So, Who Gets What? Gift-giving Guidelines

November 28, 1993|By JOE SURKIEWICZ

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

gift-giving.

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.

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