The Most Graceful Way to Give Gifts

There are a few things you should know about gifting. 

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Photo by Image Source / Getty Images

Modern manners columnists Catherine Newman (etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy), Michelle Slatalla (professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and former columnist for the New York Times), and Julie Rottenberg (television producer and writer) team up to answer all of your questions about how to politely exchange gifts.

I received a thank-you note for a gift I did not give. In fact, I did not give a gift at all. I didn’t even attend the party but sent a card instead. Should I let the person know that she thanked the wrong person? — M. S.

Points to your friend for sending a thank-you note at all! Demerits for sending it to the wrong person. Perhaps the gift giver was someone at the party with the same name as yours—or maybe it was the kind of present that you would be most likely to give. Regardless, don’t fret. Simply ping your friend a text or e-mail: “If only I’d sent you the gift you love so much! But, alas, I think I got a thank-you note intended for someone else. I wish I could have been there to celebrate with you.” And as a bonus good deed, remind your friend what she thanked you for, so she doesn’t have to struggle to figure out which gift still needs acknowledgment.


My son received an invitation for a classmate’s birthday party. However, the invitation is for twins. One is in my son’s class; the other is not. Are we supposed to bring gifts for both? Or only the one he knows? — M.B.

Ideally, the hosts would clarify their expectations, giftwise, on the invitation. But given the absence of instruction, you have a couple of options for celebrating both children (which you should): a single, larger gift for the children to share or a smaller one for each. You could even send a short text or e-mail to ask the parents which they prefer. If they were my kids, I’d pick the former—a great board game, say—since a glut of little stuff is my main pet peeve, and the thought of getting all those origami kits and bug viewers in duplicate makes me want to kill myself. But the parents might have other priorities, such as forestalling the agony of sharing. If you end up buying a pair of small presents, get ones that can combine for good play potential, like different-colored light sabers or a T. rex puppet and a stegosaurus one. While the kids are battling or performing the dinosaurs’ extinction, the parents will be thinking of you gratefully (and strategizing a way to get those thank-you notes out in a timely fashion).


In November, my coworker’s mother died. The obituary gave a choice of charities where donations could be made in memory of the deceased. I made an online donation to one of the organizations, but there was no way to designate it as a gift—meaning my colleague may not know about it. I would like her to be aware that I made a donation. Is it appropriate to include that information in my sympathy card (without mentioning the amount)? — D.D

It’s tempting, and very, very human, to want credit for your generosity. A sympathy card, however, is not the right vehicle for satisfying this urge. Instead, offer heartfelt condolences that are uncluttered by your desire for recognition. 

At a later time, it would be acceptable to say to your coworker, “I wanted you to know that I donated to that organization. You must be comforted to imagine all the good work that will be done in your mother’s honor.” If you can, though, try practicing the difficult-but-rewarding art of real charity—and keep it to yourself. 
 

I was recently invited to a surprise baby shower. The invitation requested that each guest pay $50 to the hosts—$25 for the brunch and drinks and $25 for the baby’s education fund. In addition, the hosts provided a list of stores where the couple is registered. I want to celebrate my friend and would like to give her a present, but $50 plus the cost of a gift seems excessive, as well as being out of my budget. Should I go and not give a present or not go and give a present instead? — E.P. 

[Jaw on floor.] Wow. I love potlucks, group gifts, and the spirit of community behind them. And I understand why hosts may ask for a monetary contribution from guests to, say, defray a bar bill. But mandating a specific financial contribution seems quite ungracious. (I trust the expense means that the party is being catered, not that the hosts are looking to turn a profit on some bagels and juice.) 

Nonetheless, this is the event that you have been invited to. As you have noted, you have two choices about how to respond. If the parent-to-be is a close friend, you should pay the $50 and then consider purchasing an inexpensive but meaningful gift, such as a favorite children’s book to help start the little one’s library.

If the person is not a close friend, perhaps you should opt out of the party and send the gift you’ve got your eye on instead. Regardless, don’t forget that the main event here is the imminent birth of your friend’s baby—and that’s cause for celebration, however you choose to do it.


This year my husband is turning 40. I’d love to surprise him with a nice, new bike, since his old one was stolen. I’m planning on throwing a party for him as well, and I’m inviting a bunch of our close friends. Is it rude to invite our guests to chip in for this gift? I’d love to be able to get something nicer than what I can afford on my own, but I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or obligated to donate. — L.H. 

Just make your intention clear on the invitation. “No gifts,” you can write. “Because [Birthday Boy’s] bicycle was stolen, I’m getting him a new one. If you’ve got the urge to give, feel free to contribute to the bike fund. But please don’t feel obligated. We just want to celebrate with you.” Add that you will leave out an envelope in a designated spot at the party; they can contribute as much or as little as they would like.

Some people will decline to contribute, some may bring other presents, and some will happily go in with you on the bike—which, however plain or fancy, will be perfect. Your husband will surely ride it with gratitude for such thoughtful friends and family.