitcake wheel is, well, frivolous. To avoid that heely feeling, you might gently make your preference for not exchanging gifts with your friends and family known to them -- though I expect that a couple more years of your recent holiday behavior will effectively dam the stream of presents making its way to your door, anyway.

Dear Social Grace,
I know it is not right to put on an invitation "No Gifts" or anything like that. But that doesn't stop people from doing it, and I often receive invitations to a birthday party or similar event, and I will read the dreaded words: "No Gifts, Please."

I usually do get a little something even so. Recently, though, a good friend of mine had a birthday party. He insisted that no one buy him gifts. He wrote it on the invitation, and he said it to me at least twice. "All right," I said to myself, "I will not buy a gift." When I got to the party, everyone but me had brought gifts, which my friend accepted with exclamations of joy, and I felt like a jackass. What have you to say?

Sincerely,
Ron "Gift Means "Poison' in German" Lawlor

Dear Mr. Lawlor,
You're right: Any mention of gifts on an invitation (especially a wedding invitation) should be avoided if possible -- though requesting no gifts is not as completely unacceptable as asking for, say, cash gifts. Writing "No Gifts, Please" just sounds awfully negative (always unpleasant on an invitation) and seems to presuppose that gifts would otherwise be forthcoming.

Though "No Gifts, Please" doesn't exactly earn your friend a Social Grace Citation, he should perhaps have passed that information along personally -- when guests replied to his invitation, say -- or through friends or family. Or he might have tried for more elegant phrasing: "Your love and friendship are the only gifts I desire," or something.

When one receives an invitation that asks one not to bring a gift, one should comply. I see no reason to beat yourself up for doing as you are told. Your friend may have erred slightly when he formally asked that no gifts be given, but he acted the perfect gentleman when those unwanted gifts arrived: He was noticeably delighted. That is how one should greet presents, unwanted or unnecessary though they may be.

You and I know he was just pretending, and was relieved that at least one of his friends had done as he'd asked.

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Social Grace

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