You Shouldn't Have

If it's the thought that counts, what should you make of a `gift' of plastic surgery or marriage counseling?


As the holiday shopping season and mad scramble to find the perfect present begins, Neil Romain already knows exactly what he is buying this time around for his wife of 15 years: a gift certificate.

Lest you peg his selection as unimaginative, this particular gift certificate is for a $300 appointment with a cosmetic surgeon to blast away her varicose veins.

Ah, remember the days when the worst gift you could expect was a red and green Yuletide sweater with blinking lights and appliqued snowflakes and bells?

These days, you might get gift certificates for such delicate areas of personal development as plastic surgery, marriage counseling and anger management classes.

How thoughtful! Or, is it thoughtless?

With gift cards and certificates booming for all manner of retailers - experts say they top most holiday wish lists - perhaps it was inevitable that they would eventually venture into treacherous territory.

But etiquette experts and even purveyors of these new better-yourself certificates warn that such gifts could be interpreted by the beneficiary as less generous giving and more insolent intervention.

"Before you buy, I say use your best judgment," says Peggy Post, an etiquette expert and great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post. "Stop and think first. Could this backfire? Do you know this person really well? Honesty is important in a relationship, but when giving gifts, try using honesty with tact."

In his defense, Romain says the gift is something his wife has always wanted.

"She keeps talking and talking about how much she hates her varicose veins," Romain says. "and she's always watching that cosmetic surgery TV show, Dr. 90210. So I did some research, not just about the procedure, but also about how I should present it to her. I know she really wants this but wouldn't buy it for herself."

He concedes that he would not have attempted such a delicate gift as a newlywed. But even after 15 years together, Romain spent weeks reading up on various treatments available for varicose veins and discussing the procedure with Matt Leavitt, founder of Advanced Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in Florida, who sold him the gift certificate.

"I did a lot of research and decided that `Hey honey, here's a check for 300 bucks. Go at it, baby,' wasn't the way to go," says the 39-year-old Orlando, Fla., advertising salesman. "Instead, I'm going to put the gift certificate and a photo advertisement of someone else's legs in a nice, big box.

"It should make a great present for Christmas," Romain says. "But I guess we'll see how well it goes over after she opens it."

Search and you will find a gift certificate for almost anything these days, ranging from liposuction and hair loss treatments to online dating services and sex therapy workshops. All potentially fraught with peril, yes?

"We live in a country where many people have pretty much everything they want," says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore. "It's getting harder and harder to find gifts that they don't already have, so people put a lot of energy into finding that one-of-a-kind, personal and creative gift. I think we'll be seeing a lot more personalized gifts like these in the future.

"The giver has to be really careful about giving a gift that might imply something or offend somebody," says Whitmore, who founded the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Florida. "It could be well-intended, but it might be misconstrued and possibly hurt someone's feeling."

Take for example, a new mom opening a card to find a certificate for an hour's worth of Mommy-Muse, a service providing online or phone therapy for women who might be overwhelmed with the "profound transition to motherhood."

Or picture a married couple's reaction when they discover that tucked inside that nice weekend getaway is also a $50 gift certificate for relationship enhancement with Coreen Plewa, a Santa Fe psychotherapist who offers the recipient an hour of deep listening.

Just imagine the boss' face when he or she receives a Coaching Circles certificate from employees for an executive stress package, which comes with aromatherapy, calming oils, candles and, yes, a life coach who will teach them managerial wisdom.

And what about that unattached person on your list?

Companies like eHarmony and Yahoo! are encouraging would-be matchmakers to rescue their ambivalent friends and family from the affliction of singlehood. Yahoo! Personals is launching its new gift program next month ($19.95 per month-long subscription, $44.95 for three months or a generous $99.95 per year for those slower at coupling), and eHarmony's has been going strong for more than a year now.

"We haven't done any promotions, but it's been very well-received, primarily by word-of-mouth," says Lou Casale, an eHarmony spokesman. "It's a wonderful resource to encourage a friend. We found a lot of the people who purchased the gift subscriptions are married."

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