Friday, May 18, 2007

Etiquette Quiz Answers -- Congrats to JanH

JanH gave her thoughts on why a lady should not accept expensive gifts from a man to whom she is not married -- not even during an engagement. (Of course, this rule would not apply to a father or brother; we're talking outside of the family here.) It is acceptable, of course, to receive an engagement ring from one's fiance and also to exchange engagement gifts right before the marriage date.

Jan's thought was that if, for some reason, a couple does not get married after all, that might create awkward situations with regards to gifts that were given while dating or courting. I'm not sure if that reasoning was part of the original rule. Whether it was or wasn't, it should have been! Good point, Jan!

When I was in college, a girl in my dorm accepted a ring from a boy she thought would soon ask her to marry him. If I recall correctly, the ring had been passed down from a relative and had great sentimental value to his family. The couple had mentioned marriage, but they broke up before a real engagement occurred. Then, the young man wished to receive the ring back so that he could keep it in his family. The girl refused, saying that he had given it to her freely as a gift and it was hers to keep. Since the family wanted it back so badly, she assumed it must have great monetary value, and she rushed it to the jewelers' for an appraisal. I never heard how things worked out, but, needless to say, this whole thing was unpleasant for all.

That's not the only time I've heard of something like this happening. So, a young man (or a young woman) would do well to be cautious about giving a present if the giver or the giver's family would be hurt in any way by the permanent loss of it. Once someting has been presented as a gift, it is awkward and difficult to ask for it back.

Now, here's what I heard about this rule about gifts from a man to a single woman when I was growing up: For a woman to receive an expensive gift from a man to whom she is not yet married forms a premature and inappropriate attachment between the two.

There are several dangers in this: 1) It's possible that a young man may hope for or even expect inappropriate physical intimacy in return for expensive or frequent gifts. Or, he may presume too much of a claim upon a girl's time and upon her heart -- a claim that would be mutually appropriate in marriage. Thus, his gift would demonstrate disrespect for her as a single woman, who is free to choose where and when she commits her time. 2) A man may be sincere in giving an expensive gift. However, the young lady may read more meaning into the present than the young man intends to convey by it. She may take it as a sign of his love for her, and she may fix her hopes on marrying him. He, on the other hand, may simply be trying to impress her or to impress his buddies by the price of the gift. Perhaps, he may genuinely like her and want to give her joy by a gift, but he may not be ready to think in terms of a serious relationship. So, while he dreams of joining the navy and sailing all over the world before settling down, she's picking out the color of her bridesmaid's dresses. A young man simply may not attach as much emotional meaning to an expensive gift as the girl who receives it does. In this case, the girl may wind up with a broken heart. 3) Conversely, a young woman may be more thrilled with the gift than the giver. She may try to wheedle presents out of a young man, and, yet, have no real love for him. If she can get him to sacrifice his own financial well-being in order to buy her anything she wants, she may actually lose respect for him. In this case, the young man winds up with a broken heart and with a wrecked budget, to boot. 4) The act of receiving an expensive gift from a man can bring a woman's reputation into question. This was a greater danger in the past, when this rule of gift-giving was kept more strictly than today. But, even today, though our social rules are not so exact, the reputations of both the man and the woman are something to consider when giving and receiving gifts. While others shouldn't pry, it's not wise to needlessly invite quesitons about the nature of a man and woman's relationship. 5) Even if the man and woman have sincere regard for each other, exchanging expensive gifts can cause problems. For one thing, too frequent or too extravagant gift-giving can cause a couple to feel a deep emotional attachment before their relationship is ready for it. The couple may focus in on each other so much that they neglect healthy relationships with others. If, for some reason, the relationship doesn't lead to marriage, they will endure more suffering than if they had let their affections grow for each other at a slower, more natural pace. Even if they are committed to physical purity, premature emotional intimacy can weaken their resolve.

There are two literary examples that illustrate these principles for me. One is Sense and Sensiblity. If you've ever read the book or seen the movie, you know that Marianne read more into Willoughby's attentions to her than was warranted. Her mother made the same mistake, and she failed to protect her daughter's heart. For her part, Marianne gave her heart too passionately too soon. For his part, Willoughby promised more by his actions than he was willing to deliver. Of course, Marianne was devastated when Willoughby coolly dropped her in order to marry someone with more wealth. In this fictional narrative, Willoughby didn't give her expensive gifts, per se. Still, he gave her many little carefully selected tokens of affection and spent a great deal of time with her. According to the mores of his day, he behaved in a way that was appropriate only if he was seriously intending to court Marianne. That is the same principle behind the rule of giving gifts -- give only gifts that are appropriate for the stage of your relationship.

Elinor's sister, too, suffered from unrequited love for a time. But, since she exercised prudence in her conduct around her beau, her mind could be at ease. Even though her heart hurt, her conscience was clear. Her loss stung deeply, but it did not devastate her as as Marianne's loss devastaed her. Eleanor continued to be a thougthful daughter, sister, and friend, while Marianne's whole world crashed.

Secondly, in Gone with the Wind, there is a scene in which Scarlett ponders whether to take a certain present from Rhett Butler. She remembers that her mother taught her a girl should not accept expensive gifts from a man. Her mother suggested that a girl might receive a book of poetry or a bottle of Florida water, but nothing of more significance. At the time that Scarlett reflects upon her mother's wise advice, her mother had passed away and Scarlett had already embarked on a course that carried her further and further away from her mother's teachings. Scarlett let her desire for pretty things outweigh her mother's admonition to be careful about the type of gifts she accepts. Scarlett was only too happy for Rhett to shower her with costly presents. We all know that story didn't end well.

As the song says: "You can't hurry love. It just has to wait." There is a time and a place for everything. A little wisdom in gift giving between a man and a woman can be healthy for both. And, some parental guidance in this area can help both sons and daughters make good choices.

So, how do we know which gifts are appropriate for a man to give a single woman? In the old days, gifts of clothing or jewelry of any kind were off-limits, whether they were expensive or not. Nowadays, a young man might give a young lady a winter scarf or some inexpensive gloves for Christmas or an inexpensive pair of dainty earrings for her birthday without raising too many eyebrows. But, on the whole, it's still wise for a young man to stay away from giving clothing as gifts, as it implies an intimate knowledge of a girl's size and shape. It's also good for him to think carefully before giving a gift of jewelry, and certainly, he should never give expensive jewelry. Also, a young man should not give any present that strains his budget, no matter how small that budget may be.

Of course, one old stand-by is flowers. If a man is at a loss for other ideas, a mother or a sister can usually help him find a little gift that is creative, sweet, appropriate, and won't completely empty his wallet. I know my daughter has helped my son with gift-giving, even when it comes to the family.

For her part, a woman should express appreciation for any gift, no matter how small or inexpensive. If a man wins a stuffed animal for her at an amusement park or if he brings her a bouquet of daisies, things like these can be very special to a young woman's heart. It's the worth of the man and not the worth of the gift that is most important. This isn't to say that a young lady should be happy if a man appears to take her for granted. If he does give her a token gift, she can expect him to put some thought and some effort into it. But, she has to balance this by not burdening him with unrealistic expectations.

This rule about gifts between a man and a lady is an old one. I'm not sure how far back into history it reaches.

Yet, even as late as the 1970's, when I was a teen, many parents -- including mine -- still taught this principle to their children. Today, people are much more lax about this rule, but I'm not so sure that's wise. To my way of thinking, keeping in mind appropriate guidelines for gift giving is still a sound and prudent principle, and it's one that I still champion to this day. Of course, as with all rules of etiquette, it is up to each person to decide what they think.

Parents and other adults could provide needed guidance here. As a young girl, I did accept this rule, but I didn't fully understand all the "why's and wherefore's". If left to my own devices, I was more apt to be guided by romantic whims than by wisdom. I would have been Marianne and not Elinor! Now that I'm older, I finally get it!