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Diamonds Are a Mom's Best Friend 

Is it ever cool to give back a gift, if the giver really really wants it?

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
Dear Social Grace,

I wanted to get your opinion on whether a gift would be appropriate for my mother. Several years ago (during a more prosperous time), my mom bought me diamond earrings for my college graduation. This was a big deal because she had always wanted similar earrings but hadn't gotten them. She was confident, though, that her husband would eventually buy her a pair, because he liked to buy her jewelry. But years have gone by, and he never gave her a pair. So this month she had a big birthday, and when her husband asked her what she'd like, she asked for diamond earrings. Long story short, he got her something else. She was so disappointed that I was thinking maybe for Christmas I'd like to give her my diamond earrings.

So my question is twofold: 1) Would it be OK to give them to her in the sense that it's really giving her back something that she gave me? 2) Would it be OK to give them to her in the sense that it's the sort of gift that is generally reserved for a spouse? Thanks! And Happy Holidays!


Dear Jennifer,

Though it's a nice idea with a certain Gift of the Magi appeal, the answer to your first question is probably no. I think even Carol Channing would be distressed to learn that her lust for diamonds had seemed so all-consuming as to require that a daughter give up a graduation gift. (I don't like to think about a mother who loves diamonds more than she loves her daughter, and I'm sure your mother isn't that woman.) There's also a danger of hurt feelings here: Returning a gift to the giver, even when the intentions are good, can seem like a powerful rejection.

In answer to your second question (and I hope I'm not raising Mother Grace's holiday expectations too high here), there's nothing to stop you from giving your mom a little sparkle in a velvet box -- if not now, then when prosperous times return. We may certainly buy our mothers precious gems if we can afford to do so; some might say that we owe them no less. Or perhaps you could discuss with your mom's husband the idea of sharing the cost of such a gift.

Dear Social Grace,

I had the misfortune of seeing a horrible play last week. My boyfriend, though, would not allow us to leave, saying that it would be rude to the actors. Is it really rude to leave a play that you are not enjoying? This is a sore subject for us that has come up more than once.

Via the Internet

Dear Theatergoing Madam or Sir,

If you leave without disturbing other people in the audience, and if you don't actually know the performers and artists involved, it is not impolite to exit a play during the performance. It's customary to wait quietly until intermission -- unless the performance is mightily offensive or so bad as to cause you physical pain. (People who attend the theater regularly know that such a reaction is not unheard of.)

Dear Social Grace,

I recently sent an e-mail to a family member. The subject read "Dear Johnny," but I received a response from Johnny's wife. My question is about e-mail etiquette: Is it acceptable to respond to an e-mail not written to you, just because you happened to check the family e-mail account first? Should I bring this up with dear Cousin Johnny and his wife, or let it go? The information I shared in the e-mail was private and not really for his wife to see.

World Wide Rudeness

Dear World Wide Madam or Sir,

Married couples often have agreements about opening mail; it's not rude to open a spouse's mail if both parties have agreed that doing so is OK. Indeed, many couples interpret "private" to mean "I'll tell no one but my spouse" -- so the next time you have information for Cousin Johnny's eyes or ears only, you should make that requirement explicit before you share it. And we should all keep in mind that putting a secret in writing is risky business. Letters have a way of ending up in unintended places.

You would be within the bounds of etiquette, though, to impress upon Cousin Johnny how important it is that the information in your e-mail stop with him. You might say, "I hope I didn't embarrass Mrs. Johnny with that private, family business. I should have talked to you before sending that e-mail. I know I don't need to tell you that what I wrote can go no further."

Dear Social Grace,

As I enter Starbucks in the morning, often a man who approaches the door right in front of me will open the door for me and let me enter first because I am a woman. This lets me approach the line ahead of him, even though he was actually the first to arrive on the scene. So he ends up suffering for his act of chivalry. Is it more polite for me to wait after he opens the door so that he can go ahead of me, or is going first in line another perk of the ladies-first policy here? I've tried to say, "After you," but that usually turns into both of us saying it back and forth, and it's all very difficult before a person has her morning latte.

Morning Madam

Dear Morning Madam,

Let's pause and remember that we're talking about a matter of seconds: A person's wait in the latte line is affected only minimally by one person in front of him. That's not to say that "After you" isn't a nice response to a polite gesture (and a behavior that I'd like to encourage not only at the cafe but also at the bank, the DMV, and everywhere else people queue up). But if it's rejected once, you merely need to say "Thank you" before proceeding to order your coffee drink.

About The Author

Social Grace


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