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The Do's And Don'ts Of Holiday Etiquette

The Do's And Don'ts Of Holiday Etiquette
How has etiquette for hosts changed over the years? What's expected of those hosting parties and their guests these days? Etiquette expert Elaine Swann answers all your etiquette questions and shares a few horror stories.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. In a 1952 copy of Amy Vanderbilt's "Complete Book of Etiquette" you might run across this little gem: The hostess is not served first unless she is the only lady at the table. If any other woman is present the dishes are first presented to her after inspection by the hostess. When the hostess is serving at least part of the meal from in front of her place, with or without the aide of a servant, she is served next to last and her husband last. So much for simpler times. But there is something to be said for having rules and accepted practices that make social interactions run more smoothly. And at no time of year do we need a healthy dose of 21st century etiquette more than during the holidays. I’d like to introduce my guest, etiquette expert Elaine Swann. She’s written for Modern Bride magazine, Essence magazine, Exquisite Weddings magazine, and will be featured on a new makeover show on the Style Network called “What I Hate About Me.” It starts January first. Welcome, Elaine.

ELAINE SWANN (Etiquette Consultant): Thank you. Glad to be here today.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our audience to join the conversation. Do you know the proper way to introduce your boss to your mother-in-law? Should you give a present to the mailman? Do you have a holiday etiquette horror story that you’d like to share with us? Give us a call with your questions or your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So expectations for the proper etiquette for hostesses have changed a lot over the last 50 years. Are there circumstances that happen now that didn’t even exist back then?

SWANN: Oh, absolutely. When you think about the – just the family unit and what it looked like 50 years ago as compared to today, it’s very different. Today, we have blended families, we have families where the – same sex families, both parents are the same sex. So life today is very, very different than it was several years ago. And so with that comes some changes in the way we interact with one another.

CAVANAUGH: When I was reading this 1952 book of Amy Vanderbilt’s, some of it still applied, of course, but there was a lot of reference to servants and different ideas of what was expected from party hosts. I wonder, what do we expect from a party host these days? Is there anything in particular that the one throwing a party really must do?

SWANN: Yeah, well, absolutely. One of the things a hostess absolutely – or host should absolutely do is make sure that they keep their guests in mind when they’re preparing whether it’s their meal or their home. Sometimes we end up with unexpected guests and so you want to be sure that you’re prepared just in case you have that extra person that tags along unexpectedly or even perhaps an uninvited guest that you weren’t really expecting so be prepared to kind of bring another place setting to the table if necessary. I think today we have so many various dietary concerns as well. We have people who are vegetarian or lactose intolerant or vegan all the way, and so it’s just important for a host to make sure that they know exactly who their guests are and who they’re serving.

CAVANAUGH: Is it the responsibility of the guest, though, to inform the host that, hey, you know, I can’t eat a certain thing or I’ve got relatives in town, can they come along to the party with me? Isn’t that the responsibility of the guest?

SWANN: It is the responsibility of the guest. If you’re – This is the holiday season. We’re all holiday, you know, party hopping and so forth. And we do sometimes have a visitor that’ll come in from out of town or maybe someone’s staying a little longer with us, so if you’re invited to a party and you want to bring someone along, give the host a call even if you’ve already RSVP’d for the party. Give the host a call and say, hey, I’ve got my cousin that’s in town, is it all right if I bring them along? And for me, for example, I’m allergic to seafood and so I always let the host know, just so you know, I’m allergic to seafood. Not that I want them to change their menu but if nothing else, I want them to at least warn me before I take a bite into something I’m not…

CAVANAUGH: Especially one of those puffs, right?

SWANN: Yeah, there’s a puff and who knows what’s in it.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Elaine Swann. She’s etiquette expert, and we’re taking your calls about holiday etiquette questions at 1-888-895-5727. Elaine, why is it important to follow, even though we don’t have a lot of rules these days, why is it important to know what the right thing is to do?

SWANN: In my opinion, it’s important to do so so that you can follow my – what I call my three core values of etiquette, which is respect, honesty and consideration. If you can take those three things and apply it to everything we do in life, then you are practicing good manners and the protocol will kind of follow after that. When we’re dealing with people, even, for example, if it’s the holiday season, we have to keep in mind that it’s not always about ourselves. We get so self-absorbed in so many different things because we’re in a new world now and technology has us, what I call, kind of connected but then also disconnected at the same time. So if we, you know, just take those three things and apply to everything we do, respect, honesty and consideration, then we’ll make sure that we’re always practicing good manners.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s get back to the holiday parties. I think…

SWANN: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …this is a fascinating subject.

SWANN: It is.

CAVANAUGH: Are you always supposed to bring a gift when you arrive to a holiday party for the host?

SWANN: Yes, absolutely, you should. You should always bring some sort of gift for the host and it could be anything from – for example, a bottle of wine, it could be some soap or something that can go into their best – guest bathroom. A nice plant. Oh, my gosh, there’s so many different things. You can even bring something along the lines of candles, wine stoppers. You know, we bring the bottle of wine but why not a really cute or cool wine stopper to go along with it, or a wine opener or something like that, anything that will help the hostess along. Now a lot of times people ask me, well, if I bring the bottle of wine, do – you know, the hostess would say, do I have to serve it right then and there. No, you don’t. You’ve already prepared your meal. You’ve prepared whatever wine or beverages that are going to go with your meal so you don’t have to – It’s a gift for you and so you don’t have to use it and eat it and drink it all up right away.

CAVANAUGH: You can save it for yourself.

SWANN: Save it for later, yeah. Save it for afterwards when everybody’s out the door and you need to kick up your heels and drink a bottle of wine.

CAVANAUGH: Now there’s a question for you, when everybody’s out the door because I’ve seen invitations that have start and end times for parties on them, like from 5:00 to 9:00. Is that proper on an invitation?

SWANN: There’s nothing wrong with saying that. I think any hostess should absolutely plan out their evening and say this is when I’m going to start my party and this is when I’m going to end. A never-ending party is always a bad – not necessarily bad but it’s not a good thing because then you kind of lose control over the evening. Not saying you want to micromanage your guests but you want to make sure that there’s order to everything. You’re there to greet your guests when they arrive and then you entertain them while they’re there, and then you start handing them their coats when it’s time for them to leave. So there’s nothing wrong with having a start and a stop time on your invitation. And then that way people can plan out their evening because you’re being considerate of their time. So, for example, if your guests have children, they know what time to tell the babysitter. We need you from eight, you know, from five to nine, for example. So, it’s good.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Elaine Swann and she is an etiquette expert. We’re talking about holiday etiquette tips. Our number is 1-888-895-5727 if you have questions or comments. And we have a call. Mike is calling from San Marcos. Good morning, Mike. Welcome to These Days.

MIKE (Caller, San Marcos): Hello. My question concerning the holiday parties, if you’re atheist, for example, and I have complete respect for everybody who does celebrate, is it proper etiquette for me to, number one, go to those parties? And, number two, take a gift? What are your thoughts on that?

SWANN: Well, hi, Mike. Thanks for calling in. It depends on the type of party that you go – The thing about it, even though you’re an atheist, it really has – doesn’t have – that has more to do with your personal beliefs and not necessarily the party itself unless you’re going to some sort of religious type party. If you bring a gift, bring something just to say to the host thank you for inviting me. That’s the purpose of your gift, is to say thank you to the host, not necessarily to celebrate any particular type of thing or season. Let’s see, is it proper to – I think I answered the question, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I think you did. Mike, is that – does that answer your question?

MIKE: Yeah, that’s good.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thanks a lot. I’m wondering, though, taking what Mike was saying, suppose at the party people started to sing Christmas carols or they started to do something that was more directed towards the religious aspect of Christmas. Would – How would Mike politely distance himself from that?

SWANN: Well, the thing about it is having respect for his beliefs. No one should absolutely force him to do anything but what Mike should do in that particular situation, is say, for example, they do start singing Christmas carols, he can do one of two things. He can just kind of sit there and, you know, you just move your body on along so it looks like you’re kind of in unison but you don’t have to engage and have to sing. I mean, it’s the same way. If we don’t all want to say the pledge of allegiance, you just don’t say it. You stand there respectfully and quietly. No need to get into a big huff or walk off. If he wants to – if he can kind of maneuver himself out of the area and maybe the person has some beautiful artwork on their walls or something like that, he can kind of get himself out of the area if he’s really uncomfortable and engage himself in something else to where it doesn’t stand out too much. But I think everything should be done, A, in moderation and, B, discreetly. So if you do whatever you do in moderation and you’re discreet about it, then you won’t offend others and bring undue attention to yourself.

CAVANAUGH: What if someone has too much to drink at a party? I mean, that’s a common pitfall. Is it proper to ask someone to leave?

SWANN: It is, but you don’t want – You want to make sure you take the keys from them before they…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

SWANN: But, you know, if a person is having too much to drink before they leave, in my opinion, it’s the host’s responsibility to make sure that that person leaves their house in a safe manner. So if you don’t put them in a cab yourself, then you get them to maybe go into another room, maybe give them some coffee, have them sit down a little bit, sit in there and chat with them if you can, if they’re able to chat, or just allow them some quiet time before you make preparations for them to either leave on their own or by cab or with another friend. But there’s nothing wrong with removing someone from another area if they’re getting a little out of hand and other people are starting to get uncomfortable. So as a host, you want to make sure that you’re watching all of your guests and keeping an eye out so that you meet their needs before they even ask. And if the need is to get rid of drunkie, then do so.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, this happens sometimes at parties, too. You’ll see someone inadvertently break or damage something during a holiday party and then immediately there’s an offer to pay, an offer to replace or something, generally speaking. Should – if you’re the host, should you accept that kind of an offer?

SWANN: As a host, when we invite people into our home, we’re taking a risk that something might accidentally be broken or stepped on or what have you. And so a host is always supposed to be just as absolutely gracious. One thing as far as etiquette and manners is concerned, it’s not necessarily about us but it’s about putting the other person at ease, and so it’s important for the host to put the other person at ease. They may offer. You tell them, no, thank you, and you be just as gracious as possible. You change the subject, you clean up the mess, or you get – if you’ve got a servant, I guess.

CAVANAUGH: We have to go back to Amy Vanderbilt.

SWANN: Yeah, yeah, you get your servant to clean up the mess. But, no, really, you put that person at ease, let them know there’s no problem at all. And then, you know, just go ahead and get the mess cleaned up. And, again, everything just really discreet and simple and sweet and gracious, as a host.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with etiquette expert Elaine Swann and we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 about etiquette during the holidays. Let’s take a call. Dani is calling from Fallbrook. Good morning, Dani. Welcome to These Days.

DANI (Caller, Fallbrook): Good morning. Thank you, ladies. I just have a question regarding being honest at the dinner table, and respectful. My mother-in-law comes to visit annually during the holidays and is notorious for making comments regarding body image right prior to dessert. Her timing is always the same.


DANI: And I have two teenage daughters who are very much being contrasted during these comments, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are with regard to being honest with – you know, I’d like to be honest but I don’t think I’d be respectful of my mother-in-law. And this has been going on for a long time.


DANI: I just wanted to see what your thoughts were.

CAVANAUGH: So just so everybody understands, basically what your mother-in-law is saying is sort of like, you don’t need that dessert, honey. Right? Something along those lines.

DANI: She’ll say my husband and my youngest daughter are the only ones who can afford to eat dessert.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

SWANN: Oh, so it sounds to me like it’s kind of directed towards you then, is that what you’re saying?

DANI: …my daughter…

SWANN: Oh, it’s…

DANI: …who is not, by any means, overweight.


SWANN: Oh, but she’s saying she should watch her figure.


SWANN: Okay. Well, here’s the thing. She is who she is and is not going to change. She’s going to keep on doing this until she decides to stop, so that’s one thing. Just accept her for who she is. If – Even as honest as you are and as honest as you can be, there are no words that are going to come out of your mouth that’s going to make her stop doing what she’s doing. So what you’re going to have to do – So you can’t change her but you can change the way you respond to it, and so that’s my advice here. So the way you respond to something like that is just to change the subject, okay? Meaning she’ll mention, oh, gosh, so-and-so should only eat this and whatever and so forth like that against, you know, whomever she’s referring to, and so your thing should be, you know what, this dessert is just absolutely awesome or whatever it is. Did you see the dessert that, I don’t know, Rachael Ray made on the show the other day? It kind of reminds me of that. What do you think she used in it? So on and so forth. Don’t try to challenge her during that time. The dinner table is not the place to try to challenge that type of behavior. She’s not going to change who she is, so I would say just change the subject and don’t allow yourself to get into a huff because she’s going to do it every year so prepare yourself and prepare your daughter and say, don’t take this personal because it’s really not about you, it’s about her and whatever’s going on in her head.

CAVANAUGH: Right. One last question about holiday parties. Our listeners might have lots but I just wanted to ask what is the right way to get people to go home?

SWANN: To get people to go home, so that’s why you have to have a start and stop time.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

SWANN: So when you get to your stop time and you’re looking and you’re saying, okay, it’s nine o’clock and it’s time for me to – people to go home, that’s when you start turning stuff down. Your music maybe have been up a little bit higher.


SWANN: You just start turning it down, then the music goes off. You start to turn on the lights. You put – the candles are going out and the lights are coming up so then that way basically what you’re doing is you’re physically kind of shifting the mood in the room. And then, because people never get the point, where you placed all those coats, you can go ahead and start bringing the coats out and just laying them down maybe on the back of the couch or whatever it is so that that way people start to know to go and get their coats. And then for those stragglers who’ve decided that they just want to camp out, then you say, it’s been lovely having you here this evening. We’ve had such a great time. I think we’re going to go ahead and start getting ready to turn in for the evening, but this was great and we’re looking forward to having you next year. If it’s honest, if you’re telling the truth in that statement, say it. If you’re not, just say, you know what, we all had a lovely evening this evening but we’re going to go ahead and get ready to turn in.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. I’ll remember that. Let’s take a phone call. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Marie is calling from Clairemont. And welcome, Marie, to These Days.

MARIE (Caller, Clairemont): Ladies, this topic is so appropriate, obviously, for the season and I thank you for that. And my question is about gift giving and when one side of the family tends to go over the top with gift giving and the other side of the family kind of scales back and has said, please, let’s not go so overboard this year. Is there a – one side that wins out on that?

SWANN: Well, what is it, do you feel – is the one side that’s not going so you’re feeling like you have to bring yourself up to their level?

MARIE: Sometimes, yes, a little bit. And then it’s just also the other side, I think, has been that’s the way they share with their family and then the other side of the family is the kind of family that when the car breaks down, they come over and fix it or when you need something done around the house, so it’s kind of all-year giving versus just a pile of presents this time of year.

SWANN: Okay, then what you have to do is just own it. Own your life and what it is and be proud for who you are. We all are, you know, one man’s trash is another one – another man’s treasure, we’ve heard that. And one man’s income or expenses, you know, are very – it varies. I mean, we’ve got people who can afford a $500 bag whereas another person enjoys a sale at whatever the, you know, the…


SWANN: Exactly.


SWANN: And so that you just have to own it and be comfortable with who you are and don’t allow yourself to get drawn in to do anything else but just know that you know that you know who you are and this is what we have to give because love, the gift of charity, the gift of helping, weighs – outweighs so much more than anything monetary. So you have to just be confident in who you are and what you give and what your family gives to whomever as a person, and just leave it at that. Don’t allow them to try to drag you up to their level because then you’ll do the whole keeping up with the Joneses thing. But just own it and be proud of what it is you have. And do everything in love. I mean, if you go and you make something with your own hands and you give it, that’s just as valuable as something else. But you have to believe that for yourself.

CAVANAUGH: Real quickly, before the break, Elaine, if somebody is scaling back because of the recession…

SWANN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …used to give a lot of presents, is it proper to notify people of that?

SWANN: You don’t have to do that. If you’re scaling back and you say, for example, cards for everyone this year, then don’t – then be as personal as you can with it. Don’t do the electronic cards, don’t print it out on your printer but, really, handwrite something in the card. Make it something memorable. We had such a wonderful time spending whatever with you this year, we really appreciate you. Best wishes, this and that. But handwrite it. A handwritten card speaks a thousand words than something that you just kind of generated out of the computer. If you have to add a photo in there of, you know, a child grown up or a graduation or something like that to make it personal, that’s fine. But you – no need to let everybody know here’s what it is because then they’re weighing that against what you did last year. Give them what you got and leave it at that.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue with etiquette expert Elaine Swann and continue taking your calls. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and my guest is etiquette expert Elaine Swann. We are talking about holiday etiquette at parties, for gift giving, dealing with relatives. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Before we go to the phones, Elaine, I wanted to ask one question about gift giving. You know, there are people who provide services to us…


CAVANAUGH: …all year long, newspaper delivery, housekeeping, childcare, what’s your recommendation for tips and gifts?

SWANN: My recommendation for tips and gifts as it pertains to people who help you all year long is to think about your relationship with them. For example, we have our hairdresser or perhaps our barber or manicurist, someone that we see all year long, and so we generally will tip them at the time of the service. So if you want to, you can give them a tip during that time and/or a gift. I suggest a gift because you tip them all year long, so why not some sort of gift that is really personalized? Listen to them throughout the year. Find out what their likes and their dislikes and their interests are. And I always say, a lot of people kind of think that gift cards are a little bit gauche but not necessarily so because say, for example, you have someone who loves crafts. Maybe a gift card to Michael’s or something like that would be a treasure for someone. So gift cards aren’t so bad. When it comes to, for example, your mail carrier, the U.S. post office does not allow you to give them money. You can give them a gift that’s up to $20 in value and so, again, think about little conversations you may or may not have had at the mailbox with your mail carrier. For a regular babysitter, you can tip them, for example, one evening’s pay. The same thing with your trainer, your personal trainer. You can – because generally you don’t give them a tip, so you can tip them about the same thing, whatever a cost of a session would be.


SWANN: If you have a gardener, you can give them anywhere from $20 to $50 with – as far as their tip is concerned and the same thing with your pool cleaner as well.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, let’s go to the phone. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s speak with David in Normal Heights. Good morning, David. Welcome to These Days.

DAVID (Caller, Normal Heights): Good morning. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

DAVID: I have a question. Say I go to a party and I bring a bottle of wine with me and the host takes the bottle of wine and puts it away. And I like wine and they’re only serving beer at the party. What’s the polite thing for me to do? Do I request a glass of wine or do I just have soda, water or whatever?

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Thank you for that.

SWANN: That’s a great question. Well, the thing that stands out most to me is the fact that for – in this particular example, you said that you notice that the host put it away. So I would say to be considerate of your host because the bottle of wine is a gift for the host to say thank you for inviting me. So if you see that host put that bottle away, then that means that that bottle is for the host and the host is going to use it for – at that particular time. Now if you do find out that, for example, everyone’s serving, you know, beer – everyone’s drinking beer and it’s not something that you enjoy, then my advice is just to take part in something else that they have that’s there and do that. It’s the same – and drink that. For example, you get to the party and the host is serving, you know, beef and you don’t eat beef, you wouldn’t ask the host to go and prepare you some chicken. You would just go ahead and go without the beef and try your best to enjoy the evening, and so that would be my suggestion there. Now, if you are a wine drinker and you always want to be sure that, hey, you know what, I don’t know if they’re going to have wine at the party, then I would say if your gift for the host is a bottle of wine and you like wine, then you bring two. One is the gift for your host to say thank you for inviting me, and the other one, you can specifically say, hey, I brought this for this evening, so let’s pop it open. And if it doesn’t mess up your meal plan, I’d be the first to, you know, have a drink. Something like that, so other than that, pick a different gift to bring because, remember, that gift is all about saying thank you for inviting me, it’s not necessarily we’re going to eat this right now.

CAVANAUGH: What about gifts in the workplace?

SWANN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: You know, some people give gifts in the workplace, others don’t. If you get a gift that you had no reason to expect from a coworker, should you feel obligated to return the …

SWANN: Absolutely not. What you do is just follow up and say thank you, and if you feel led to do so, then you can just write them a nice note, a nice thank you card and say thank you so much for the gift. If they hand you the gift in your hand, don’t send them an e-mail saying thank you. If they hand you a gift in your hand, just write them a thank you card, put it in their box or on their desk and leave it at that but do not feel obligated to reciprocate.

CAVANAUGH: So people still write thank you notes.

SWANN: They should, and I am really, really pressing that. I’m really, really pressing that because, again, with technology, it has us so disconnected and thank you notes are so, so important. That handwritten thank you note is vital to communication and connecting with other people. E-mail doesn’t transfer emotion well but when a person sees actual handwriting and you’re able to say what you want in writing, that shows a lot of emotion. And so I think thank you notes are so, so important and, as a matter of fact, that’s what I’m going to be talking about on the show on the Style Network, too, so okay.

CAVANAUGH: Very good. Very good to know. Let’s take another call. Rose is calling from Point Loma. Good morning, Rose. Welcome to These Days.

ROSE (Caller, Point Loma): Thank you. I – You were just speaking about gifting like your hairdresser, for example, and I’m just wondering what the thought process is in gifting when you’re paying for services. I mean, I know it’s to say thank you but I guess I’m torn between do we really gift them because we’re paying them for an actual service on top of tipping them for the service and then gifting them?

SWANN: Okay, here’s the thing. At the end of the year, it’s a nice gesture to say thank you to people who have helped you all year long. You have the right to say thank you in any manner whatsoever. Your thank you might just be in a thank you card, a holiday card that says thank you for helping me stay beautiful all year long. That might be your level of thank you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Your thank you might be an extra tip. Your thank you might be a gift. So you have a choice on how you want to say thank you. The bottom line is, it’s a good idea to say thank you at the end of the year but it’s your choice on how you want to do so. So it can be in a card by itself, it could be a actual gift, or it can be a tip. But it’s nice to say thank you.

CAVANAUGH: That’s good advice. Thank you. Pat is calling from the east county. Good morning, Pat, and welcome to These Days.

PAT (Caller, East County): Good morning, and thanks for taking my call. I’d like to make a comment very quickly before I ask my question. You have been talking about workplace gifts and I was very glad that you mentioned the limit that the post office allows their workers to accept. I work in a hospital that has very strict limits on the kinds of gifts that we can accept from outside marketers and outside vendors and, in fact, we’ve written letters to those people when we’ve had to send gifts back…


PAT: …that were over the value, explaining our policy and most people have accepted that very well. But that might be something that people should take into consideration, particularly with ethics issues being so much in the forefront these days.

CAVANAUGH: Very good advice.

PAT: But my question is, if you’re invited to a dinner party and you are asked to say grace but you have no particular religious background of your own, what do you do?

SWANN: If you are the person who’s supposed to actually speak, is that what you’re saying?

PAT: Yeah.

SWANN: Right, okay. Okay.

PAT: Let’s say you go to, you know, I’m invited to a dinner party and I know from experience that this family practices a particular religion and suddenly there I am and I’m asked to say the grace before the meal but I have no particular religious background.

SWANN: Gotcha.

PAT: How do I handle it?

SWANN: Okay, you handle – Okay, so the idea behind saying grace is just to speak words of thanks for whatever it is that you’re about to eat. And that – And you can keep it just that simple. You don’t have to reference any, you know, particular religion or verbiage or what you have, so you say what’s on your heart. It’s just as simple as saying thank you for food and for family and for fun, and thank you that we’re all healthy and alive. Amen.

CAVANAUGH: Pat, can you handle that?

SWANN: And if you don’t want to say amen, you don’t have to say that either. But you can just really keep it simple and say thank you for whatever it is you have to but don’t feel like you have to interject any religion into it.

CAVANAUGH: And, Pat, thank you so much for the call. Let’s go to Diane in San Diego. Good morning, Diane. Welcome to These Days.

DIANE (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Great show. I’m calling because I have a question. My niece and nephew, who live out of state, in the past when I’ve sent them presents, they never acknowledge that they receive them. I mean, not only do I not get a thank you note but I don’t even get a ‘your package arrived’ phone call. And so I just stopped sending them. And – But now I’m thinking is that just being – Am I just being kind of bitter and that I’m not sending them anymore? Should I continue to send gifts just because I’m an aunt and I want to have a relationship with my niece and nephew? Or should I cut them off because, you know, they’re not acknowledging it?

SWANN: Okay, well, if you cut them off because they’re not acknowledging it then you’re cutting them off because they’re not acknowledging it so you just have to own it within yourself as to why you choose to not to send the gifts anymore. If that’s the reason why you’re doing it, you know, then that’s it. If you’re not because you just decided that they’re too old and you’re going to – they’re adults now and they should send to you, whatever, but for whatever your reason is, that’s the reason. Now, there’s nothing wrong with not following up. Here’s the thing. Let me just go back just a little bit. Whenever you send a gift or a card or what have you and it’s a gift of love or charity, you have to send that gift out with the thought process in your mind to say if I never hear a thank you, I’m okay. The gift has to be about your purpose behind it which is, hopefully, giving to them and sharing with them not necessarily hearing that thank you coming back from them. Now, if you – if you’re concerned about did they get the gift, I don’t know if they got it, there’s nothing wrong with not following up every single time but, say, for example, you end up in a telephone conversation or you all come together for the summer or the Christmas or what have you, you say, you know, I sent such-and-such to you, did you get it? And if they say yes, then that means that they don’t have any plans of saying thank you at all and so you have to just ask yourself, am I okay with sending this out knowing that I’m not going to get anything back. And if you’re okay with that then, honey, keep on sending. And if you’re not okay with it and you just can’t find yourself doing it, then stop. And just whatever it is you choose to do or be, be that. But send it out and don’t worry about what comes back. And if you want to stop, then stop.

CAVANAUGH: You know, we just had a caller on the line and couldn’t stay on the line who wanted to know are there any good etiquette books out now. You know, I started out with that old-fashioned…

SWANN: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …etiquette. I mean, is – Do you have – You don’t have a book, do you?

SWANN: I do actually.


SWANN: Well, I have…


SWANN: I have a book. The first book I have is called “Girls Have Style at School.” This particular book is geared toward teenage girls and try – how they can kind of get through their day at school. I’m working on my second book right now, which is going to be out this spring and it’s called “Beyond Table Manners.”


SWANN: And that is for adults. And so we’re looking forward to that and you – whatever, you can visit my website. But at any rate, I still do a tremendous amount of research and study. The Post family, Emily Post, I read all of their books and so those – I would say go to the Post – Emily Post website and you can take a look at some of the books there. Those are great books to read. Judith Martin, her books are great.

CAVANAUGH: Miss Manners books, right.

SWANN: Yeah, Miss Manners, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.

SWANN: I love her. She’s so witty in the way she answers people, too. It’s great.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of your advice about these interactions with people during the holidays and, I guess, around the year have to do with the fact that you’re not going to change people.


CAVANAUGH: So you just have to know where – what it is that you are giving out of a spirit of love and thankfulness, and you can’t really expect anything back.

SWANN: You cannot. When you enter into any type of relationship, as far as – Well, not necessarily a relationship because, you know, I want some stuff back from my husband. But when we do these things, the thing about it, we have to just resolve within ourselves that our family, they are who they are. We cannot change them. It’s not going to happen. You’re not going to teach them some grand lesson, you know, in the short amount of time that they’re visiting your house. You have to accept them for that and then say, okay, so what can I do differently? Am I going to let this get to me? You have to ask yourself, okay, so-and-so just said a snide, nasty comment and they say it every year. Before you respond, before you get into a huff, ask yourself is it worth it? Is it worth my time? Is it worth me getting upset or not? Can I just change the subject, keep it stepping, and do what I say, let crazy be crazy. Because they’re still going to be crazy next year.

CAVANAUGH: No better advice for the holidays. Elaine, thank you so much.

SWANN: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with etiquette expert Elaine Swann. She’s written for Modern Bride magazine, Essence magazine, Exquisite Weddings magazine. She has a book coming out in the spring, and she will be featured on a new makeover show on the Style Network called “What I Hate About Me” on January second. Thank you so much again.

SWANN: It was a pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to comment on what you’ve heard here on KPBS, go to Thank you so much for listening. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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