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Miss Conduct

Advice on dealing with family strife over gift giving

Plus, what to volunteer when declining an invitation, and what not to.

Lucy Truman

> At Christmas this year my girlfriend sent letters to friends and family requesting no presents (because of holiday mass marketing, imports from China, global warming, and overconsumption). My sister and her family sent us an outfit for our daughter and a card saying they had donated to charity in our name. My girlfriend mailed the gift back to them with a strongly worded note. I think this was rude, but she is angry, refuses to come to family parties, and still brings the subject up several times a week. Any advice would be helpful.

L.H. / Boston

What your sister and her family did was not wrong. They respected your wishes and made only a token, practical gift. Even if they had ignored your girlfriend’s directive entirely, her response would have been wildly inappropriate, like bringing a knife to a pillow fight.

If you didn’t have children, I’d say you should dump this lady’s Grinch butt. But whether or not you stay romantic partners, you are co-parents for life. Whatever it takes, you need to learn how to set boundaries and not be controlled by her. What kind of Christmas do you want for your children? What kind of relationship do you want them to have with their aunt and uncle and cousins? For that matter, what’s your opinion on global warming and the trade deficit? Do you even know anymore? You’re allowed to have one, you know.

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Get some couples counseling. And don’t let your girlfriend browbeat or treat you disrespectfully in front of your children, unless that’s how you want them to treat or be treated by their partners when they grow up. I wish you the best of luck, and, come December, a Christmas miracle or two.

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> Friends of mine often organize events by e-mail. Some people “reply all” to decline, and one person in particular gives detailed excuses, usually involving an event to which the rest of us weren’t invited. It comes off as saying, “Thanks, but I have a much better offer.” Is the “reply all” appropriate to decline an invitation? And how much information should be provided?

B.G. / Cambridge

With a manageable group of invitees, replying to everyone makes sense. If you can’t make it to mah-jongg night, you can at least catch everyone up on why, and how the non-jongg aspects of your life are proceeding. For large groups, respond only to the host to avoid clogging up people’s in-boxes.

No particular information is required when declining an invitation — “I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to come” is perfectly fine. In fact, get into the habit of always telling people the details of why you can’t come, and sooner or later you’ll have to turn down an invitation because you’re getting a colonoscopy or auditioning for a reality show (and then what will you say?). But it’s warm and gossipy to tell friends what could possibly be compelling enough to pull you away from their company.

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If your excuse-parading friend doesn’t otherwise tend toward braggadocio, blame the medium rather than the messenger.

E-mail often comes off snootier than intended. If he or she is that snooty . . . well, be glad that at least the boasting comes in easily deletable form.  

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP? Write to her at missconduct@globe.com. And get advice live during a Boston.com chat with Robin Abrahams this Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m.