Imagine it: Your sister-in-law gives you a Christmas gift you don’t like, but fails to include the gift receipt—so you ask for it, making for an awkward exchange. Who’s in the wrong, you or her? Perhaps surprisingly, most etiquette experts agree that the blame can be placed on her. The truth is, holiday gift giving can be tricky, and not just because there’s money involved. Just as most of us would prefer not to spend our hard-earned cash on gifts that go unloved, we’d also be loathe to offend loved ones by being inadvertently thoughtless in the act of giving. That said, if handled with courtesy and a little etiquette expertise, your kind gesture will be accepted as just that. Here, 10 guidelines to keep in mind so you can avoid sticky situations and reap all the right benefits from exchanging gifts.
The premise shouldn't be “you give, therefore I give,” says Leah Ingram, author of The Everything Etiquette Book and founder ofGiftsandEtiquette.com. Rather, figure out where your relationship stands. Has it been less than a year since you’ve seen each other? Did you buy him or her a birthday gift? If the answer to both is no, you can cross this friend off your gift list. “In most cases, it’s only when a friend truly feels forgotten that hurt feelings can result,” she says, and sending a card easily prevents that.
2. Know when a practical present will be appreciated.
A little help goes a long way when you’re first starting out. If you’re buying for a friend, familymember or even an assistant who hasn’t quite launched her career, she’ll appreciate a gift card or money to put toward what she needs, says Ingram. Amy Taormina, who was an unpaid intern for six months at a lifestyle magazine in New York City, received a $50 gift card to J.Crew from her boss during the holidays, which made her feel both appreciated and thankful she could finally purchase the new work clothes she desperately needed.
3. Resist the urge to match spending.
“Too often people try to go head to head,” Ingram says. When buying a gift is driven more by pressure than thoughtfulness, it loses its meaning. “If people are buying extravagantly, they should be doing it because they want to—not because they expect anything in return." Ingram also notes that, more often than not, extravagant gift buyers have the means to support that kind of purchase, so there's nothing luxurious that you can buy them that they can't buy themselves. It’s better to choose a gift with a hefty sentiment—not price tag—associated with it.
4. Always include a gift receipt.
No matter who the present is going to, make sure to include the receipt. “If they need to exchange it because it’s the wrong size or they have it already, why make it more difficult for them?” Ingram asks. Plus, they may end up asking for the receipt anyway, which can create awkwardness and hurt feelings. Every year, Emily Brooks, a resident of Minnesota, buys gifts for her sister-in-law’s seven kids and never includes the gift receipt. Every year, the sister-in-law asks for the receipts and Emily gets offended. Why not avoid this situation altogether?
5. Buy for the couple instead of the two individuals.
“Once somebody gets into a relationship, I think it’s OK to shift your gift giving from individual to couple,” Ingram says. If you don’t know one or the other well enough to conjure up a thoughtful gift idea for each of them, buying them a certificate to, say, a restaurant is a gracious gesture. Meaningfulness is automatically included, since the gift also acknowledges that you are rooting for them as a happy unit. Don’t forget: “If they’re engaged to be married, they may even have a registry, which is a goldmine for gift ideas,” says Tony Conway, a nationally recognized event planner.
6. Follow workplace gift-giving policies.
It is completely appropriate to show your appreciation of coworkers who make your day run smoothly, such as a receptionist or assistant, with a thoughtful food-related gift—either homemade or in the form of a lunch date, suggests Ingram. But one thing both experts agree on: Do not give your boss a gift—even if your office doesn't specifically forbid the practice. “It could send the wrong message,” notes Ingram. However, most places of employment will notify staff regarding present exchanges and you should always follow those policies. For example, at A Legendary Event in Los Angeles, the CEO gives strict directions not to get him anything. Instead, he picks a charity to which employees can donate used items. The staff participates by helping wrap gifts over champagne and appetizers, which has proved to be a rewarding and stress-free occasion.
7. Don’t ask gift recipients what they want.
Unless it’s a family member or close friend, asking what they want may make them feel obligated to get you something in return, says Conway. “If you’re stuck, consider their hobbies or the place they’re at in their lives. The gift should acknowledge those things,” adds Ingram. Suggestions: If they work out every day, exercise gear is probably a safe choice. Or, if they’ve just moved into a new apartment, go for a housewarming gift. “If the gift doesn’t suit them, they’ll always have the gift receipt!” Conway adds.
8. Double their usual tip.
If you get your hair done regularly or hire a cleaning or dog-walking service, fluff up their regular paycheck or tip with a little something extra. Good rule of thumb? Double it. “If you normally tip your stylist 20 percent, give her 40 percent. If you pay your cleaning lady $100, give her $200,” Ingram says. And make sure to let them know their holiday tip is included. “Even if you never see them, you don’t want them to think you forgot them,” adds Conway.
9. Respond honestly to a surprise gift.
“I call it ambush gift giving,” says Ingram, “and it’s a tough situation.” But the best way to handle it is to just be genuine. “Tell them you’re touched, surprised—and perhaps slightly embarrassed that you don’t have anything for them—and let that be it,” she says. There’s no reason to formulate a gift for them out of thin air (or your closet). The best save: When Tony Archer of San Diego received a surprise set of monogrammed stationery last year from a colleague, he used the upcoming New Year’s to his advantage. “I sent a note with a bottle of champagne thanking them for the gift and wishing them a happy 2010.”
10. Regift the right way.
According to eBay, 69 percent of Americans believe regifting is acceptable (up from 49 percent the previous year). “Passing along the unwanted gift to someone else is not only OK, it's smart,” Ingram says. She notes the following items are the best kind to regift: picture frames, notecards, candles and bottles of wine, sparking cider or champagne. But Ingram gives one warning: The key to good regifting is to keep it under wraps—make sure to remove all traces of the original giving beforehand!