There are people you just know to give gifts to for the holidays: Your spouse, your children, and your parents are often among those included. Yet for many other relationships, the lines get blurry. Should you gift that co-worker you don’t know well, your long-time boss, your father-in-law, your neighbor, or even your dog walker? And if you do buy them something, what should you even give? It’s the great gift dilemma, and it’s a tricky situation to be in.
While it’s commonly debated whether or not you should give many of these people gifts, the etiquette experts TZR spoke to for this story see things a little clearer. In fact, there are rules around giving in most types of relationships — even the ones that seem totally up in the air — and gifts that are pretty much unanimously deemed appropriate (and inappropriate, as well).
Regardless of the situation, Tami Claytor, the founder and president of Always Appropriate: Image & Etiquette Consulting, says that the the fundamental etiquette rule in all cases of gift-giving is “to think of the other person’s preferences and not your own.” In general, you should also aim for luxury and whimsy — not practicality. Consider what the person wants, says Claytor, rather than what they need.
A few other rules of thumb Claytor abides by? Avoid gift cards in (almost) all cases, put effort into your gift-wrapping, and when in doubt, a bottle of wine will always do.
With that, continue on for all the advice you need on who (and how) to gift this season when it comes to those “uncertain” people in your life, ahead.
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Gift Or No Gift: “If it's not casual flirting and you see the relationship going in a good direction, then definitely yes! It's an excellent way to start something meaningful,” says Dobrochna Aleksandra Giedwidz, founder, etiquette trainer, and image consultant at Etiquette Now.
What To Give: According to Giedwidz, try to give something with personal meaning for the two of you. For example: “Something you talked about on the first date, a record with your song, a book by your favorite author, or sweets you shared together. Or, you can simply write a card with a hearty, personal message or maybe even a poem if you want to add a romantic touch.”
For Claytor, romance rules for new relationships. “In this case, always go for the grand gesture. The goal is to impress the new love in your life.” In other words, it’s not the time for practical presents. She recommends something like jewelry, a perfume or cologne you know they like, or even a gift certificate to a spa.
Gift Or No Gift: When it comes to gifts in the workplace, Giedwidz advises treading carefully. “In many companies, there are even strict guidelines on what kind of gifts, if any, employees are allowed to receive.” Thus, first check if there are any in place before you buy something. If you and another co-worker do want to exchange gifts directly because you’re friends, that’s fine — just do it privately and away from the office, she says.
The Etiquette Now founder also notes that there are often organized gift exchanges at end-of-year office parties, to which bringing a small gift is appropriate (in fact, it might even be rude not to buy one unless participating is optional).
What To Give: If you are giving to one or more specific co-workers, Claytor says to be observant about their habits at work to determine a good gift. “What items are on their desk? What do they order for lunch? Does this person like nice pens?” she says. A cool mug, themed gifts related to a hobby, lunch at their favorite restaurant, or even a gift card to a store or website (yes, it’s OK in this case) are all acceptable items to give.
Gift Or No Gift: Giedwidz says if you’re part of a team, you shouldn’t give your manager a gift that’s only from you. “This could send the wrong signal, even if your intentions are good and you just want to show your appreciation.” Rather, join in with other members of your department and give a gift from the group. If you do work directly with your boss (such as if you’re their assistant), Giedwidz says a small gift may be appropriate — just keep it simple, sincere, and relatively inexpensive.
What To Give: For group-gifting, Giedwidz shares that you should find something that reflects your boss’ interests; a coffee table book, or two tickets to some type of performance. If it’s a gift just from you, try something like “homemade sweets, a bottle of wine, a speciality from your region, or a nice book,” she says. However, note that both Giedwidz and Claytor recommend avoiding any “intimate” gifts, such as perfume, underwear, or jewelry. “This applies to both sides, including a boss who wants to give a gift to an employee,” continues Giedwidz.
Gift Or No Gift: “I would say only [give a gift to neighbors] if you are friends with them or if they help you around the house, e.g. moving in, housesitting, or if they regularly pick up your parcels,” says Giedwidz.
What To Give: As for what to give them, Giedwidz explains that “often a card is enough, or you can add a bottle of sparkling wine, chocolates, or a holiday speciality.” Your price point, Claytor notes, “will depend on the closeness of your relationship.” However, Claytor continues, think more along the lines of stocking-stuffers (such as gourmet coffee or chocolates) than extravagant gifts.
Dog Walkers, House Cleaners, & Other At-Home Service Providers
Gift Or No Gift: Both etiquette experts say that with these types of relationships, it’s great to show your gratitude with a cash tip and a nice card. “If you have a closer relationship, there is nothing wrong with enclosing a gift as well,” says Giedwidz.
What To Give: If you’re going with cash and a heartfelt message, Claytor says the amount “should be equal to one month of services.” For example: “If you pay the person $100 per month, then your gift would be $100,” she explains. If you’re giving a gift along with money, choose something small but thoughtful. “For a cleaner, it could be a wellness voucher or something else they enjoy in their free time; or a gift basket with a mix of seasonal specialities,” says Giedwidz. “For a dog walker, a nice scarf for cold days or a practical insulated water bottle for sunny days. A bottle of wine or a nice liquor is also an option.”
Gift Or No Gift: Yes, every family is different. But as Giedwidz says, “it's kind of a golden rule to always show your in-laws how much they mean to you.”
What To Give: According to the Etiquette Now founder, having “personalized creations made by illustrators, craftsmen, and artists, or a photo frame filled with photos that you know are special to them” could be a great idea. “Another idea is to give experiences; for example, a course related to their hobby, or tickets to concerts and events.” (Just always buy tickets for two, she reiterates.)
That said, it’s important to be careful in the types of gifts you give your in-laws as well. “There are some gifts that might seem a little offensive and we need to be careful with our choices, like wrinkle creams, anti-cellulite massages, self-help books,” continues Giedwidz. “Even with things like household appliances, unless you get a special request for it, it's better to give something more frivolous.”
Hairstylist, Facialist, & Other Personal Service Providers
Gift Or No Gift: “As with people who help you around the house, it's perfectly fine to leave a tip at the end of your visit to show your appreciation,” explains Giedwidz. And while you shouldn’t feel obliged to give them a gift, “if you have a very friendly relationship and know a lot about them, a small gift that's not too expensive is always a nice gesture (especially after so many months of being closed).”
What To Give: Again, it’s usually best to keep it small here — though that doesn’t mean it needs to be any less personal. “It could be baked goods, a plant, or a book that expands their knowledge of the industry or gives ideas on how to grow their business or even a biography of an interesting personality,” shares Giedwidz.