Yes, it's that time of year again - a time of goodwill towards our fellow citizens, a celebration of family, a time when enemies lay down their swords and remember what's important in life. Or is it? While we all yearn to buy into the spirit of the holidays, for many of us, the festive season is too often characterized by roasting hot malls, drunken uncles, and gatherings we would rather not attend.
When people ask me about holiday etiquette, they're usually confused about the need to do something out of a misplaced sense of obligation. The truth is, the holidays ought to be fun and if you can manage your expectations and not get caught up in what you should do, or worse still, what others should do, you might just enjoy it better. Here are my answers to your top holiday etiquette questions.
Do I have to give (insert name here) a gift? -There is no rule that says you must give any other adult a present. Try to discuss with your spouse, family members and friends ahead of time how you are going to approach gift-giving and stick to the agreed-upon guidelines. Other than that, give someone a gift because you want to and give only what you can afford. Don't give to anyone with the expectation that you will get one in return. And, if someone gives you an unanticipated gift, there is no need to reciprocate. A simple thank you is good enough.
Do I have to participate in the office gift pool? - These things should always be optional. If you're organizing a Secret Santa, please let everyone know that it's optional and don't pressure anyone to join in. If you find you're the only person in your workplace of 20 employees who is not participating, you might change your mind but it's still up to you. If you want to give some co-workers a gift separately, do so in private.
Do I need to go to every party? - I have a rule about party invites. If I look ahead and feel that, on the day of the party, I will regret accepting the invitation, I politely decline. The truth is, I can't attend everything and so I ask myself if I enjoy the company of the host, if it's close to my house, or if attending will add to my stress level. No host will benefit from having me at their gathering if I really don't want to be there. On the flip side, if you are hosting a party, in either a business or social setting, invite as many people as you like but accept that not all will be able to attend. No one should feel forced to come to your gathering and if someone sends their regrets, it is not appropriate for you to ask why, offer to reschedule or try and coerce them to attend.
Do I have to go to the office party? - My inclination is to say "no" because all parties should be optional but you really have to gauge the culture at your workplace. In a previous job, I once decided not to attend the office holiday party because at the time, I had expressed displeasure with some new office policies and I felt it was hypocritical to raise a glass to people with whom I was currently at odds. While I kept my integrity intact, I paid for my decision for weeks afterwards as it was made clear to me, and everyone else in the company, that attendance at future holiday events would be obligatory.
Do I have to tip or give bonuses? - While there is no official obligation, if there is someone in your life - a hairdresser, caregiver or delivery person - who has served you especially well in the past year, a holiday tip or gift is a lovely way to express your thanks for a job well done. Again, think about who you would like to thank and give what you can afford in the form of baked goods, cash or a gift card. This website has guidelines on what to tip everyone from your building superintendent to your personal assistant. Note: if you are an employer and have given bonuses in the past but can no longer afford to do so, please let people know in advance. Many rely on these to cover holiday expenditures.
Do I have to take my shoes off at holiday parties? - I have to admit this is a tough one for me and I have declined invitations because of it. As a female, I choose my holiday party ensembles carefully and removing my beautiful stilletos just wrecks the whole look leaving me with pants that are too long and socks that just don't cut it. Plus, a few hours of standing on hardwood or ceramic tile really takes a toll on my poor feet. If footwear is not welcome at a party, it should be clearly stated on the invitation and if it isn't, call the host and ask for clarification. If you are throwing a party and would prefer your guests to remove their shoes, make it easy for them - thoroughly clean your floor or carpet before their arrival and place baskets or racks in the doorway so they are not forced to pick through a mountain of dirty footwear when they want to leave.
Do I need to bring a gift for the party host? - It is not a rule that you must bring something but it is a nice way to recognize your host's hospitality. As with all things, make it easy for your host to accept your gift. If you bring fresh flowers, bring them in a vase so they can be easily displayed. Your host will be too busy greeting her guests to look for a vase. Similarly, feel free to bring wine or treats but don't expect that they will be served that evening as they may clash with what she has prepared. I like to bring something the host can enjoy the day after the party like bubble bath, a houseplant or some organic coffee.
Is there such a thing as parking lot etiquette? - Parking lot etiquette should be general etiquette - an awareness of the feelings of others - but it's more often frustration and indifference that too often balloons into rage. If you've left your shopping till the last minute, accept the fact that it will take you a while to find a spot and make a resolution to get ahead of the game next year. While you need to drive around and look for a spot, try not to tail people who are walking to their cars - it's creepy (and embarrasing if, like me, you can't remember where it is)! When you see someone who is ready to pull out of a spot, indicate that you're waiting for it and pull in when it's clear. If you see a spot that another motorist is patiently waiting for it, don't swoop in and steal it at the last minute. And, please don't ever park one car in two spots. While I don't condone vandalism, you get what you deserve if people choose to vent their frustrations on your vehicle.
Is it okay to send a form letter in my holiday card? - Personally, I don't like this approach. It's highly impersonal and it usually comes across as a one-sided laundry list of everything that's happened in the past year delivered without any of the appropriate context or nuances. Besides, we send people cards to wish them well, not to talk about ourselves. Rather than blasting out a form letter to hundreds of people, take the time to send cards only to people you're close to, with brief, but personalized messages.
How can I get through the holidays? - It's been said that stress is the result of a gap between our expectations and our reality and no time is that more evident than during the holidays. No matter how hard you try to make everything perfect, there will always be something that won't go according to plan. I'm not saying you should have zero expectations but just do your best and go with the flow, accept the craziness, and, if all else fails, drink and eat your way through it and watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation - your family will seem like the very epitome of civility compared to the Griswold clan.
Wishing my readers a beautiful, civil and enjoyable holiday season!