Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Etiquette Tips from Emily Post's Great-Great Grandaughter Anna Post

When it comes to navigating through society with manners, who hasn't referred to Emily Post's advice at some point? Her first book, Etiquette, topped the nonfiction besteller list when it was published back in 1922 and now Post's rules on social conduct is a family business that has spanned five generations, evolving with the times to include modern issues. Her great-great granddaughter Anna Post, co-author of 2010's Great Get-Togethers and the recently-released 18th edition of Etiquette, was gracious enough to answer a slew of questions centered around holiday and hosting do's and don'ts. From regifting and sending late holiday cards to entertaining last-minute guests and attending the company party, here's how you can tweak your holiday manners "according to Emily Post."

Hi Anna! Thanks for offering your advice on these holiday scenarios. To get started, how should one handle receiving an unexpected gift from someone you bought nothing for?

Don't feel guilty. It was unexpected so how could you have planned for it? Thank them for the gift and appreciate the gift. Don't forget to do that part because a lot of people are so worried about apologizing that they don't have something for the other person that they forget to actually appreciate the gift that they were just given. So say thank you for it.

If you were not planning to get them a gift, you just say thank you, write a note later, and leave it that. You don't have to go and get a gift for them just because they got one for you. Now it might change your thinking and make you want to go do that, but you certainly don't have to. And if you really didn't want to get them a gift, you shouldn't say, "Oh, I just haven't gotten yours yet." You don't need to lie about it and you certainly don't need say, "Oh, I have yours at home" when you don't even have one for them yet. There's no need to pretend as though you had read their mind about this gift exchange.

So should you have gifts stocked for those just-in-case moments?

You can, although unless you're doing this at your house it doesn't really make a difference. The fact is that yes, it's always great idea to have a couple extra gifts that could go nicely for a lot of people like hostess gifts, but people usually keep those on hand for going to parties not so much for a holiday gift although you certainly could.

Now what would be some good hostess gifts?

You don't need to wrap them for one thing. You want to think about gifts that are either edible or drinkable so it might be a bottle of wine, a nice box of hot cocoa, or it could be a box of chocolates, a nice muffin mix, or a bottle of maple syrup. So things like that that are kind of gourmet edibles, little treats. Or you want to think about little things like something for the house like a set of coasters or really fun cocktail napkins, maybe a soap dish for the powder room. You could do flowers, but it's better to do a small potted plant or flowers already in a vase so that your busy hostess doesn't then have to attend to cut flowers.

Oh, good idea. And what are your thoughts on regifting?

Generally I'm not a fan. With regifting you run the risk of hurting people's feelings and that to me is not a risk I would take on lightly. If the situation is too perfect to do it, it has to be new and in the box with all the instructions like it came from the store. It can't be handmade or personalized or unique. It needs to be something that they have actually wanted! They have to have actually wanted that blender to be getting that blender.

The last thing I'll say is that I really prefer if you have something extra that you can't use, that you give it to a friend with full disclosure. You can say, "I have this extra copy of this hardcover book. I thought you might like it."

Now to go into hosting for the holidays, what items should every host have just in case unexpected guests arrive at your doorstep?

You want to keep on-hand some things that are easy nibbles so either chips and salsa or mixed nuts and maybe a jar of olives. Or an extra block of cheese and some crackers that you can easily pull out. I mean obviously you don't want cheese that's really old, but you get the idea.

You can also have a couple of frozen things like mini quiches or little pigs in a blanket that you can pop on a tray and throw in the oven for however long it takes. It's not a bad idea to have soda or seltzer water and keep a little bit of extra alcohol in your bar so that if you do have an impromptu party you're not running out to the liquor store.

And the last thing I would mention is the best way to have an impromptu party is to keep drinks in hand, alcohol or not, and music on the stereo and that's a party just about anywhere.

Do you have an d├ęcor tips that would quickly bring in some cheer to any party?

Candles, if it's evening, really helps. Little tea light candles are really nice. Flowers are terrific, but that means you've got to have them on hand and now we're really just talking party planning at that point.

If you plan on having a party in the coming days, how can you avoid stress when you have all these to-do's? How can you keep your mind clear and actually enjoy the moment when it arrives?

Write lists and work early. Whether it's shopping lists or a timeline so that you can write out "Well let's see: if I'm going to roast a chicken and I'm going to make a salad and a dessert and I need to get the candles ready and I need to set the table…" You need to count backwards from go time and give yourself a task list counting down to zero moment, which is the doorbell ringing. And you need to remember to make time for you to be all showered, dressed, lipstick on, and ready to go.

Should you bring the little ones along when invited to friends' holiday parties?

Unless it's incredibly obvious that it's a children's party from the invitation or your children's names were written out or it says "The Post Family," you need to call and check with your host and see if kids are invited or not before you ask to bring them. And there's a difference between asking to bring your kids and asking if kids are invited. You need to ask first if they're invited and if they are, then say that you're bringing them. And if they say no, they're not invited, that answers your next question.

Do you have any major no-no's when hosting or attending holiday parties?

For attending, always R.S.V.P. A lot of people don't R.S.V.P. especially during the holidays. They treat these invitations very casually and it drives hosts nuts. So please R.S.V.P. and abide by it. If it's a 12-person dinner party and you said you weren't coming, the hostess probably found someone else for your seat and you'll make it awkward if you decide to go at the last minute.

Also, never drink too much. During the holidays definitely people can get a little more celebratory than is enough so watch out for how much you're drinking. And I think if you're hosting the holidays, it's never a bad idea to plan for a little extra.

Your advice to not drink too much is a good segue into company parties. What are some do's and don'ts for employees?

Really be present in the room. You want to be engaged with your colleagues not checking emails and voice messages on your mobile device in the corner the whole time. Don't bring work into the party. And you do need to be at the party for more than 15 minutes! You have to participate in your work culture and if that includes the holiday party then so be it.

For those of us who have trouble getting them out on time, do you have any alternatives to sending holiday cards?

One, and depending on the holiday you participate in, it's okay to send them after Christmas. A lot of people worry that December 25th is this deadline if you haven't sent your cards out by then what's the point? In advent of the season, I would say about as late as into the first week of January.

You can order cards. A lot of stores will put a photo on it, write a message, and print your name and that's great. I think those are nice, but I'd really prefer it if you could handwrite your own note on the back. It starts to get a little too impersonal otherwise.

I know it depends on the store, but is there a good average amount to put on a gift card?

It totally depends on your budget, the store, and your relationship to the person. The gift card that you might buy as a secret elf present at your office is probably going to be different from the gift card that you might buy for your sister. I also like it whenever possible to do an actual gift instead of a gift card. It's just more personal.

What's the most frequently asked etiquette question this time of year?

Well, I get asked a lot about the holiday office party and I get asked a lot about if you change up your gift exchange with someone, especially because of the economy, if that's okay. And the answer's yes, it's okay. If you don't have the money to do a gift exchange then that's that and it's nothing to be embarrassed about. But if you're changing the tradition with a friend you've always exchanged with, you need to let them know as soon as possible. You do want to let them know, "Hey, you know this year it's just not in the budget. How about we go hear the carolers singing instead?" So that they know and don't show up with gift in hand and then you're leaving them short.

So what are some of your favorite holiday traditions?

Well, decking the tree is really nice especially when you can do it with friends. We have some friends we like to get together with and yes, we make eggnog and it's very fun. And we have a family dinner in the afternoon with all my cousins. We're all kind of the same age, there's seven of us, and it's really, really great to get together.

So does everyone in the Post family abide by the etiquette rules or are there slips every now and then?

Let's just say that we're a family like any other. We have a really great time and we'll leave it at that! It doesn't look like an etiquette class, it looks like a normal family.

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  1. Ugh, I definitely need to do better and abide by her work/holiday culture and parties. My work people frequently go and "create culture" after work and I always use the "gotta get home to kids" excuse. Sometimes, I'm just going to have to suck it up and go, and miss dinner with my kids.

    Good read. Thanks for all the handy info. :)

  2. I agree with Tooje...some good points made here... I for one could use some etiquette help.

  3. That's some damned good advice! Especially the one regarding children at holiday parties!


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