Shopping for Valentine’s Day with Yahoo! screen

I had a blast shopping for Valentine’s Day gifts with Matte Babel. Here’s a video put together for Yahoo! screen.

Common mistakes men make on Valentine’s Day

Birthdays are bad and Christmas is a challenge. But there’s no other holiday that strikes more fear into the hearts of men than Valentine’s Day.

Matte Babel speaks to etiquette advisor Karen Cleveland about the most common mistakes men make on Valentine’s Day and what to do to avoid them. They wander through MoRoCo, a luxury chocolate shop in Toronto, as Cleveland dishes the goods.

Mistake #1: You don’t plan ahead
Retailers start hauling out the pink and red decoration and Valentine’s Day goodies in early January so there’s no excuse for letting the holiday creep up on you. Karen points out that waiting until the last-minute to put together romantic or unique plans for your lady never works. “All the good cards are gone, all the good tables at restaurants are booked,” she says. “You’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Mistake #2: You refuse to celebrate
Karen outlines a common holiday cop-out, “Men lament that it’s a commercial ploy and they want nothing to do with it.” But that’s no excuse because whatever your feelings about the holiday, your partner will still have expectations for February 14th. “Women don’t care…You still have to dazzle us.”

Mistake #3: You cheese outOn the other side of the spectrum, there are men who embrace Valentine’s Day in the worst way. Most holidays have potential for hokiness so stay away from clichéd gifts. Karen explains that over-sized stuffed animals or heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are too cheesy. “It feels a little contrived. There’s really nothing authentic about it.” Ideally, you should be looking for gifts that show your feelings for her and not the same old stand-bys.

What you should get her

So what makes for an acceptable token of affection? Karen says a great gift is “something deeply personal that shows how well you know her and how much you adore her.” That might mean getting her concert tickets to her favourite band, or a rare edition of her favourite book.

For adventure-loving ladies, Karen suggests surprising a long-term partner with plane tickets for a weekend away. If it’s still early days, loading her e-reader with travel guides might feel less premature. Or for women who love luxury, an appointment at a spa makes for a thoughtful, indulgent treat.

But for men still flummoxed on how to make the occasion special, Babel asks whether chocolates and flowers can still work as gifts.

Karen recommends stepping up beyond the standard set of drugstore chocolates by seeking out a specialty shop with lots of variety. Dark chocolate ganaches are perfect for traditional women while a bolder gal might prefer a black chai tea truffle.

And no one can go wrong with roses. They’re quite simply, a classic. The best bouquets have a clean style – chic and more minimalist than the plastic-sheathed, babies’ breath-laden clusters easily found in gas stations.

But since some of the best gifts show their specificity, this could mean treating her to nicely wrapped package of licorice if she prefers them to chocolate or showering her with tulips if she prefers them to roses.

It’s all about keeping things personal – to show that you really know her and care.

Marriage proposal etiquette

by Chantaie Allick

Proposing is not an easy thing. A man (or woman) puts himself out there, declaring his (or her) love and devotion and desire to spend the next eternity with that special someone. Add to that the ease with which one can misstep, offend or break a crucial rule and the spectre of embarrassment can overwhelm.

The Star spoke with three Toronto etiquette experts about the rules surrounding that special query. Public proposer be wary.

Leanne Pepper, etiquette and protocol consultant

What do you think of all of these YouTube proposals?

People are really doing some bizarre things right now. You know, this is a special moment: make it special. And think about what you’re going to do ahead of time. It’s a moment that you’ll never forget — I’ll never forget how my husband did it — and it’s a turning point. It’s a commitment, so make the time and effort and make it special.

How can a person know when it’s a good idea to make a public proposal?

I don’t think it’s a good idea. You’re setting yourself up to be totally embarrassed, so why would you even go there?

It’s not a good idea ever?

It’s something that is private. This is going to hopefully be your partner for life and who knows what’s going to happen? What if they say no? There’s always that chance. It’s a personal thing and it shouldn’t be broadcast. That’s something you can do after — you can announce, that’s what people do.

How does one delicately decline a proposal?

Is there a way? You could just say, “This isn’t the right time, thank you.” That could be a gentle way out of it.

So essentially, make a polite excuse or give a polite reason and then say thank you.

I don’t think you need to get into any details. It depends on the response from that person. If they’re devastated, you might want to get a little bit more specific to justify your reasons.

Karen Cleveland, writer of the etiquette column Finishing School (@schoolfinishing); by day she’s head of marketing at St. Joseph Media

How much should a woman expect a man to spend on a ring?

I balk at the question. Standard according to whom?

Exactly. Does a standard even exist?

I have dusty copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette from 1922 and she actually makes a joke, straight up, on how only in the movies can you expect a man to propose and magically pull out a diamond solitaire from his pocket. I don’t know how this became the norm. I don’t subscribe to salary parameters at all and I think an engagement can be marked by any lovely ring regardless of the stone or the setting, and in fact by no ring at all.

How does one delicately decline a proposal?

People do decline proposals, don’t they? Which is ironic given that uber-public proposals are very en vogue right now. But I guess the best place to begin to answer that is, how would you want your heart broken? You’re going to want the person to be honest and candid and delicate and gentle. Depending on how that plays out, then it could be not only the end of an engagement, but the end of a relationship.

Should a man or woman ask permission from parents before asking?

KC: It’s a really slow fading tradition, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s any right answer. For some people the gesture has the lingerings of a property exchange but then for other people it’s actually a really lovely gesture. It’s a matter of bringing the family into the loop and letting the parents know your intentions. But I think it’s important that the person you’re asking to marry know your intentions before the parents do.

Christopher Rouleau, graphic designer and typographer behind the common-sense etiquette movement, the Toronto Etiquette Project

Is proposing in public ever a good idea?

It has to be congruent with your relationship. If they’re an introvert, it’s probably a bad idea to do it in public, but if you’re kind of outgoing people who really like sharing your social life, then that’s great.

When is it appropriate for a woman to let her fiancée know she doesn’t like the ring he’s chosen?

I think in the interest of openness and honesty she should be able to speak and be honest about how she feels about the ring. Sometimes people go look at rings together and hopefully they’ll be on the same page (when the question comes).

How does one delicately decline a proposal?

I think you have to be honest. It’s your life you’re talking about, so if it’s not going to work I think that needs to be established right at the beginning. That’s when you hope that it’s not in public, because that could be a nightmare. I also like to think if a proposal’s going to happen there’s a certain amount of predictability. These full-on shock proposals, I feel so bad for the one who’s being proposed to.

Are there any no-nos in the proposal process?

The only thing I can think of is if it is a public thing: don’t make a scene out of it. Don’t make a spectacle out of it, because if you’re saying no it’s probably crushing the proposer. I’m suddenly very biased against the public proposal.

(First published in The Toronto Star, January 2012)

Advice for the Kate Middleton she won’t get from her mother

by Sonia Verma

A linguist, photographer, fashionista, columnist and sex-shop owner share their words of wisdom for Kate Middleton:

Get off High Street

Kate Middleton has featured prominently on several best-dressed lists and has emerged, over the years, as an icon of classic, refined style. The blue Issa dress she wore to announce her engagement sold out within hours in London. She has been photographed in everything from form-fitting evening gowns to dark denim and suede knee-high boots. But fashion experts say Ms. Middleton’s wardrobe could stand a shakeup after the honeymoon is over. “I feel she needs to be more adventurous,” says Ciara Hunt, former editor-in-chief of Hello! Canada and a royal commentator. “She has great style and she knows how to dress her figure, but I do think she has to get off the High Street.” She cited Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama as potential style role models for the princess. “They’ve shown that it’s okay to mix and match. Kate needs to stop going totally High Street. I just feel she has to raise her game a bit.”

Take a time out, together

Thirty years ago, when Prince Charles wed Lady Diana Spencer, the bride’s virtue became a worldwide obsession. In 1981, Princess Diana’s uncle went so far as to make a public statement before her wedding to quell speculation: Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she was a virgin. By contrast, Prince William and Kate Middleton have been living together on and off for years, and nobody seems to care. The couple display an easy intimacy with each other, which is part of their charm. Still, experts say, passion has to be nurtured over the course of their marriage. “Intimacy is not something that you are always going to feel. A lot of the time, you can hit a wall after the first two to three years of a relationship,” says Carlyle Jansen, founder of Good For Her, a Toronto sex shop. “Of course, pressure and stress have a huge effect on our sex lives as well. Kate’s under a lot of pressure so the couple is going to have to find ways to unwind and get away from it all in order to decompress and rekindle their passion.”

Learn French

By age 11, Queen Elizabeth was able to speak six languages fluently: Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish and English. “Languages are a royal tradition, and French is at the heart of it,” says language expert and author Mark Frobose. While Kate Middleton undoubtedly studied foreign languages in school, Mr. Frobose does not believe she has mastered them. His advice: “Learn French.” “It will enhance her own experience of marriage if they are able to speak to each other in French. It is the obvious choice for Kate for several reasons. Prince William is fluent. France is right across the Chunnel and is great for romantic getaways. French is the language of romance and love.”


When Princess Diana was killed in a car crash with her boyfriend, they were being aggressively pursued by the paparazzi, a fact that still haunts the Royal Family and shapes its relationship with the press. So far, Kate Middleton has been skilled in managing the cameras, even though her family has spoken out through the Press Complaints Commission, warning photo agencies to exercise caution while photographing them. As princess, the glare of the spotlight could turn fierce. “She does a great job of handling herself already. She should keep on smiling and I would say realize that everything she is doing is being captured for the world to see,” said Louis DeFilippis, a celebrity photographer and CEO at Central Image Agency Inc. “She seems very in control. She definitely doesn’t seem to mind the attention. She’s smart about it.” Mr. DeFilippis’s photographers have captured Ms. Middleton on camera dozens of times, including shooting her in her bikini. “She knows the boundaries. Privacy is basically going to be inside her own home, as it would be for anybody else. She’s going to become a hotter news item than ever before.” His advice for Kate? “Don’t try to run, because we will always catch you.”

Keep your legs crossed

Kate Middleton has so far managed to avoid the kind of gaffes suffered by other members of the royal family. (Prince Andrew’s friendship with a convicted pedophile. Sarah Ferguson being photographed topless and apparently having her toes sucked by her “financial adviser.” Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party. We could go on.) Karen Cleveland, a Toronto etiquette columnist, is not overly concerned about Ms. Middleton. “She’s so polished and she was well before the chaos of her engagement. I don’t think we have to worry about Kate Middleton pulling a Britney when she gets out of a car,” Ms. Cleveland said. “She’s refined and I think she is going to do everyone proud.” Her advice for the young bride? Keep calm and carry on. “Continue to do what she’s been doing. She’s landed her prince. He’s clearly head over heels in love with her, so as long as she continues to be Kate I think she’s got it nailed.”

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

Remedial valentine’s plan

I couldn’t help but notice a string of break-ups in the days immediately following Valentine’s Day. I suspect quite a few of them can be chalked up to passive-aggressiveness, namely the old bait-and-switch.

Here’s how I’ve seen it go down.

Girl really wants guy to make giant fuss over her on Valentine’s Day, but wants to give the impression that she’s actually cooler than that (so her stock goes up in his books). So instead of making plans, she demurely says, “I think Valentine’s Day is dumb, I don’t want to celebrate it – don’t sweat plans or getting me anything”. On the inside, however, she’s squealing with anticipation, fantasizing about the plans she secretly really wants him to put together.

Poor guy hears this, listens to it and follows suit, only then to be blindsided by a pout, folded arms and bitchy response. “I know I told you didn’t have to do anything – I figured you’d want to do something [exasperated huff]”.

I’ve seen this punk move pulled on my brother and many friends over the years…it’s apparently still in heavy rotation for Valentine’s Day, anniversaries and birthdays. How sad. While there’s a place for chivalry (I hope), there’s also a time to be literal and forthright. If you want an all-out fussy night, say so – goodness, no one’s a mind reader — you just might be pleasantly surprised. Or plan one yourself.

If you pulled this move last week, shame on you. Go fix your mess.

(First published on She Does The City, February 2009)

PDA’s (not your BlackBerry, nerd. Public Displays of Affection)

First off – I have a confession. I’m a closet romantic. There.
There is indeed a fine line between civilized affections and knock-down-yuck-fests and I try to stay on the right side of the fence.

PDA’s send a staunch message that you’re so into the person you’re with, you don’t care who knows it; a notion which is fine (almost endearing) when you’re 16. Any older and it’s a surefire way to make your friends or complete strangers feel uncomfortable (or even worst, make a creep feel a little too comfortable) and lose your hard-earned credibility.
I’m all for
– Holding hands
– Sneaking in a quick kiss (any longer than a few seconds and it’s weird for everyone)
– Fast hugs or embraces (like a shoulder squeeze)

What I’m not for
– Whispering sweet nothings
– Long kisses or embraces
– Any unmentionable acts that go beyond the above: you know exactly what they are you saucy devil – I’m too polite to name them

Sometimes a kiss is not just a kiss.

(First published on She Does The City, April 2008)