The holidays can be a landmine of awkward social situations. How do you stay poised amid a flurry of parties, gift-giving and indelicate relatives?
Milwaukee-area etiquette expert and author Margery Sinclair has the answers. She is a strong believer in practical etiquette – a code of gentle living that is meant to improve your life and even make it easier.
"Always, there are reasons for the rules," she said. Flawlessly dressed, elegantly coiffed and perched on a couch in her pristinely appointed condominium, she shared her advice for gracious living while sipping Sri Lankan tea infused with ginger root.
"If the reason makes sense, then you will probably remember the rule, and follow it," she said. "If the reason no longer makes sense, then I think it’s time for the rule to change."
Nonetheless, Sinclair says that during the holiday season, there are plenty of "do's" and "don'ts" that need to be remembered – for your sake, for the sake of your party guests and co-workers and for the sake of society in general. Most of the rules have to do with what she says are the two trickiest and most asked-about areas of holiday etiquette: gifts and alcohol.
"With alcohol, in case of doubt, don’t," she laughed. "With gifts, in case of doubt, be ready."
Here are some other tried-and-true responses to sticky situations that you are bound to encounter during the season.
Is re-gifting ever acceptable?
Yes, says Sinclair – but for the love of Amy Vanderbilt, keep good records.
"When the gift is wrong for you but it’s exactly right for someone else and there’s no problem with the quality, re-gifting is perfectly fine," said Sinclair. But when you know you have just received a gift that will soon be recycled, she recommends sticking a Post-It note on the item to indicate the giver’s name, the occasion and the year – so that you always know who not to give it to.
"You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings," said Sinclair. "Just keep your records. It’s being tactful. Tact is the pleasant side of truth."
The new boyfriend, the visiting cousin, the fellow PTA moms – do you buy them gifts and risk embarrassing them, or hold off and risk embarrassing yourself if they have a present for you?
"You want to be ready for these things but not pushing too far," Sinclair said. "There’s no one answer for that because it depends on the person and the relationship, as well as the stage of the relationship."
Sinclair’s solution: a gift cupboard.
"Throughout the year, when you find something you’re not shopping for specifically but it’s a really good gift and it’s a terrific price, you might buy it, put it in your gift cupboard, and then when it’s somebody’s anniversary or graduation, you can match it up with the right person," she said. The gift cupboard is also perfect for stashing items that you intend to re-gift, and it’s a great place to keep a cache of what Sinclair calls "neutral gifts" that are guaranteed to come in handy.
When you are the recipient of a gift and have nothing in return, "if you’d thought to buy a case of wine or some pre-wrapped bath sets, you’d be set," Sinclair says in the list of Holiday recommendations that she will hand out at the Stop, Shop & Restore event. "If you didn’t, graciously accept the gift, open it and say thank you. Don’t act embarrassed, but do drop off a small gift for (the gift-giver) within a day or two."
Alcohol: When and how much
Alcoholic beverages are a great social lubricant, but also a great way to make everyone lose respect for you.
If you’re the host of a party and one of your guests has overindulged, it’s your responsibility to deal with the (drunk) elephant in the room.
"You start making suggestions – ‘I’ll get your next drink for you.’ And it’s not alcohol," Sinclair advised.
And if your guest is insistent that the drink be a Bloody Mary, oblige – or at least pretend to, and "forget" to put the alcohol in. It’s likely that the other person, especially in their compromised state, will never be able to tell the difference between a Bloody Mary and a Virgin Mary.
However, Sinclair emphasizes that no tactful guest should ever put their host in this position in the first place.
"If this is business-related at all: one or none is a good way to go. Monday morning is coming," she said. "If it’s strictly a social gathering, I would suggest cutting your alcohol intake in half. If you usually have six, have three. If you usually have three, have one."
To avoid drawing attention to your temperance, keep refreshing your drink with ice. No one will be able to tell the difference but you.
That perfect guest list
Everyone runs with different crowds at different times, and the groups don’t always gel well together. And they shouldn’t be forced to, says Sinclair.
"Have two parties on consecutive nights, or very close together," she said. "You clean once, you buy flowers once, you do the cooking once, you choose what to wear once, get your hair and your manicure done once, and then you can just sort of do ‘part two.’"
Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays: Which is more polite?
"You suit yourself," said Sinclair. "If it suits you to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ I don’t think that’s something to be offended about. And if somebody responds, ‘And Happy Hannukah!’ would you be offended by that? No! That’s another holiday."
After all, it’s a time of year when different groups are celebrating different holidays – or no holiday at all. Recognize that if people say "Merry Christmas," they are not trying to baptize you. If they say "Happy Holidays," they are probably trying to be inclusive, not rude.
Holiday hostess gifts
Always appropriate and always recommended, says Sinclair. Flower, wine, candy and chocolates are the most common hostess gifts, and are all perfectly fine choices.
But know your hostess – and, if possible, know the crowd.
"If you’re having a larger party and eight people bring flowers, what is the hostess doing? Ikebana at the last minute!" said Sinclair. "Think about having all these flowers to arrange when your guests are coming in."
How do you save your hostess the headache? "The really elegant thing to do is have flowers delivered the day before. You stand out and they can be put on display."
If it will be a small party, flowers could be a good way to go, as the chances are good you might be the only one bringing them. But for larger gatherings or when in doubt, send them ahead of time or choose another gift. But if you bring wine, do not expect it to be opened and served.
"The wine has already, probably, been chosen," Sinclair said. "Yours will be set aside and enjoyed at a different time."
Don’t let the guilt get the best of you – it is your prerogative to accept or decline any invitation. "’Other plans,’" says Sinclair. "You could be ‘planning’ to stay home and watch a video! But you thank them for the invitation."
But a definite answer is always required. In the era of frustratingly vague respondents (you know who you are, Facebook users: you click ‘maybe’ just to save face), there are only two acceptable answers: yes and no.
"What does the hostess do with maybe?" Sinclair lamented. And be prompt: "After you get the invitation, I would say within 24 hours or so, respond and then keep your word."
Know when it is time to leave
The most important "do" and the most horrific "don’t" of all the holiday season?
"Be on time and leave on time!" said Sinclair. For cocktail parties, it is acceptable to arrive up to a half hour after the beginning time indicated on the invitation. But for dinner parties, be no more than 15 minutes late. Never arrive early without consulting the host and offering to help prepare – but hosts, always be ready a half-hour in advance for any guests who do not know this rule.
And there is nothing more ungraceful than overstaying one’s welcome.
"And when the host starts serving coffee, you know that’s the time when the party is winding down. It’s a signal," said Sinclair. Thirty minutes after coffee is served, guests should begin to leave.
"It’s the prerogative of the guest of honor and the more casual friends to leave first," said Sinclair. Closer friends may stay a little later – but only a little. Do not repay your host’s hospitality by exhausting them.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.