Etiquette expert Catherine Newman shares how to talk to your in-laws about their bad habits.
Q. My children’s grandparents (my in-laws) are smokers. They enjoy doing special things for my kids. The problem is that the treats they bake and the gifts they give smell strongly of cigarettes. I wash and air out what I can, but any food or plush items usually get thrown in the trash or donated to charity. Is there a tactful way of addressing this issue with them? I hate to see their effort and money go to waste.
A. When my daughter was born, I received a gift from an elderly smoker friend, and I could smell it even before I opened it: a precious hand-crocheted cardigan that, incongruously, reeked of cigarettes. But at least I could wash that little sweater. Also, it was a one time thing. Smoky gifts weren’t a recurring part of my life. However, you’re dealing with in-laws, which means the situation is ongoing and calls for great tact, as you’ve noted.
Here’s what I would do: Acknowledge the grandparents’ expansive generosity and your sincere appreciation, then take responsibility for the awkward situation that you’re about to create. Explain, “I’m so sorry, but I’m sensitive to cigarette smoke.” Tell them that it’s a problem for you when things come into the house smelling of smoke, and suggest an alternative: Online ordering of gifts with direct shipment to you, say, would resolve part of the predicament.
They are probably oblivious to the smell. If they understand that you’re trying to communicate with them in a nonjudgmental way, this conversation might segue into one about which gifts work (washable scarves) and which don’t (apple pie). If, on the other hand, they seem ruffled or defensive, then pursue it no further. Toss what you must and figure that, in the scheme of things, keeping the peace is more important than wasted gifts.