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The Etiquette Of Holiday Love


“Should I get my sweetie a gift?” “Can I flirt at the office party?” Here’s expert advice on these and other concerns.

by Leah Ingram

veryone knows that the holidays can be a stressful time, but when you’re dating or new to a relationship, the month of December can be possibly nerve-wracking. Do I get my new sweetie a gift? How big? How small? Do I meet this person’s family? How should I behave at the office holiday party?

Let me help you out. I’m a certified etiquette and protocol consultant and the author of nine books on those topics. Here, I’ll help you navigate the tricky waters of gift-giving and dating etiquette at the holidays.


How do I handle holiday gifts when I just started dating the person at Thanksgiving?

This depends entirely on how serious you’ve become. Have you gone exclusive already? Or is he your fallback date when you haven’t got anything better to do? If you
Office parties are usually “business as usual” events, not flirt-a-thons.
don’t yet have any plans to see each other during the month of December, I might skip the gift all together—it would be awkward to break out a wrapped gift when you see each other in January. However, add that person to your holiday card list. If you do have a date set for sometime during December and you’d like to give this person a small gift, I would give him or her a heads-up that you’re planning to present a little something. You can say something like, “I just wanted you to know that one of my favorite things to do at the holidays is to buy people gifts. And even though we’ve only been dating a short time, I got your something, and I was hoping to give it to you when I see you next Friday.” You can communicate this information in a phone call or email. This will help you avoid ambushing someone who hasn’t gotten you anything in return. As far as what to buy or how much to spend, about $20 would be fine—that should be enough to buy a CD or a book you think your date will enjoy.

The person I started dating last month has invited me to share Christmas dinner with his family. I’d like to go, because I enjoy his company, but I don’t know if this will send a “serious relationship” message to him, when I’m still dating around.

Bringing someone home for the holidays can be quite a big deal. I can easily see how his family might get the wrong impression when you show up, so if you have no intentions of becoming serious with this person — yet — I would politely decline the dinner invitation. I don’t think you need to get deep and serious about why you’re declining because, who knows, down the line you may want to share a future Christmas dinner with this man and his family. Simply thank him graciously, let him know that you’re unavailable and make plans for your next post-Christmas date.

New Year’s Eve is fast approaching, and my new boyfriend hasn’t asked me out for that night yet. Would I be out of line for me to ask him out for New Year’s Eve instead?

Absolutely. Men love it when women take the initiative. Call or email him, and find out what his plans are—a casual, “Hey, do you have any plans for New Year’s Eve? I heard about something that sounded really fun” will do the trick. If he’s a last-minute kind of guy, tell him you’d like to nail something down for the two of you to do before all the dinner reservations fill up or whatever else it is you had in mind to do. If he hems and haws about committing to a New Year’s Eve date, give him a deadline to let you know if he’s interested in being with you, and if he doesn’t get back to you, make plans with your girlfriends instead. By the way, if, come February, you find yourself dateless again on Valentine’s Day, then it’s probably time to face up to a simple fact: This guy may not be the right person for you to be calling your boyfriend.

My girlfriend gave me an obviously expensive gift for Chanukah, and I got her something quite small. Do I need to run out and get her something else substantial?

No, you sure don’t. “A lame gift won’t end a budding relationship, but too big a gift might,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. Since her gift made you feel uncomfortable, this could be a red flag that you and your new girlfriend are not on the same relationship page. So instead of running out to buy her a last-minute gift, reflect on this. You may want to sit down and talk about where you guys are in the realm of dating and commitment—and where you both see the relationship going.

My office Christmas party is coming up, and there is a female co-worker I’ve been flirting with lately. Should I ask her to go with me?

Not necessarily. An office holiday party might be a convenient way to have a first date with this colleague but before you ask her out, find out first what the unwritten party protocol is—and if dating a co-worker is even allowed. See if single and married colleagues have brought dates to parties in the past. Is it a party with that kind of vibe?
No date for New Year’s? Men love it when women take the initiative!
Often, an office party is in fact more like any meeting you might have in the large conference room—except that everyone is dressed nicely and holding a drink. Ask people who’ve been to these events in years past to find out what these events are like. If it’s more meeting-like, you should expect business as usual (i.e., professional behavior) at this celebration. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ask to get her a drink, but I wouldn’t make it a big deal or a “date.” Also keep in mind that if it is a bring-a-date kind of party, it’s probably not the best occasion to express your interest in this co-worker. Asking her to go with you would mean the two of you are presenting yourselves as a couple to the entire office—and would surely set tongues wagging. Probably not the effect you want your first date to have. That said, there is nothing wrong with continuing your flirtation at the party. And if you work in the kind of loose, casual office where the holiday party is known for lots of drinking and wild dancing, then kick it up a notch and see if you can forge a stronger connection.

Even though I know that my new boyfriend put a lot of thought into my Christmas gift, I don’t like it. Can I return it?

Normally, I’m of the belief that once a gift is yours, you are free to do with it what you please—whether it be return it, sell it on eBay, donate it to charity, or toss it in the trash. However, you’re in a new relationship, and you know that your boyfriend made an effort to buy you a great gift, and he missed the mark? So what. You should be thrilled that he wanted to please you by finding something that he thought was the perfect gift. Keep the gift, appreciate the sentiment, and from here on in, get really good at dropping hints about what you like— “I spend so much time browsing at such-and-such store, I’m going to have to start paying rent!” or “Do you know anyone else who goes to Starbucks as often as I do?!” should do the trick.

I’d like to get my girlfriend of a few months some lingerie for the holidays. Good idea or bad?
It all depends. Has your relationship become sexual yet? If not — and she’s made it clear that she’s not ready to take it to that level yet — then you need to hold off giving that kind of gift. Otherwise, she is probably going to feel under pressure. If you have become intimate already, then buying her something tasteful from a lingerie store would be a lovely gift. Better yet, get her a gift certificate and ask to go shopping with her after the holidays so you can get a better sense of what she likes and dislikes. That ought to be an outing that’s fun and romantic for both of you.

My girlfriend of a couple of months clearly wants a pricey gift, but I’m not comfortable spending that much at this stage in our relationship. How should I handle this?

I’ve got to say, I believe honesty is the best policy. Don’t just shrug off her none-too-subtle hints. You need to let her know that while you appreciate her letting you know the kind of gift she’d like, you’re not comfortable spending that kind of money. Dr. Tessina suggests being a bit cheeky with your response, such as “Hon, I know you want a Tiffany diamond this Christmas, but I think we should save that money for our (next vacation, etc.)” “If you let her know you’re thinking of your future together—and do so with a little bit of humor,” says Dr. Tessina, “then she’ll take the disappointment better.” If she doesn’t like your answer — and acts out because of it — you may not want to be in a relationship with someone who puts so much emphasis on money spent and equates it with feelings of affection.

I’m Christian and my guy’s Jewish, and we’re spending the first night of Chanukah with his family. However, he doesn’t want to let on that he’s dating someone who isn’t Jewish, so he’s asked me not to bring up my religion and if I can sidestep any questions about the holidays. I don’t feel right about this, but I don’t want to cause a lot of tension. What should I do?

Who could blame you for not feeling right about this? He’s putting you in a very uncomfortable situation. However, he knows his family, and if they’re really set on his marrying a nice, Jewish girl, you two need to have a talk before Chanukah, says Dr. Tessina. “If you don’t feel serious enough yet to really get into the religion question or haven’t yet come up with an answer, then go as a friend,” suggests Dr. Tessina, though his bringing a girl home for Chanukah “as a friend” might raise a few eyebrows and inspire some questions. So be prepared to defend your “We’re just friends” stance. Or tell him that you think going will be more stressful than enjoyable, and encourage him to go alone.

However, if you’re ready to tell the family your relationship is serious, then you need to resolve the question about how you’re going to handle your religious differences. “This is for your own sake as well as for dealing with the family,” adds Dr. Tessina. “It’s a bad idea to ‘wait until we have kids’ to resolve a question like this—pitting one person’s religion against another.” Getting the issue out in the open before it gets you in trouble is a good path to take.


Leah Ingram is a gift and etiquette expert, and author of The Everything Etiquette Book and Gifts Anytime. You can get year round advice from her on her Web site www.giftsandetiquette.com.
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