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No More Ugly Knickknacks!

Putting the kibosh on unwanted gifts, plus bibs for 60-year-olds, inquisitive kids, and revealing guest lists.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)
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I have lovely friends with whom I exchange gifts at expected times. As I begin to reconstruct my world to contain only those items that I find useful or beautiful, the majority of gifts tend not to fall in either category, so I would prefer to be honored with a gift to charity. Is this appropriate to ask of my friends?

S.F. in Waltham

You don't want to insult your friends by rejecting their gifts while continuing to proffer your own, so suggest a mutual change in gift-giving policy instead. Propose that since you all have enough material stuff, wouldn't it be nice to honor birthdays and holidays in some less tangible fashion? Depending on your friends' preferences as well as yours, you might forgo gifts entirely, contribute to charity, or, if it's a mutual gift-giving occasion (for example, Christmas), spend the money that would have gone to gifts on a fancy lunch or tickets to a concert or game.

One of my employees always takes his napkin at the start of a meal and stuffs the corner of it behind his shirt collar, creating a bib. He is an educated 60-year-old man who is comfortable in a business suit. It just appears odd to me that he doesn't lay the napkin on his thigh, which I have always understood to be appropriate. Is his practice OK, especially for business lunches? Should I say anything to him or just ignore it?

R. L. in Haverhill

He's incorrect; napkins go in laps unless there is a compelling reason (e.g., hand tremors or weakness) to want extra protection. However, he is merely incorrect; to criticize the table manners of a 60-year-old in one's employ is downright wrong. So don't say anything.

In my apartment building, there is one family whose children constantly ask me highly personal questions, oftentimes with their parents standing right there. I don't want to be rude, but I'm not about to answer a child who asks where I've been, how much things cost, or, my personal favorite, if I'm planning on having more than the two children I already have. I've looked to their parents to see if they will step in to stop this, but so far, no go. I've told all of the kids that these things are none of their business, and still the questions persist on a daily basis, and now I'm being labeled the lady who is rude to kids by other neighbors. Is there anything I can do?

K. L. in Manchester, New Hampshire

Saying "That's none of your business" to a child is rather harsh. How are they to know what is their business or not? Their parents obviously have different standards of privacy than you do - and people ask children horribly personal questions all the time, so it's not like they'd figure out anything about appropriate boundaries from the way they're treated themselves. (Just once I'd love to hear a child respond to an adult's "Did you study hard and get a good report card?" with "Yes, I did! Did you meet your sales quota and get a good quarterly bonus?") The next time the wee inquisitors ask you a question you don't want to answer, tell them that not everyone likes to discuss such matters, and you're one of those people. Then take the conversation elsewhere. I'm sure they find your family-planning decisions quite a boring topic, intrinsically; it's only entertaining to the extent that it ruffles your feathers. They'd much rather talk about dinosaurs or Pokemon or that big stupid annoying kid on their soccer team who always hogs the ball, so talk about that with them, instead.

I've always been taught it's rude to ask hosts who's invited to their parties. I have a pretty close friend whom I have just invited to my birthday party. Every year, she asks me, "Who's coming?" and I have always tried to avoid answering her. Is her question rude? And what can I do if it is?

J. X. in Boston

As with many questions, the rudeness or lack thereof lies in the intent. If your friend means "I'm only coming if Tom Brady will be there," then her question is inappropriate. But I doubt that's the case if she's an old friend who has been to your parties before and knows the usual suspects. It sounds more as if she's asking in the happy spirit of "Cool! A party! Will Zoe be there? How about that cute guy from Sales you mentioned a while back?" which is a perfectly acceptable expression of enthusiasm. She also may want to avoid mentioning the party to some mutual acquaintance who was not invited.

Whatever taboo may have existed about not divulging the guest list is being eroded by invitation websites that enable partygoers to see not only who else has been invited, but who is planning to attend and who comes up with the most elaborate and apology-encrusted excuses. There doesn't seem to be much point in hosts and hostesses maintaining strict omerta about invitation lists these days.

My Word!

Do you have questions related to medical etiquette? Wondering how to treat your doctors, nurses, and other medical staff right - and how to make sure they do right by you? I'll be doing a special feature on medicine and manners for the December 16 issue of the magazine. Got questions? Send 'em to, and I'll see if I can cure what ails you!

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