Apologies for the old hit from Avril Lavigne. I’m not even a big fan of Avril’s music, but this song seems appropriate for today’s topic, which comes courtesy of Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington Post. I had other topics in mind to write about today, but it’s Sunday, and I figured it would be better to write about something less serious. And today’s post from Carolyn Hax is definitely lighter than my subject matter has been lately.
Here’s the letter in question, which was adapted from an online discussion:
I’ve recently started to attend family functions with my boyfriend. He always says I don’t need to bring anything, but I never go anywhere empty-handed.
His mom is preparing the entire meal for the next event, including desserts. I’m a baker and usually bring desserts but Boyfriend says mom might be offended if I bring a dessert when she’s already taking care of that. This party is for his sister’s birthday, and I don’t know her well enough to choose a gift, and he won’t give me any ideas because he insists I don’t need to bring a gift. I asked if I could at least get a card, and he said he’ll add my name to his card — but he and his sister have been passing the same card back and forth for 12 years as a joke. This is their thing and I don’t want to impose.
But I just can’t fathom going empty-handed. Any ideas as to what I can bring?
— Never Empty-Handed
Carolyn’s advice to the letter writer was to try to call the boyfriend’s mom and ask her directly what she should bring for his sister, if the boyfriend won’t “work with her on this”. She also said that the letter writer should explain to him that telling her that she doesn’t need to bring anything is easy for him to say, and maybe even well-intentioned by letting her off the hook, but it actually puts her in an awkward position. Carolyn further writes:
He is seeing this through the family lens, but you are not family and you’re newish to everyone, so you don’t know how you’ll be judged.
You want to make a good impression. If he wants to set you up to succeed, then he either needs to give you a token way to contribute, or be more thoughtful in explaining his family culture to you, or connect you to his mom (or whoever’s hosting) to find out for yourself.
This advice makes sense to me, I guess. However, there is also hopefully a good chance that Boyfriend is telling the truth. It’s possible that his mom and/or his sister really don’t want her to bring anything. Moreover, I would expect him to tell me the truth. So my response, which so far is being well-received was this:
I would just take the boyfriend at his word. If it goes awry, then I’ll know I can’t trust what he says and move on.
She can always warn the guy that if he’s not being truthful, and she shows up with nothing and his mom or sister thinks it’s rude, that will mean that she can’t trust him to be honest, and that might mean they shouldn’t continue the relationship. There is a good chance, though, that the mom and/or his sister really are among those people who doesn’t want guests to bring things. My mom is one of those people. She’s at a point in her life that she’s trying to get rid of things she doesn’t need. I have been the recipient of many lovely gifts people have given her that she just didn’t want or weren’t her taste.
If you think about it, bringing something for the host/hostess actually can lead to embarrassing situations. Here’s an example from my personal history.
Recently, I wrote about how I have a phobia of mushrooms. I can’t eat them or touch them, and I prefer not to look at them or smell them. One time, years ago, a woman invited me to her house for dinner. She was a vegetarian. Because I wanted to be a good guest, I baked two loaves of bread and brought one of them with me. Guess what… hostess wasn’t a fan of bread. And guess what else? The dinner she made was LOADED with mushrooms. And yes, it was very embarrassing. I explained to her, honestly, why I couldn’t partake of the dinner. Fortunately, she had a good laugh at my expense, and even told some of her colleagues about it.
People love to leave comments on the Washington Post’s Facebook page about this post, when it’s clear that they didn’t read the article. It’s mainly because they don’t want to pay for a subscription. If they had read the article, they would see that other people offered reasons why bringing the usual go-to gifts of wine, flowers, and candy might not be the best idea. Here’s what a couple of people wrote:
Re: Guest: Yes, please arrive empty-handed. I find hosting people who are compelled to bring something, anything, very tiring. Fine to ask if you can contribute to the meal, for instance, but if the answer is no, then accept that.
Tired: Yes, yes. When I tell my guests what (not) to bring, I want them to take me at my word, not send me looking for a vase for the lovely and well-meant flowers.
In the case of someone new being invited into the fold, though, the standards shift a bit. The balance of power is more precarious. The boyfriend can be more helpful here. That’s all.
I have a policy that when people say they want no gifts, I take them at their word. I assume they had a reason for making that statement. If they didn’t mean it, they shouldn’t have written or said it, and they shouldn’t be upset when people abide by it. If Mom is annoyed with the girlfriend for coming to visit the family empty-handed that early in the relationship, that’s another sign that the letter writer might want to consider, should things go further in that relationship. I would hope that the boyfriend’s mom and other family members would be just as eager to make a good impression on his girlfriend, especially if there is a chance she might one day marry him, or otherwise engage in a more serious relationship. Because– that could one day be her mother-in-law… and you want to pay attention to red flags. Divorce is expensive, and marriage can be challenging enough without a mother-in-law with whom you don’t mesh. Fortunately, my own mother-in-law is awesome, and my mom adores Bill.
A lot of commenters seem to think that the letter writer should just ignore what her boyfriend says, and go against his advice on dealing with his family. I don’t know about other people, but it would really annoy me if I told Bill about what to expect from my family– people that I’ve known my whole life– and he didn’t believe me. I can understand the letter writer’s dilemma in not wanting to be rude, but I would consider not trusting my boyfriend’s word as kind of rude, too. I’m big on trust, and I don’t like it when people don’t take me seriously, even though I joke around a lot. Joking around is one thing, but I’m not the kind of person who would deliberately set someone up to fail. If I care enough to bring you home to meet the family, that means I’m serious. And I would not tell you not to bring a gift if I knew that not bringing a gift would make my mom or sister think you were a jerk. I would hope for the same consideration.
I also noticed that the people commenting were suggesting gifts that could be problematic. That bottle of wine might not be appreciated by someone who is fundie Baptist or LDS, struggles with alcoholism or some other health issue, or someone who just doesn’t drink. Flowers might not be appreciated by someone who has severe allergies or, like Madonna, hates hydrangeas… or whatever other flower. Some people don’t like plants because they have a brown thumb, and kill everything they touch.
Or maybe it will be an awkward exchange, like when Melania Trump brought Michelle Obama a fancy Tiffany box on Inauguration Day…
Someone who prides themselves on being a great cook or baker might not appreciate it if you take it upon yourself to bring dessert. A lot of people go to great lengths to plan when they have a party. If you show up with a cake from a bakery or even one you’ve made yourself, it may send a very embarrassing message that won’t be well received. Or, again, it could turn out that someone has diabetes and has to watch their sugar or carbs for health reasons. I had a friend, years ago, who had an allergy to chocolate. She loved chocolate, but couldn’t eat it, because it made her break out in hives. Imagine showing up at her house with a lovely, expensive chocolate cake that took hours to bake. Hopefully, other people can enjoy it.
Here’s what I think is a fairly foolproof gift– sincere gratitude for the invitation, and authentic, attentive, and appreciative company. That’s it. Maybe that gratitude could be augmented by a handwritten note expressing thanks, mailed a day or two after the gathering. One of the nicest “gifts” I have ever received from anyone was a lovely, handwritten note from Bill’s younger daughter, who was considerate enough to think of me when he went to visit her in March 2020. I will treasure it always, for there’s no other gift like it. It came from the heart and, best of all, it cost her almost nothing in money, but yet it’s priceless to me. I will keep and treasure it always, especially since it doesn’t take up any room or collect dust.
There’s no reason to sweat the small stuff. There’s no reason to make things more complicated than it needs to be. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. While giving a small gift to a host or hostess is usually considered good etiquette, when it comes down to it, the best etiquette is considering what will make the other person feel most comfortable and at ease. I would expect that the boyfriend in this situation knows his family well enough to advise his girlfriend honestly. She should take what he says at face value. If it goes wrong, that will be a sign of things that could be coming in the future. At the very least, it could be a signal that he’s not going to be straightforward about other things.
Some of the comments on this remind me of the American attitude about tipping. So many people seem to think that everyone loves gifts. Not everyone does… just like not everyone expects or appreciates a tip. Seriously… in some cultures, tipping is actually considered rude or just isn’t a thing. American culture is not the end all, be all, and there’s a lot to consider in any relationship. If you don’t know the guy’s parents, I actually think it’s better to wait before you bring a gift, unless you’ve been assured that they would appreciate one. Gifts can go awry. Besides, meeting new people is a two-way street. I see no reason to complicate that meeting by adding in an unnecessary element, like what gift to bring. Especially when it’s been made clear, by someone who should be in the know, that gifts aren’t expected or even desired. I think it’s smart to learn about the culture in any new situation before assuming you know what should be done.