How to share in a religious celebration – while avoiding awkward moments

by Wency Leung

You may not believe in God, but your Aunt Marge does. So when she invites you over for a holiday meal, should you participate in the family’s religious rituals and prayers, or risk offending your host?

Whether it’s Easter dinner, Passover, a wedding or bar mitzvah, certain gatherings can get awkward when guests and hosts don’t share the same faith. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We asked authorities of good behaviour how both guests and hosts can happily celebrate without embarrassing themselves or infringing on each others’ beliefs. Here, they offer their advice:

FOR GUESTS

Do your homework: If you don’t know what’s appropriate or what to expect, find out before you go. On certain occasions, for example, it may not be fitting to bring gifts. On others, it may be frowned upon to show up empty-handed.

“It’s like if you travel to another country,” says Suzanne Nourse, founder and director of The Protocol School of Ottawa. “You have a responsibility to do your homework, so you don’t go to the Middle East in short shorts and a tank top.”

Have an open mind: You may never become a convert, but be willing, at least, to explore what others’ rituals and beliefs entail, says Margaret Page, founder and director of Etiquette Page in Vancouver.

“Obviously, you have something in common because you’ve been invited,” she says.

Besides, Ms. Page adds, you never know. You may come away with a different perspective, or a better understanding of a particular belief system.

Keep your objections to yourself: “Silently respect the host’s observation,” says Toronto etiquette expert Karen Cleveland. “That’s a hard rule.”

Someone else’s event is not the forum to tout your religious differences, she says.

And don’t just keep your comments to yourself, Ms. Nourse adds. Eye-rolling and hostile body language are no-no’s as well.

“If you feel so strongly against something, then don’t go,” Ms. Nourse says. And if you do decide to go, consider it an honour.

Know the difference between active and passive participation: During prayers, go ahead and bow your head as a sign of respect, Ms. Cleveland says. But you needn’t go beyond that. “You’re not doing anything active. You’re not repeating words, you’re not saying a prayer, you’re not participating in any sort of religious activity.”

Should you fake it? “I think to each their own,” Ms. Cleveland says, noting that she has attended various weddings in the past, in which she’s been moved to repeat a prayer, just because it felt convivial. “I suppose it just depends on where your convictions lie.”

FOR HOSTS

Make it easy for your guests: If you know your guests aren’t familiar with your customs, prepare them for what to expect, Ms. Nourse says. They’ll appreciate it if you give them a heads-up about any dress codes or taboos.

Don’t be pushy: “Where we see challenges is when people become forceful, when they want this other person to see things the way they see things,” says Ms. Page.

Let your guest determine how much they want to know about your beliefs. Give them the opportunity to ask questions, she says. Don’t bombard them with what you’d like them to know. “Otherwise, [you] scare them.”

Let guests choose how they want to participate: If a guest wants to be a silent observer, so be it, Ms. Cleveland says. “I think an excellent metaphor might be if you’re having vegetarian dinner guests, would you insist on having steak?”

At the same time, she says, carry on with your plans and with how you celebrate the occasion. There’s no need to go out of your way to accommodate. For instance, when drawing up the guest list, she says, “I wouldn’t worry about doing a mental tally of various sects to make sure [no one feels left out].”

If you’re having overnight guests, and you don’t know what to do with them when it’s time to go to church, synagogue or the mosque, let them know your plans. “Say, ‘Look, we’re headed to Mass at 10 a.m. if you’d like to join us. If not, we’re going to round up for brunch here at noon,’” Ms. Cleveland says. That way, you’ve put out the invitation and have still given them an opportunity to bow out.

(First published in The Globe and Mail, April 2012)

Are you a control freak over your kids’ gift?

by Tralee Pearce

If you’re looking for a gift for Anna Cohen’s boys for Christmas or Hanukkah this year, the Vancouver mother of two may send you a link to one of the wooden trains they collect on eBay – and include her address. Or she may simply ask for a toy-store gift certificate.

“I have absolutely no problem telling people what to give my kids,” she says.

In her case, most of her gift suggestions are welcome, since her family lives in Australia and isn’t well acquainted with the boys’ interests – or, perhaps more importantly, their parents’ aesthetic.

“We generally do ask for wood and definitely not-tacky toys,” she says, adding that she tries to offset the cost by suggesting second-hand sources like eBay. Still, there are always a few relatives who ignore her missives and want to “do it their way,” she says.

While parents have always triangulated their kids’ Santa lists with loved-ones’ requests for gift ideas, this generation of parents is increasingly taking on the role of vigilant gatekeepers when it comes to what crosses their threshold.

As the world of commercial toys has exploded exponentially, and along with it the cache of toys the average kid owns, so too have parents’ anxieties. For some, made-in-China plastic is a no-no. Others have a problem with anything made by powerhouses like Disney or Fisher-Price. Some veto sparkly princess gear or fake guns. At what point does a prudent parent morph into a holiday kill-joy?

It is a generational issue, often pitting parents against grandparents who enjoy doting. (And, it is, surely, as the Twitterverse would call it, a #firstworldproblem.) But there are infinite bad choices out there – and, many toys aren’t made as well as they used to be. Frankly, modern parents have a right to be picky, suggests Ms. Cohen.

This urge to curate starts early. Toronto mother Janine Lad began directing toy traffic months ago at the baby shower celebrating her now nine-week-old baby. She registered at two independent, eco-friendly stores, not just to suggest items she’d like, but also to set the tone for the kind of childhood she hopes to give her son.

Her extended family hasn’t been quick to get with the program; if the baby-shower experience was any indication, she will be finding shiny branded plastic toys, not organic cotton stuffed animals, in her son’s stocking this year. She’s already donated a bag of plastic cellphones and other gewgaws to charity.

“You don’t want to sound like a big eco-snob,” says Ms. Lad. “But with some people I have to be more forward; they don’t understand this eco-friendly stuff.”

Faced with an onslaught of questionable toys, however, some parents take a deep breath and pick their battles.

Toronto mother of three Rebecca Keenan, for instance, has given up on her early optimistic vision of an eco-organic brood.

“Gift gaffes range from too loud, too cheap, too many batteries, too violent, too slutty, too tacky, too many pieces and even too expensive,” Ms. Keenan, writes in an e-mail. “But they’re almost always given out of love.”

So she mostly just lets people buy what they want – with one exception: video games. “I have already discussed my feelings about video games and my kids with anybody who might buy them presents.”

Vancouver mother of two Karen Chester says she has directed gift-givers toward books and even food-bank donations. But she recognizes that calling out transgressions is a bad idea – even in the face of a replica handgun. Once her son received one that she says looked “like a sidearm for toddlers.” She kept her mouth shut because the gift givers were dear relatives. But because she, ultimately, can decide what stays in her home, the toy went MIA a few days later.

“What’s the point of making a fuss about it or vetoing it – usually an unwanted toy is so easily ‘lost’ and disposed of. There doesn’t seem to a point in causing problems in your relations with the gift-giver.”

But how can parents best balance their desire to man the barricades with the very real possibility that they’ll be labelled the family Grinch?

Don’t forget about what will make your kids happy, parenting and etiquette experts say. Plus, you may want to consider recent research from Stanford and Harvard University that found people get more pleasure from gifts they had requested. So, while you’re happy about that non-toxic tea set, is it something that your child actually wants?

Beyond that consideration, experts say most friends and family will welcome gift ideas – but it’s best to wait until they ask. “It’s very bold to assume that everyone cares about exactly what you want,” says Toronto etiquette columnist Karen Cleveland.

When asked, general suggestions and even favourite stores may be better received than overly specific lists. Try to include some context, too, Ms. Cleveland says, such as the fact that you’re trying to steer clear of non-ecological gifts. “Or, ‘Little Johnny’s in a huge gun phase right now and it’s freaking us out. We’re trying to get him out of that,’” suggests Ms. Cleveland.

Consider being asked for gift ideas your ultimate chance to influence what your kids will be unwrapping, says Vancouver-based parenting expert Kathy Lynn. “The parents who have trouble are the ones who aren’t being asked.”

That doesn’t stop Ms. Cohen, who says she draws the line around her own parents and siblings – inside that parameter, she feels fine sharing her views, unsolicited. But politely, of course. “You shouldn’t go all bossy.”

And what if you’re thinking of overriding a request and bringing precisely that off-gassing plastic monstrosity parents have diverted you from? Well, then you’re the jerk, not them.

“You’d be putting a strain on a friendship or relationship over a really trivial issue,” says Ms. Cleveland. “Parents pull rank, for sure.”

(First published in The Globe and Mail, December 2011)

Greeting the Royal couple – my interview with the Canadian Press

When the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge came to Canada, everyone (myself included) had a serious case of royal fever. The Canadian Press interviewed me for this video, which ran across its site, Yahoo, The Globe and Mail, MSN and more.

I also wrote a piece for FASHION Magazine on the topic, too.

And just when you think you weren’t really interested in the difference between a court curtsy and a curtsy bob….