The Dos and Don’ts of holiday etiquette

’Tis the season for celebrating, and with the added festivities come added pressures and opportunities for more social blunders.

Civility and etiquette specialist Elizabeth Backman reminds people that it’s good manners to write thank-you notes for presents received over Christmas.

Civility and etiquette specialist Elizabeth Backman reminds people that it’s good manners to write thank-you notes for presents received over Christmas.

The holiday cards have been sent, the presents wrapped and every evening from now until the new year is scheduled and co-ordinated with relatives, friends and colleagues. You’ve done everything right – or at least you thought you did.

’Tis the season for celebrating, and with the added festivities come added pressures and opportunities for more social blunders. The holidays are a time to shine for those with the best of politesse, and a time when those without a working knowledge of social graces let their bad manners leave a lasting impression.

“You’ve got to remember, you’re a walking, talking autobiography,“ said Elizabeth Backman, Oak Bay-based specialist in etiquette and civility. “How you present yourself, what you say, how you appear and conduct yourself, is your calling card.”

Backman leads private coaching sessions and group workshops on how to add polish to your personal and professional pursuits and laid out some ground rules on how to navigate the season – from RSVP-ing to re-gifting – with class.

Backman’s advice on …

Being a good guest

Step 1: RSVP – “The host or the hostess should not have to call up to figure out who’s coming,” Backman said. RSVPs should be sent via the same method the invitation was given within 24 to 48 hours of receipt of the invite. If you can’t go, Backman added, be honest. Don’t leave the person who has gone to the trouble of preparing the event hanging.

Step 2: Bring a gift – If the host or hostess doesn’t specify to bring something to the party, bring a gift. And if they do: bring a gift anyway. A bottle of wine or box of chocolates is a nice way to say thank you.

Step 3: Use your table manners – Wait for the host or hostess to serve themselves, sit down at the table and put their napkin on their lap before you begin to eat. The simple, yet often overlooked rule changes slightly when a large group is being served. In such a case, wait until the majority of guests have been served before you dig in.

Presenting yourself

Step 1: Dress appropriately – “I err on the side of caution. I’d rather be over, rather than under dressed,” said Backman, a former fashion designer.

Women have more options – and potentially more opportunities to dress inappropriately. While the holidays might be the right time for some to pull out the dress with plunging neckline, fashionistas should know their audience before they bare too much skin around the relatives.

“Certain women have a way of looking sexy – the French do it very well – they reveal enough, but not too much,” Backman said. “You want to see more. They’re not showing all of the wares.”

Step 2: Turn your phone off for the party – “How many times have you come across a person who’s talking about private things, or things that are going to make them come across as very important and they’re striding around talking? As much as I like technology, it’s another no-no,” Backman said.

Leave the phones and electronic devices turned off, or on vibrate in coat pockets and purses. The exception, Backman said: if you have young children at home with a babysittter or you’re a brain surgeon on call. In such cases, let the host know why you’re gripping your iPhone.

“It’s not giving a good image of yourself.”

Accepting gifts

Step 1: Show gratitude – Remember to thank the person who gave you the gift, Backman said. In person is acceptable, but a special gift, or one from a person you don’t often see, could necessitate a card or a note.

Step 2: How to return and re-gift – Be honest when you receive the same gift twice. Show appreciation, but don’t be afraid to ask the gift-giver if they mind that you exchange it. Re-gifting, the act of passing off a gift you’ve received to someone you need to buy for, is a bit dicier, but it can be done. To do so, Backman suggests, take the gift in its original packaging, label it with the name of who gave it to you and the date. When the time is right: re-gift. If you can pull off the manoeuvre – first made famous on The Label Maker episode of Seinfeld, which Backman delightedly recounts – then great. Just don’t get caught re-gifting within the same circle of friends or someone as bold as Elaine Benes might call you out on your pitiful civility.

Constant consciousness of your gestures, body language, word choice and tone of voice is key to representing yourself, Backman said, but no one’s perfect. Just remember to untag those Facebook posts when you let your hair down at the New Year’s party.

“Nothing’s carved in stone,” she said. “If you do feel you’ve left a bad impression, you can correct it. The key here is that you’re growing. We all can improve ourselves.”



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