Miss Conduct

Advice on gift giving

How to make ‘no gifts, please’ work. Plus, when to say “thank you” for a thank you gift.

Illustration by Lucy Truman

>At my annual holiday parties, I ask guests to bring donations for a local food pantry, and they are always generous. I’m also planning a 60th birthday party for myself in 2013. I don’t need or want gifts, but people often feel obligated to bring something anyway. Can I say on the invitation that I don’t want gifts, but if they must, I would appreciate a donation to the food pantry? How should I word this?

W.P. / Jamaica Plain

A gracious host must communicate clear expectations to his guests. People often don’t want to do that because it feels too authoritarian, but guests can only relax and be comfortable if they aren’t constantly second-guessing themselves. People should know how to dress, how much they will be getting to eat, whether any activity other than conversation will be required of them, what they ought to bring, exactly who from their household or retinue is invited, and so on. All sorts of answers to these questions are acceptable, but the point is to be clear. Instructions like “no gifts but if you have to, how about this?” violate that principle.

It’s fine to use informal channels to indicate your preferences, however. If someone jokes about how she (or your mutual friend Greg Goodgiver) won’t be able to abide by the edict, you can allow as to how a food-bank donation might be kind of sweet, and you hope anyone who brings anything at all will bring that. Word will get out, perhaps helped on by a gossipy friend or two. Spouses can be useful in this kind of “unofficially official” communication capacity, but presumably if you had that kind of spouse, you wouldn’t be planning your own birthday party to begin with.

 >I coach my young daughters’ teams in a couple different sports, and at the end of each season, I will occasionally receive a small gift card or token of thanks from some of the players and their parents. I’m wondering if I should send a thank you note. They are thanking me for coaching, so I don’t want to make it awkward by “thanking a thank you,” but I also want to do the proper thing.  What do you think?


T.M. / North Reading

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Good for you, and for all men who are involved in their children’s lives. (For your information, dear readers, T.M. is a man.) Girls need strong female role models — but they also need strong and kind male mentors and coaches, too. A girl who knows what it feels like to have a man rooting her on and helping her be her best is a girl who will grow up wise and confident.

On to your actual question, Mr. Local Hero. In general, thank you gifts (including host gifts and holiday tips) don’t require a handwritten note. However, one practical function of a thank you note is to let the giver know that the gift was received. Whenever there is the possibility that mishap may have occurred — a postal failure, a check so discreetly tucked into a card as to be easily overlooked, a kind parental note to Coach T.M. and a Starbucks gift card lying crumpled and forgotten in the bottom of a backpack — then write, call, or e-mail the gift giver. Yes, thanking a thank you can be a bit silly, but these rituals help us tie a bow around 2012 and call it done.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP?Write to her at And get advice live during a chat with Robin Abrahams on December 19 from noon to 1 p.m.