Giving gifts to family members and dear friends is a cherished holiday tradition. But when it comes to compiling a gift list for people outside this close circle, are there any guidelines? Who gets a present and who doesn't?
The dilemma goes beyond making the list. There are issues of etiquette to be concerned with. For example, are gifts appropriate in business relationships? In our associations with housekeepers and others whose personal services we contract? And what type of gift is appropriate?
Let's face it: The ins and outs of exchanging presents can add to stress during this season. Gift-giving predicaments can be discouraging enough to sour us on a charming custom that should be one of the joys of the holidays. We'd rather relish the hope of surprising and delighting someone -- and the feeling of being touched that someone would take the trouble to give us a gift.
To avoid the pitfalls of gift-giving, many of us could use a little help. So we sought the counsel of two of America's most respected etiquette experts and a few experienced gift-givers in Baltimore. From them, we learned that there is no agreed upon set of guidelines. Each handles gift-giving differently, and we may learn from their approaches ways to reduce the stress of -- and return some of the pleasure to -- the fine art of holiday
Are there any hard and fast rules about giving presents during the holidays -- especially in business relationships?
"It's not something you can easily dope out," responds Judith Martin, who writes the nationally syndicated "Miss Manners" column. "The basic idea, however, is to give money in business and presents in your private life. But if your hairdresser knows you better than your spouse, give him or her a present."
At work -- if you're the boss -- stick to cash.
"There's a peculiar notion that you can figure out people's taste," Martin says. "Presuming to guess what people want is tricky. Giving a present means, 'I've been noticing your tastes and habits.' But that's what you're supposed to notice in friends and family, not in business colleagues."
In fact, the etiquette columnist says, the custom of giving presents in business is, well, wrong.
"Especially a secretary giving a present to a boss," Ms. Martin cautions. "The way to reward people in business is to give bonuses -- and it goes from employer to employee, not up the scale. A lot of people do it, but that doesn't make it right."
What about exchanging presents with co-workers?
Resist the urge, Miss Manners recommends.
"There's this enormous social pressure to participate in holiday gift-giving. So organize the whole office and agree not to give presents."
Eliminating gift-giving doesn't mean assuming the role of the office Scrooge.
"You can express good will in other ways," Ms. Martin says. "Instead of a present, write your boss a letter that says you appreciate working for him or her."
How do you handle the unexpected present?
"If the gift is appropriate, don't immediately rush out and put your hands on a present," Ms. Martin says. "That's what New Year's is for. No matter what, though, you must thank the person."
Letitia Baldridge takes a different approach to gift-giving in the business world. This author of a dozen etiquette books says gifts for colleagues are perfectly acceptable . . . within certain bounds.
"In the office, gift-giving should be discouraged -- so do it outside," says Ms. Baldridge, whose latest book is "Letitia Baldridge's The New Complete Guide to Executive Manners" (Rawson Associates, 1993). "If it's allowed, the office landscape becomes littered with gifts and wrapping paper, work time is lost and people get distracted."
Is it OK to give the boss a present?
It's perfectly acceptable -- if the gift is modest and not personal, she says.
"If you've been a secretary for a year or less, you could give your boss a box of candy. Or after two years, a plant or box of brownies for his family," Ms. Baldridge says. "If you've been his secretary for a long time, give the boss something he needs, but nothing personal -- say, a letter opener."
Bosses should remember their secretaries around the holidays, too.
"The loyal secretary -- the 'right arm' -- deserves a great present," Ms. Baldridge says. "It could be a 10-day cruise, stock in the company or a leather bag from Paris." However, she adds, if it's a personal gift for a female employee from a male boss who's married, the gift "should come from his wife."
Don't forget key customers during the holidays, the etiquette expert warns.
"Give a gift to your best customers," she says. "Traditionally, the gift is supplied by the company. But in these economic times, the company may not. So do it out of your own pocket. It doesn't have to be expensive."
And co-workers? Giving presents is OK, Ms. Baldridge says.
"If someone helped you out during the year, give them a small gift," she says. "But make sure they don't feel responsible to give something back. Do it by including a note that says, 'I'm not much of a gift-giver, but thanks for helping me out.' It removes the feeling of reciprocity."
Carla Frank, owner of a graphic design firm in Baltimore, finds that the holidays offer small businesses important opportunities for letting key customers and employees know they are valued.
"I give gifts to my clients because they are buying the personality of the business -- me, in other words," she says.
Usually, Ms. Frank gives New Year presents. Last year, she gave each of her clients and potential clients a small box of chocolate fortune cookies.
"It avoids the religious issue and gives some leeway to be late," Ms. Frank points out. "And I package the gift so they can see what I can do as a designer. If there's a company policy against gifts, I send a card or take the person to lunch."
Employees are recognized, too, at her small business.
"I think it's great -- after all, they're the people who keep your
daily life sane," she says. "And everybody is important if they're doing their job. My concern as a manager is that I want my employees to come to work and give me a lot of energy -- and recognition helps a lot. A gift says 'thanks and have a great holiday.' "
What kind of gift conveys that message?
"The appropriate gift takes some thought," says Laurie Kaplan, associate dean of Goucher College. "It has to be right for the person, not cost too much and not give offense."
This enthusiastic holiday gift-giver gladly shares some of her ideas.
"I like giving nature gifts," she says. "Last year, I gave narcissus bulbs to my husband's staff. The flowers are similar to daffodils ,, and bloom around Christmas."
Another suggestion: compact discs.
"It's an opportunity to introduce someone to new things in music," Ms. Kaplan says. "Just make sure the recipient has a CD player!"
Last year, Ms. Kaplan gave the secretaries in her office herb wreaths: "It's appropriate for the house, kitchen or apartment -- and they smell good."
If a number of managers share a secretary's services, Ms. Kaplan suggests pooling money and buying one large present, such as a gift certificate or a beautiful book.
Where does she get her gift ideas?
"Catalogs can spur your imagination," she says. "I flip through them until something strikes me. It's a lot of fun."
There's another group of people we need to remember during the holidays -- people who provide personal services throughout the year.
"Someone you see all the time -- your hairdresser or baby sitter, the people who make your life easier -- should get a gift," Ms. Baldridge says. "You can give money with a note that says, 'Thanks for helping me out.' But if the person is a pal, give them $10 or $20 and a small gift -- say, a bottle of wine or a sweater."
For example, says Ms. Kaplan: "If I'm seeing the same manicurist or hairdresser all year, I give him or her a small present -- say, a scarf for a woman or a tie or pair of argyle socks for a man. To the man who mows our grass I give $25 -- the same amount he gets for cutting the lawn. I give a turkey or a ham to the housekeeper."
Some people who provide personal services are tipped throughout the year; one way to show good will at the holidays is to increase your tip. Figure three times your normal tip.
For many others -- such as the mail carrier who regularly slips magazines behind the storm door so they don't get soaked when it's raining -- a cash gift tucked into a greeting card is appropriate. Here are suggested tips, from sources including Glamour and New York magazines and Letitia Baldridge's new book:
* The mail carrier -- $10 for normal amounts of mail, $20 if you get a great deal of mail.
Sanitation workers -- $10 each.
* Housekeepers and baby sitters -- a day's pay; a week's pay if he or she comes to your house five days a week.
* Newspaper deliverers -- $10 each.
* Other delivery people -- $10 each.
* Lawn service -- the same as a regular grass-cutting.
* Building superintendents, doormen, security people -- $10 to $50, depending on the level of service they perform for you.
* The maitre d' at your favorite restaurant -- $25.
No matter what or how much you give, it's a meaningful gesture.
"It's to show someone that you care about the services they've performed," Ms. Kaplan says. "They may be [unknown to you], like the sanitation workers that take your trash, but a present shows that you care -- and demonstrates that the job they perform isn't a given in modern society."