Etiquette expert Karen Cleveland on how to survive holiday pitfalls

There is more to the holiday season than love, joy, peace and goodwill.

There is also chaos, the merry mayhem you can feel in your bones. And stress, the did-I-remember-to-do-x? anxiety you can feel in your soul. Let’s face it, for every jingling bell, there is a jangled nerve.

Around this time of year, there are also etiquette dilemmas.

What happens when family dinners cook up the opposite of joy and peace? Are the rules of engagement for a Secret Santa gift swap flexible? How do we teach our kids the true meaning of Christmas amid the raging consumerism?

To help you navigate the holidays — or, perhaps, survive them — we wrapped a few questions and sent them to Karen Cleveland, an etiquette expert:

Q: What happens when someone you never exchange gifts with suddenly gives you one? Are you obliged to start a new tradition?

A: The dreaded gift ambush! If caught without a gift, accept the present warmly and graciously. And if you’re so inclined, lie. Lie through your teeth. Explain that their gift is at your home and would they like to come over for a drink the night after next to get it?

Q: Speaking of Christmas cheer, if your extended family now includes a vegan, someone with a severe dairy allergy and a recovering alcoholic, how do you plan a family dinner that makes everyone happy and nobody sick?

A: Perhaps that Christmas cheer is an afternoon tea, complete with lactose-free milk, Stevia, vegan muffins and sugar-free preserves? To use your word, you, well, plan. Rather than try to function as a short-order cook and create one dish for every person’s unique need, get creative and find something that ideally everyone can enjoy. You might have to spend some considerable time creating a menu that works, but at the risk of sounding sickeningly festive, don’t feel beleaguered by that planning. Relish the fact that you have an extended family. You could be celebrating it alone.

Q: What’s the best way to divide holiday time when you have to visit multiple family homes?

A: Very, very carefully. Modern families are complicated units, particularly when step-relatives, in-laws and physical distances are factored in. It is hard to please everyone. In fact, you probably won’t, so all you can do is your best to divide your time equally, without making yourself crazy in the process. Setting expectations in advance might help quell ruffled feathers when you have to leave mom’s Christmas Eve tea early to make it to dad’s in time for a round of eggnog.

Q: How do you deal with a single relative who always gets drunk and then begins saying wildly inappropriate things?

A: Every guest deserves your best hosting prowess — even if it means gritting your teeth through their indiscretions. There is a lovely old adage that the true test of good manners is pleasantly dealing with bad ones. A host isn’t responsible for their guests’ behaviour.

Q: Speaking of indiscretions, here’s a random workplace query: What is the best response if your married boss is openly hitting on underlings at the office Christmas party? What’s the best way to intervene without jeopardizing your own career?

A: Unless you’ve been invited to join them in their rendezvous — or are the spouse of said married boss — what makes you think this is of your concern? It’s not. The situation calls for neither an intervention nor catty gossip the following day.

Q: Okay, still in the office. You’re participating in a Secret Santa. You’ve picked a name and have a perfect gift in mind for this colleague, who is also a friend. But the gift is way more than the mandated price limit. Is it okay to break the rules?

A: Price parameters are put in place for good reason. If you blow the Secret Santa budget cap, the gift recipient will likely be chuffed by your generosity, but the rest of the group might think you’re showboating. If the gift is truly perfect, and you have a close enough relationship with the colleague, give it to them for their birthday.

Q: Is a “Merry Christmas” email ever an acceptable substitute for an actual paper card that’s sent in the mail?

A: You can eat Christmas dinner off of paper plates, if you really want to. No one is going to stop you from sending your holidays tidings in an email rather than a card. It’s better than nothing, isn’t it? Though I’d rather get a thoughtful, beautifully handwritten card in the mail on Dec. 26 than a generic email late afternoon on Dec. 24.

Q: Does the season of generosity have a potential downside? Children today already seem to have so much stuff. Then during the holidays, they’re lavished with more. What’s the best way to instill a sense of value and gratitude? How do we help our kids appreciate what they get when they already have so much?

A: How can generosity, if meant in its true sense, have a downside? Getting caught up in the consumerism of the holidays might blur the lines between generosity and “oh, good grief, as if they need another toy,” sure. But the spirit and intention in which a gift is given sets the tone. If gratitude begets gratitude, perhaps being thankful that you have so many loved ones to buy for is a good place to begin?

Karen Cleveland is a hosting expert who has collaborated with Jackson-Triggs this holiday season to create the ultimate guide to hosting. For more tips, follow Karen on Twitter at @schoolfinishing.

(First published in the Toronto Star, December 2012)

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)