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How to Handle Awkward Holiday Situations

Expert etiquette advice, and when it's OK to tell a little white lie


It's Christmas. Your aunt has just given you a hideous sweater as a present. She says, "I knew it was perfect for you as soon as I saw it. Don't you just love it?"

And you say…
 
Welcome to the season of fibbing. It’s that tricky holiday time when it’s hard to avoid the brutal truths that there is no Santa Claus and I hate your marshmallow sweet potato casserole.

(MORE: The Truth Is, Lying Makes You Sick)
 
To help us negotiate those awkward moments, we decided to tap into some Southern courtesy by consulting etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, the San Antonio-based owner of The Protocol School of Texas.

Here’s how she recommended responding to a bunch of holiday hot potatoes:
 
Your aunt giving the ugly sweater says: “Don’t you just love it?”

“Aunt Betty, I really do thank you so much.” If she gave it to you as a gift, all you really need to do is say, “Thank you. Thank you so much. What a thoughtful gift.” In this case you’re being kind. You’re using discretion.
 
You’re at the holiday potluck and you brought a store-bought dish. Someone asks, “These bars are delicious. Can I have the recipe?”

“I think they’re delicious also. They’re one of my favorite treats and I bought it at…” whatever the supermarket’s name is. I don’t think you should bait and switch. I think you should own it.
 
You decide to regift a fondue set. The recipient that you’re passing it off to says, “You shouldn’t have. You spent too much. Where did you get it?”

“Thank you so much. It was given to me by someone else. But I can’t use it. So I wanted to pass it along to you because I know you love fondue.” When it’s time to regift, the Number One rule is it’s always best to be honest and not try to regift like a real gift.

(MORE: 5 Gifts to Skip This (and Every) Holiday Season)
 
Aunt Irma originally gave you that fondue set. Later she asks you, “Are you enjoying the fondue set?”

You can say, “You know, I haven’t used it lately.” Or you can say, “You know, Aunt Irma, I’m going to fess up. You gave me that wonderful fondue set and I just don’t have it anymore. My daughter loved it and I told her to take it home and I would enjoy it at her house.” It’s a risk, any way you look at it. When you regift, it’s a risk. There’s multiple tiers to regifting. When at all possible, you want to use kindness, courtesy and be honest. Does that mean you should never fudge a little bit if you know it’s going to hurt their feelings? That’s when you have to make that decision, and it has to be comfortable for you.
 
Your boyfriend gives you a PlayStation for Christmas when you were expecting an engagement ring. He asks, “Did I get you what you wanted?”

Well, judgment. I always start with judgment. He may not be ready to be engaged. Just because you wanted an engagement ring, doesn’t mean he’s ready for an engagement. And wouldn’t it be terrible to rush someone into a commitment they weren’t ready to make? So you can say, “This is a really thoughtful gift. I know how much you like PlayStation, and I’m holding out for an engagement ring for Valentine’s Day.” 
 
At a dreary holiday open house, the hostess says to you, “You’re leaving already? Can’t you stay a little longer?”

“It was a lovely time. I really appreciate the invitation. But I do have to go.”

(MORE: 6 Steps to Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season)
 
What if it’s your parents’ house?

You’ve got to decide whether or not it’s going to affect how your mom treats you tomorrow on Christmas morning.
 
Finally, any advice on striking the right humblebrag balance in the annual holiday card recap of the past year?

Go in with the thought, “Do no harm.” At the end of the letter, I don’t want the person who read it not to want to talk to me again after the holidays. It should be a quick update, but don’t go month by month, week by week talking about every single soccer game your grandchild won, every single hernia operation and toe surgery. Give a quick overview. Make sure not to brag too much. Talk about positive things, something positive without boasting. And close it up tightly. Quick and tight. Sign your name. You’re never going to preprint your name without writing something. Ink should touch the paper. Even if it’s preprinted, you should write a little something on it like “See you in the New Year,” or “Looking forward to sharing a toast.”

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