washingtonpost.com
Holiday Advice Week: Holiday Etiquette

Anna Post
Spokesperson, The Emily Post Institute
Wednesday, December 10, 2008 12:00 PM

Between addressing holiday cards, sending out party invitations, buying gifts for friends and deciding which events to attend (and which to skip), sometimes the holiday season can feel like an etiquette minefield.

Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and an author and spokesperson for The Emily Post Institute, was online Wednesday, December 10 at 12 noon ET to help you navigate the holiday season with grace and good manners.

The transcript follows.

For ideas and guidance on holiday gifts, entertainment, entertaining and much more, visit washingtonpost.com's 2008 Holiday Guide.

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Tipping help: I use a national cleaning service with whom I have a standing appointment for two cleanings per month. They say they try to send them same person every time, but this hasn't happened. Sometimes they send one person, sometimes two, sometimes they come back multiple times in a row, sometimes just once.

I know I should tip the amount of one cleaning at the holidays, but that seems excessive to me for someone who may be in my home for the first time. Also I don't know beforehand if they are sending one or two people, so am I supposed to tip double just in case? Am I just being a Scrooge?

Anna Post: Scrooge -- no. Your concern here isn't unreasonable at all. Tipping at the holidays isn't just about satisfying a dollar amount, it's also supposed to honor year-long relationships with service providers, and your situation is clearly too confusing.

What you could do, if you would still like to offer the tip (and you are correct that it would be the amount of one cleaning), is to send it to the cleaning company and request that they distribute it there. This way you've made the gesture in a way that is fair both to the cleaners and to you.

Given the circumstance you described, if you wanted to forgo tipping in this case, it would be fine.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Should I tip all of the caregivers at the daycare my son attends? If so, what? Cash? Gift? Both? In the past my son has attended an "in home" daycare, so whether to tip the owner wasn't a dilemma. Thanks.

Anna Post: In this case, you should tip all of the people who work in his room or regularly with him (and that could be everyone employed there). The total amount you should tip is the cost of one week's tuition, but you can divide this among all of them. The division can be equal if they all spend time with him; if there are one or two who spend more time with him, you might choose to give them a larger percentage of the total amount. You could also give the total amount to the director to distribute among everyone.

If money is tight, you could also give something like $10 gift cards to a coffee shop to each caregiver. A small handmade gift from your child is also a lovely gesture, and is a great opportunity to teach him about what giving at the holidays means.

Lastly, be sure to give handwritten notes to each caregiver.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a question re: giving tickets to someone. I want to get tickets for a friend to a sporting event or concert. Is it tacky to give someone one nice ticket to come to an event with me? Or should I plan on giving them two tickets, and just downgrade the seating?

The thing is, I can't justify spending a crazy amount on two tickets for this person, but I could buy them one nice ticket and me one nice ticket. This somehow feels tacky, but I'm being realistic. I'm a young person, not much money, etc.

Anna Post: Either way you'd feel comfortable handling this is fine -- it's up to you. Think about the event, and not the money first. What was your original thought with the tickets? To go together, or to give them a gift of two tickets? That should give you your answer.

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Washington, D.C.: We are invited to a holiday party that is also an engagement party. One of us thinks we should go, or it will be awkward when we show up at the wedding (next summer). The other says, we have too much going on that day, that weekend, all the time lately and would rather skip this event (and the babysitter, the valet parking, etc.).

What do you think? Is there anything we might do to say "we wish you a happy engagement, but just can't make it!"? Thank you.

Anna Post: It is perfectly okay to skip an engagement party but still go to a wedding -- there should be no embarrassment there.

Your schedule (and budget for babysitters and parking) should be your guide, so it sounds like turning this one down might be best for you.

You can still send a gift if you would like to express your happiness for the couple, but it's not required. You could also say exactly what you wrote to me, "We wish you both the very best, but we just can't make it." (No need to explain about babysitters and schedules, though.)

Lastly, you could look for another time to get together with them after the holidays to celebrate.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: What is an appropriate gift/tip for the postal carrier?

Anna Post: USPS mail carriers can accept small gifts (such as homemade cookies or a store bought mug) so long as the value is under $20. They cannot accept cash gifts, checks, gift cards or any other forms of currency.

A handwritten note of thanks is always a nice way to reach out to someone you may have never met in person.

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Frederick, Md.: What is an appropriate gift to give a hostess of a holiday party?

Anna Post: The options are endless, but some of the more popular items are flowers (already arranged or potted), tins of cookies, wine, wine glass charms, chocolate, cocktail napkins, scented candles, nice soaps, or a breakfast item for them to enjoy the next day. Just don't be offended if your host doesn't serve or use your gift that evening.

Be sure to include a note with your name, too, so the host knows who to thank if your gift gets mixed in with others.

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Generous Gift: Dear Ms. Post,

Our family recently received a hand-made wood item for our children, from a family friend and hobbyist. In addition to a thank you note, I would like to send a gift to them that fits the hobby. My husband says no, that we should not incur any expense to thank them, especially as the item was a gift and unsolicited. What do you say?

-- Wants to be Appreciative

Anna Post: Choosing to give a gift -- even one of thanks -- is always up to you and what you feel is right for the situation. Your suggestion of a gift that fits his hobby sounds both appropriate and appreciative.

Your husband is right to think about your budget, however. If you hadn't planned to give this person a gift, and it feels burdensome to do so, you are under no obligation.

Regardless, a nice compromise if money is an issue would be to take a picture of your child playing with the gift to send to the giver.

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Washington, D.C.: I rent a unit in a large condo building. Whenever FedEx, UPS, etc. packages are delivered, they go to one elderly resident, who then calls me and tells me to come pick them up. Since I'm not home during the day and we have no front desk, this is a very helpful service. Given the number of packages always sitting in her apartment, I'm fairly certain she does this for the entire building.

I'm not certain if she is paid for this service, by the condo association, or if she's simply a super-friendly neighbor. Should I give her some sort of holiday present/tip? If so, what would be appropriate?

I've asked my landlord; she is no help.

Anna Post: That's a shame your landlord can't answer you, as my first suggestion would be to find out if there is an official arrangement with this woman. Since you don't know, but she clearly does you this nice favor regardless, a note of appreciation would be perfect. You could also include a small gift if you wished, but I would not give cash in this situation, as you don't have enough information.

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Reston, Va.: I admit that I have rather strong views, mostly anti-tipping, because people are in a contract to provide services, and are being paid based on that contract. I don't get tips at my job, and neither do most of the working people that I know.

Why not simply acknowledging the work with a thank-you note? This idea of tipping appears greedy and unbalanced to me.

Anna Post: There are times and situations when I couldn't agree more with you -- I like to view tipping as a sincere gesture of genuine appreciation, not as a begrudged obligation. Given your opinion, I don't think you should tip.

But I am very glad that you see the value in sending out thank-you notes to those you would like to recognize. It's never wrong to send a thank-you note.

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Arlington, Va.: This isn't holiday related, but I hope you could help. A very good friend of my husband's and mine is getting married in April in Florida. A few months ago, we verbally told her that we were planning to go and were saving our money. Since then, we had to buy a new car (old car died), and now we are planning to buy our first home in a few months (because of the market and many other reasons that make this the perfect time). Because of these two things, we have decided that we will not have the funds for the wedding. We have already purchased a gift (and obviously will give it to her) but we are nervous about telling her we can't go now. We have not received an official invitation yet, just a save-the-date. How would you approach this? Just be honest?

Anna Post: Absolutely -- just be upfront and honest with her. The situation is very easy as she clearly hasn't given numbers to her caterer yet. Do tell her as soon as possible though, as it might allow her to invite someone else. And don't be surprised -- she might still choose to send you an "honorary" invitation.

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Washington, D.C.: How much should I tip my apartment building's maintenance guy? It's a smallish building (60 units), and he handles almost all of the maintenance. He'll also pick up packages for us, and I generally think very highly of him.

Anna Post: The norm is a wide range -- anywhere from $20 to $80. You could also give a gift instead. Think about your budget when you choose your amount -- there is no wrong answer as long as you feel comfortable. Give the tip (fresh, clean bills) inside a a thank-you note.

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Centre, Pa.: What do you think of the current state of greeting cards that are either 4x8 pre-printed photo mailers, or the cards with update letters in them? I'd like to send pictures of our children and something somewhat personalized, but there is no way that I'd be able to hand write notes for 100 cards. With postage and cards and photo developing being at the cost of what they are, what is to stop me from just emailing a Wiki (not to be confused with a Wookie)?

Anna Post: Pre-printed photo mailers are fine to send. It's always best to send a personalized note, but if you just can't find the time, it's still a nice gesture to reach out to loved ones at the holidays, especially as you are including a photo.

Holiday newsletters are also fine, as long as they're short.

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hostess gifts: Can I just offer wholehearted support for cocktail napkins as a hostess gift? I have a friend who has made this her signature gift, and I love it. From the giver's perspective, they can be relatively inexpensive, easy to stock up on, and never go bad. For the receiver, they're a great thing to have on hand.

We had friends who always brought wine to our big holiday party, and they wrote a message on the label with a black Sharpie, which I thought was charming. No way that tag was getting misplaced.

Anna Post: Terrific example! Thank you for sharing.

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Midwest: Is it inappropriate to send personal (e.g., handwritten, not from my company but purchased and stamped by me) holiday cards to business associates? They are not of the "here's a picture of my family" or "holiday letter update" variety but are the same cards I send to friends.

Anna Post: Yes, this perfectly okay, as you recognize the need to keep it professional looking.

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Herndon, Va.: I am hosting a family dinner next weekend. There will be two children, my daughter who is a vegetarian and my niece who is allergic to wheat. All week I have been getting emails from her mother telling me what I need to prepare and how it must be prepared. Today was the last straw, she suggested that it would be too upsetting for her daughter if she saw others eating things she could not have so I should 'seriously reconsider' making my son pasta.

How much accommodation is required on my part? I planned to make several dishes that my niece could have and then I expected her mom to bring her own food if that was a problem. It seems her expectation is that we should all eat as if we had this allergy.

Anna Post: You are right do your best to accommodate your niece and make sure that she can share in the meal at the table without risking an allergic reaction. But as host, it is entirely up to you -- and no one else -- what you chose to serve to the rest of the table. Try to be patient; food allergies are difficult to deal with, especially for children.

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Washington, D.C.: Any suggestions for a holiday gift to give the front desk staff/cleaning staff at my apartment building? I really like to bake so would some holiday cookies be okay? Also, would it be appropriate to drop off the gift for everyone to share (handwritten note included of course!)? Thank you!

Anna Post: Holiday cookies sound great! It's fine to give them as a shared gift, and I'm so glad you have thought about the note, as well!

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Arlington, Va.: Ms. Post, I just moved to a new townhouse and want to tip the people who pick up our trash. However, they pick it up after I go to work. How do I get them their well deserved tip? And how much?

Anna Post: Trash (and/or recycling) collectors are usually tipped $10-30 or a small gift. If you don't live somewhere where it's easy to leave the gift near the cans, then send it to or drop it off at the company's office.

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Tips for day care: Thanks for answering this question about tipping at day care. However, where in the world did you get the 'one week's tuition' figure? Do you know how much day care costs in D.C.? This is a crazy amount. For my center, that is $270. I think that a more reasonable guideline is $20 per person that works directly with your child, not including managers. I think that you should also tip the cook, if there is one.

Anna Post: The cost of one week's tuition is a popular national benchmark. That said, you should always, always, always give what feel right for you and your budget. In this case, $20 to each person who works with your child (and the cook) is the right answer for you.

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Trash Pick-up People: How much is appropriate to give the people who pick up the trash/recycling? I always wait outside and give them $20 per people on the truck...

I had no idea about not giving the mail carrier money. Is that a new rule? Because I never once had my money returned!

Anna Post: That's very nice of you to wait outside this time of year to give them their tip! I live in Vermont and hadn't thought of that as an option.

Yes, the USPS rule about cash has been around a while....

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Arlington, Mass.: I try to give my hairdresser a very generous tip at each visit. How important is it that I also give an additional tip around the time of the holidays?

Anna Post: It's another great way to say thank you to her, but if you feel she has already been tipped appropriately throughout the year, there is no need to do it at the holidays. Consider writing a holiday card to her instead.

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Rhode Island: To follow up on the hostess gift issue: I have friends who give a lovely holiday party each year. We are all at the stage where we have all we need, and have little storage for "stuff," so I've been reluctant to arrive with candles, wine, or the like.

For the past several years, I've been arriving at their party with a Christmas card containing a notice that a donation has been made in their name to a charity we both support.

I thought this was a great solution, but now they seem to think that this is their holiday present from me (we don't exchange Christmas presents) and they are reciprocating! I now get notifications from them that they've made a comparable donation to the charity in my name.

I know this is not a huge issue, as holiday drama goes. I also realize that a worthy charity is benefiting. But where does it stop? Is it ever OK to spell it out, as in, "I'm afraid my hostess present is making you feel obligated to reciprocate. I appreciate your generosity, but it really isn't necessary."

Anna Post: You nailed it -- if it's making you uncomfortable, your words would be perfect: "I'm afraid my hostess present is making you feel obligated to reciprocate. I appreciate your generosity, but it really isn't necessary."

She may still choose to give the gift, in which case, don't worry.

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Eye Street: Hi, Ms. Post:

I am always at a loss in addressing holiday cards. My older relatives seem comfortable with the traditional "Mr. & Mrs. Robert Simth." But I certainly do not like to be addressed as Mrs. Robert Smith and would prefer cards addressed to "Robert & Joan Smith" or "Mr. Robert and Mrs. Joan Smith." Which, if any of these, is correct? Thank you.

Anna Post: It's fine to be less formal; "Robert & Joan Smith" would be correct, but "Mrs. Joan Smith" is only used if you are divorced, so I'd avoid that one! You are either Mrs. Robert Smith, Ms. Joan Smith, or Joan Smith.

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Washington, D.C.: Oh my gosh. Thank yous for a hostess gift? I just got many for a party I threw and didn't know I was supposed to send thank you notes for those. Seems like saying thank you for a thank you.

Anna Post: If you said thank you in person for a hostess gift you don't need to send a thank-you note as well, though you certainly could if you wanted to -- it's never wrong.

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Tipping the bartenders: Over the past year, my husband and I have become regulars at a lovely bar, where the bartenders take very good care of us. We'd like to give them some kind of holiday gift or tip, but here's our dilemma: There are no fewer than six people who act as bartenders, depending on the day of the week, etc. Do you have a suggestion on how to handle this? Should we simply bring them a big basket of goodies that they could all share? I'd thought about asking the manager to divvy up a cash gift, but I'm not sure how much money we should plan on per person. Thanks.

Anna Post: Your solutions are the two I would recommend -- either a gift for them to share together, or a tip given to the manager to divide. There is no "normal" amount for this, so I would recommend turning to the advice I give for all gift giving: think about your relationship with the recipient(s) and your personal budget.

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RE: Arlington: For the person tipping the trash/recycle workers. You might want to check to see if they are private or city/county employees. I'm pretty sure the ones in my neighborhood are city guys and they have ethics rules like the U.S. Postal Service.

Anna Post: This is a good point -- anyone working for a public institution may be working under restrictions for receiving gifts. Check with local offices to find out about any rules as they vary.

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Washington, D.C.: I may be in a growing minority, however I'm a proud Washington Post subscriber and I'm wondering how much I should tip our newspaper deliverywoman. I've never had contact with her since she drops the paper off by 6 a.m., however before Christmas they leave an addressed envelope to send a Christmas tip. I have no idea what a proper tip would be for her, she delivers the paper every day and the service has been great. Thank you.

Anna Post: First, I really dislike it when people leave an envelope soliciting a tip -- holiday tips are a gift, and you don't leave envelopes out for other gifts you receive.

That said, newspaper deliverers are usually tipped $10-30 at the holidays, or given a small gift. Again, give the tip (clean, fresh bills) inside a handwritten note.

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Washington, D.C.: We really like our dog walker and our dogs love her, which makes the service so much more enjoyable for them. Is $100 too much to tip her?

Anna Post: Dog walkers are usually tipped the cost of one week's service. Regardless of whether $100 falls above or below that, if it feels like a comfortable amount to give to her, then it's fine.

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Follow-up on hairdresser question: I tip well on my visits too, but still would like to give him something for the holidays. A rule of thumb? Thank you.

Anna Post: A standard amount is the cost of one visit, though that is sometimes too much for many people, in which case a lesser amount is fine. A small gift would also be appropriate.

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Arlington, Va.: Gift giving to the subtle strangers -- the Metro employee who says hello, the woman at Kinkos who always chats it up with me...

I think something handmade might be weird from a stranger. I was thinking small denomination gift cards for coffee. Is that weird? These people brighten my day every morning and I want to acknowledge it with a heartier thanks.

Anna Post: I think your solution is very appropriate. You are right that many of these people might feel uncomfortable taking something homemade from a "stranger"; the gift card (I would suggest $10) is a great alternative way to thank these regulars who brighten your day.

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Boston: If my personal trainer is also a friend, can I give her a gift and gift card in lieu of a cash tip? It's things I definitely know she'd use and like, as it's an interest we share outside the gym. The cash value of the gift would be more than a week of training.

Anna Post: Especially given the personal nature of your relationship, this is a terrific approach.

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Tipping, D.C.: Re: Reston

Sure, you probably don't get tips in your job, but most of the service people in our society today are hanging by a string (no health insurance, no/limited paid sick/holiday days, possible gifts for family during the season). Add in the poor economy, and many of them will be facing a tougher situation now and in the coming year (and likely no unemployment insurance, for most services).

If you can't connect with someone who has been making your life easier all year (many years?) then give yourself a tip: look around you at the working poor.

I am fortunate to have climbed out of that situation now, and will always remember how a little bit of generosity went a long way for me during this time of year.

Anna Post: I think this is a great note to end on. The economy is in tough shape, no doubt about it. We will all need to look carefully at our budgets this year to see what we will be able to do for others. Always remember that when thinking about giving a gift, you should consider only two things: your relationship to the person and your budget.

Given that, it's good to remember just how much more appreciated tips and donations to charities will be this year. Happy holidays!

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washingtonpost.com: Thanks so much for joining us for today's discussion! Please come back to Live Discussions every day this week at noon for more help from our experts during Holiday Advice Week.

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