What's the right gift to give?

After you have bought gifts for cousins, aunts, parents and college roommates, chances are there are still some people left on the list.

These are the kindly souls whose last names you may not even know but nonetheless are people you can't live without, like the doorman, the shampoo girl, the mail carrier or the lady who cleaned your house before Thanksgiving.

They also include those people with whom you have complicated relationships - your boss, your kid's homeroom teacher or coach, a coworker or staff member.

So what to do, what to do? Well, although the Queen cannot go to the mall with you to help you make flawless choices, She can share her Flawless Guide To Holiday Gifts.

First, however, here's a thought to ponder. For service people like the shampoo girl at your favorite salon, there is one gift that always says Happy Holidays. It is made out of funny paper and measures roughly 3 ½ inches by 7 inches. It is green. (Did you guess yet?) It comes in various sizes ranging from the $1.00 size, the $5.00 size, the $10.00 size and the $20.00 size all the way up to bigger sizes like the $50.00 and $100.00 sizes. Consider using these very utilitarian and widely accepted items in the following manner:
  • Shampoo Girl $10.00
  • Manicurist/pedicurist $15.00 and up (usually whatever the price is of a basic service like a plain manicure - in fancy salons, consider giving more)
  • Hairdresser/stylist $15.00 and up (usually whatever the price is of a basic service like a hair cut - in fancy salons, consider giving more)
  • Mail carrier $10.00 for just showing up - more if he actually does helpful stuff like pay for the missing 33 cent stamp on your credit card bill envelope
  • Doorman/concierge $50 to $100 - and could be much higher depending on the building and the clientele.
  • Household help A cleaner (whether through a service or independent) who comes weekly or biweekly should get an amount roughly equal to what he gets paid each time he works for you.
  • Nanny or babysitter Full time nannies expect a generous gift - often approaching or equal to a week's pay. Babysitters should see anywhere between an extra $20.00 to $50.00 depending on where you live, how often she works for you and how desperate you are for her to sit on New Years Eve. Be generous with pet-sitters as well, but not to the magnitude of human sitters.
  • Newspaper delivery boy (weekly) $10.00 for just showing up - more if he actually does helpful stuff like bring the newspaper up your driveway rather than tossing it in a snowdrift.
  • Newspaper delivery boy (daily) If you haven't tipped him or her on a monthly basis, between $25 and $50
The Queen's thoughts are these: there are a lot of people who take care of you and yours every day. And even though some of them get tips every time you see them, most of them don't. You'd be surprised how much good will you can generate by a gracious gift at the holidays. Think of it this way: when you spread out the amount of the gift you are giving to someone on whom you rely every week (like the paper boy), the amount often is little more than a couple of pennies a day. So dig down deep, get some nice crisp bills at the bank, and enclose them in cute wallet-type cards that says simply, Thanks For Helping Out This Year.

Of course, it gets more complicated when the person for whom you are shopping is someone with whom you have a complicated relationship. This includes teachers and people you either work with or may even work for.

The Queen fervently believes in acknowledging the hard work of teachers at the holidays. However, She cautions that one must always consider whether there are formal or informal school rules that affect your gift-giving. So always ask first - the principal or other building administrator will know. And even if gifts to individual teachers are discouraged (if not outright prohibited), there could not be an objection to your delivering something yummy (like a gift basket of candy or a huge tin of popcorn) to the teacher's lounge for all to enjoy.

The toughest question is what you do for people you know from work. Again, many larger businesses have specific policies concerning gift-giving between employees. Those rules often are intended to discourage competition between employees for who gives Mr. Big the best gift (and thus may get the best holiday bonus).

By the way, the Queen believes that even if you set out to impress Mr. Big, the cost to you in damage to relationships in the workplace is significant. So regardless of whether there is a written policy concerning gifts at your place of work, be extra sensitive to the nature of any gift you choose and the impact it can have on other people, and if there is an "official" gift exchange, be sure to follow the "rules" for how much you spend and what kind of gift you bring.

Regardless of what anyone says, however, and whether or not it is an official gift exchange or informal gift giving between coworkers, always be extremely careful about giving gifts that may offend. The office is definitely not the place for refrigerator magnets bearing pictures of naked people or stuffed animals that squeal four-letter words when activated. Avoid gifts (gag or otherwise) that rely on ethnic or sexual jokes to be funny.

Nor should you be giving items that really seem personal. That includes clothing - unless it is something fairly non-intimate like a scarf or a T-shirt - as well as personal grooming items such as bath gel, cologne, and such. As for jewelry, the Queen is not averse to women giving other women costume jewelry, but expensive jewelry is not appropriate and a gift of jewelry from a man to a woman (or vice versa) sends a message that the Queen does not believe to be very businesslike.

The Queen also thinks that gifts of cash are totally tacky in a workplace setting (unless, of course, it is a lot of cash and you are proposing to give it to the Queen, in which case She will help you arrange to wire it to Her). If you are totally stumped for an idea for a gift, consider some generic gifts like a small basket of goodies. Or do something office-y like neat office accessories - computer stuff (cool mousepads, screen savers and the like), picture frames, containers to hold sticky notes, paper clips, pencils, and so forth.

By the way, if this is your first holiday season at a new job, be sure to ask around a lot to get a feel for how the holidays are handled. And this includes whether you deck your desk with holly, wear reindeer earrings or install one of those really irritating little Santa Claus candy dishes that plays a Christmas carol each time someone filches an M&M.

The Queen knows that you may think that some of this sensitivity is, well, humbug. But whether you think it is silly, the Queen knows that there is an increasing sensitivity to how holidays are handled in the workplace. Not everyone celebrates the same holidays in the same way, so the Queen's advice is to be thoughtful about what you do and how you do it.. Otherwise, the holiday that is ruined by a holiday problem at work could be yours!

Forever your humble provider of Etiquette advice,
The Queen