Have we switched to the barter system?

People have come to believe that they must pay their way through life by handing over presents on every possible social occasion, and a great many professional ones.

They fear they are obligated to buy presents for people they hardly know and to celebrate occasions they don't plan to attend. Sometimes, as when anyone who is getting married has managed to get hold of their home address, they feel they must make multiple offerings -- for an engagement party, one or several showers, the wedding and any parties given before or after in the couple's honor. And by that time, the anniversary, renewal of vows or a baby present becomes due.

Dismayed by the prospect of all that planning and shopping, they try to buy their way out by handing over cash, or that barely disguised and less useful substitute for cash, the gift certificate. Or they implore the intended recipients to tell them what to buy (which doesn't take much imploring these days; often none at all, as the recipients are raring to take the lead). Or they ask poor Miss Manners to tell them what to get for people she doesn't know and occasions to which she isn't even invited.

What does not seem to occur to them is that many of these obligations are not obligations at all. In many cases, all that has to be done to slash the list is to substitute a gesture that is more proper and often easier and less expensive.

Presents are absolutely required for a child's birthday party, shower, graduation or wedding that one actually attends.

Miss Manners surely does not want to discourage anyone prompted by affection to give presents anyway, only to point out that they are not obligatory.

Also recommended are presents when visiting a newborn child, staying with someone overnight, and attending adult birthday parties and housewarmings. On personal or religious holidays at which presents are customarily exchanged, presents are only obligatory when it is an established exchange, and when the recipient has always expressed the proper thanks.

If this sounds like a lot, consider what is missing from the list: engagement presents; presents for newborns if you have already given a shower present; presents for dinner parties; presents for weddings or other occasions that you do not attend; presents to work colleagues whom you do not see socially; presents to people who never give them; and presents to people who never acknowledge them.

Except for the last three categories, there should be circumstances in which you actually want to give presents. Moved by a surge of affection or the pleasure of finding exactly what you know will please someone should inspire non-obligatory generosity, and might do so all the more when the burden of obligation is lightened.

But here is the price for lightening that load: When people invite you, you always have to give them a timely response. If you do not go to a celebration, you must send congratulations. If you accept hospitality or presents, you must give thanks and reciprocate. Miss Manners assures you that you will still be saving a bundle.

Dear Miss Manners:

My sister-in-law and I disagree on a point of etiquette. What is the proper thing to do with one's napkin at the conclusion of a dinner? I believe that the polite thing to do is to fold it up and place it in front of one, but my sister-in-law disagrees.

You both probably think this is a simple question with a simple answer, that Miss Manners will say either, "Nah, just throw it on the floor," or "Aren't you going to iron it before you refold it?"

No such luck. Like so much else in the wonderful world of etiquette, it depends. If you are at home or a houseguest, you do refold your napkin, as -- unless there is a full-time laundress on staff -- you will probably be reusing it until it is too food-stained to face. If you are dining out, you should avoid implying that your napkin will be examined and passed on to the next unsuspecting diner, so you leave it by your plate neatly crumpled, if you can imagine such a thing.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

(c) 2004, Judith Martin