Raising the Tone: Etiquette for Gift Disasters and “I Already Ate” -The Toast

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Please send your etiquette-based questions to advice@the-toast.net, subject line: “Ms. Proprietypants.” The archives can be found here.

Recently, I was traveling with my boyfriend in a foreign country. He decided he wanted to purchase a wedding present for two of his best friends who had very recently gotten married. We went to a lovely department store, and while I browsed in the stationery section, he spotted a beautiful set of bowls that he thought would make the perfect gift. They were green, hand-blown, cut-glass bowls that were unique, tasteful, a perfect wedding gift for dear friends in their late 30’s entering a new phase of mature domesticity, etc. etc. They were, he thought, within his budget (around $160; not inappropriate – some might even say generous – for a wedding gift, I do believe.) He asked me for my opinion, which I gave. We calculated the exchange rate together and decided the price was appropriate. He had them packed carefully. He paid with his AmEx. We flew back home, and he presented his friends with their lovely wedding gift, and all were thrilled and jubilant.

A few days after this denouement, my boyfriend was going through his accounts and realized, to his horror, that we had both miscalculated the exchange rate on those seductive cut-glass bowls. They had not cost $160, but $1,600.

What to do, Ms. Proprietypants? Should my boyfriend, in some subtle way, let his friends know that their wedding present in fact cost the equivalent to a return ticket to the aforementioned foreign country? Should he request them back for himself, keep them locked up in a wooden cabinet to present only at the most elegant and rarefied of occasions, and present them with a more cost-appropriate gift? (This does not seem a likely option – but what to do?!) Should he swallow hard, and quietly absorb the financial ramifications of his mistake without saying a word? Help!

For some reason, can’t think why, this made me think of the “math is hard” Barbie. Math, so important, right? Anyway, you are not going to like this, but I’m afraid it’s time to suck it up.

It’s true that the recipients would probably be horrified to learn the bowls’ worth. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is nothing you can do, it merely serves to make the situation extra excruciating.

What are your real options here? You cannot ask for the gift back. What would you say? How could the lovebirds politely respond? How would they feel?

Nor can you tell them how much the bowls cost in order to guarantee that they don’t go the way of the stoop sale, as is the fate of many a wedding tchotchke. [Let’s all take a moment to dwell on the full horror of the stoop sale scenario. Imagine the bowls languishing next to some ill-conceived sample sale trench coat and a pile of Barbara Kingsolver novels. Jkskdldldsldkdjdkdktl;adk!!!! My armpits are all prickly now.] Because, again, what would you say? How would you phrase it? And, more importantly, how could they possibly respond? You suggest that the information be conveyed in some “subtle” way. What do you have in mind? An anonymous tip mailed from thecashvalueofyourweddingpresents@gmail.com?

The reason that this predicament is so unsolvable is because there is no solution that would not put the newlyweds in an extremely awkward situation. This is why, in general, you don’t tell people what gifts cost–and this specific[ally horrific] situation is no exception. Because what are they meant to say? “Oh, no! You shouldn’t have.” [In fact, no, you really should not have.] “Oh, you mustn’t! Take it back, I insist!” [What will you say in turn? “Oh, uhkay.”] “Thanks ever so, you are too kind, we will treasure it always!” [What if they won’t!?]

This is your [collective] error and I’m afraid you can’t involve the recipients. It’s true that I might advise you differently if the error had been greater still–like, if you had underestimated the cost 100 fold. If your BF’s financial stability was seriously at risk, then steps would have to be taken, because [financial] benefit would outweigh the [social] cost. But if he can afford to travel to exotic foreign locales, I think he can probably afford to budget for a few months and pay off this grave mathematical error.

Here’s to sticking to the registry! (JK, JK, Miss Proprietypants doesn’t actually believe in that maxim, but your question sure is a real life PSA for doing just that.)


So I got very annoyed at my friends the other day. We were out at a restaurant, and one ordered only a side, and the other was like, “Oh, I just ate” and so didn’t want to order a main either. And I told them I didn’t know why they wanted to meet at a restaurant at dinnertime (they had proposed this!!!!) if they weren’t going to eat, and that it wasn’t ok that they were “ok” with my getting a main, because I didn’t feel like having them watch me eat.

Was I overreacting? And is it their prerogative to not eat?

It is weird and makes other people uncomfortable to not eat at a restaurant, yes, you are right. Restaurants are for eating. They are absolutely also for socializing, and some of them sanction socializing while drinking only, but eating is a key part of the “vibe,” if you will. I don’t know what more to say on this matter; if a very small group (three or less, say) agrees to meet at a restaurant at a mealtime, everyone ought to be up for eating something. But which party wins the Moral High Ground Award (henceforth MHGA) is dependent on how annoyed you got. It’s fair of you to say, “next time let’s meet for a drink or a line of coke or a walk in the park or a trip to the mall or a round of poker” but it is not fair to become angry and peevish.

Did you become angry and/or peevish? Please say no! Two wrongs don’t make a right, and while I am really very much in favor of emotional transparency in friendship, I am also (SHOCKER) a big fan of politesse. Conveying in a breezy fashion that you hope they don’t repeat this gaffe and pointing out that, for you and for many others, dining is not a spectator sport is constructive (i.e. it simultaneously prevents this annoying scenario from repeating itself and allows you to air your irritation), but chewing them out biliously is not. Two wrongs and all that; jerkishness ought not to beget jerkishness. (Obviously we are all human and sometimes you just get so mad you don’t know what came over you and you see unending shades of vermillion, but this column, like a lifestyle blog, is… aspirational.)

So you win in theory, but perhaps not in practice. Happy?? [Don’t yell at me if you’re not.]


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