Monday, November 29, 2010

The gift of gift-giving

For many, the holiday season can be summed up as festive. For others, however, it can be painfully depressing and stressful. These emotional extremes often involve family and gift-giving. Generosity and inadequacy swirl around the Christmas tree while compassion and gratitude sometimes play a secondary role.

There is perhaps no more important time of year for us to be grateful while being generous.

In thinking of others compassionately, let's include ourselves. Try to bolster what you may experience as inadequacy and believe that you too are appreciated and part of a larger holiday picture.

It is a widely held view that the first Christmas gifts were the gold, frankincense and myrrh given to Jesus. These are considered hidden treasures, holding significant spiritual meaning. Both their spiritual and intrinsic values are the true symbolism behind the gifts we exchange today.

O. Henry in The Gift of the Magi summarizes (and I paraphrase) in his final paragraph the meaning of giving at this season:

The magi, as you know, were wise men - wonderfully wise men - who brought gifts to the babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones. Oh, all who give and receive gifts such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Throughout history, special and significant gifts have been given from one person to another as a way of commemorating this tradition, but also to show our love for family and friends. Many extend this gesture into our communities to ensure so as many people as possible can share in this tradition.

Many have their tightened belts when deciding how much money we can afford to spend this holiday season. There are many gifts that we give year-round to people that cost nothing.

Sharing a simple experience with someone, even a game of checkers or a walk in the park, can qualify as a priceless gift. Visiting with people who are suffering from an illness or old age is a gift of enormous importance. Have you ever stopped to think how much you treasure some of the personal notes and letters received over the years? We can all create such messages with little effort and time.

For those who prefer giving tangible gifts, there has been a shift away from discretionary and luxury items to those that are useful.

Food is always a favourite in my family, especially something the whole family can enjoy making or giving together. I actually look forward to a jar of green tomato pickle with as much anticipation as anything else. I think I would be quite sad if it didn't arrive.

Warm clothes, kitchen gadgetry and some favourite chocolates can often carry with them the meaning that someone thought about what we personally need and enjoy.

How a gift is received can be as important as the gift itself. If we feel genuine gratitude upon receipt of a gift, we give that gift double strength. Likewise, if our gift is small in stature, the sincerity with which it is given has an untold power to make someone happy.

Remember to be grateful for your family and friends this holiday season even though you may have intermittent disagreements. Have compassion for those who have their own, often deeply private, struggles. Give extra hugs and smile often. Share with children - your own and others - the real meaning of the holidays.

The phrase "it is better to give than to receive" has much more meaning when we learn to give with the same passion and energy with which we receive. The surprising thing about this simple act is that it takes very little practice before we become real pros. Get out and practise. Put your heart into it, and feel your spirits soar.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

'Tis The Season - Almost

Lately readers have been very forthcoming with their questions about families and holidays. The season will soon be upon us and excitement and enthusiasm can be mixed with anxiety and impatience. Let's see if sharing some of their concerns can help to alleviate some of yours.

Elizabeth wrote in these comments and questions.

Dear Etiquette Guy,

I get very annoyed if my dinner guests (who are often in-laws) do not use their napkins. Is this just a lack of good manners on their part and poor upbringing? I have another question brought on by a situation where a waitress picked up my napkin and placed it on my lap before taking my order. Was this the "proper" thing for her to do? Actually, it was a rather high class eating place and I assumed this must be done at such a place, as I could not imagine it happening at your local Pizza Hut. Perhaps you can set me right as to the do's and don'ts of napkin etiquette. Thank you.

Elizabeth

Dear Elizabeth,

Your in-laws are exhibiting a lack of manners most likely as a result of an up bringing where manners were not as important as they are to you and being taught these basics was not emphasized. As you are noticing, if you teach etiquette fundamentals at an early age, you might well avoid awkward moments such as this later on as children reach adulthood. As far as the placing of the napkin on your lap by the waitress goes, in some high end restaurants this is the custom. My advice to you is of course always to follow the lead of your host or hostess. What should happen is as soon as everyone is seated, the host or hostess should unfold their napkin on their lap and the guests should in turn follow. If there is no host to follow, once everyone (even if it's two) are seated, the napkin should be unfolded on your lap. If this is not done, an attentive waiter will likely do it for you. This is not to be construed as being rude or condescending, but rather as a silent service gesture to indicate that the rituals of the meal are underway. It is a way of communicating to the guest that the staff is now ready to serve you. I hope this answers your question. EG

Another reader wondered, "I was thinking maybe a little closer to the holidays you might do a column about etiquette for children. You know, people drag them everywhere especially at Christmas time, and there’s no time of the year when they’re so spoiled and wound up. You could have fun with that one!"

Fun indeed! Christmas is a time of year when children are the focus. The holiday does after all celebrate the birth of a child. There are so many traditions associated with holiday times which are filled with family memories. Passing these traditions on to our children is important. In order to ensure that these busy times will be filled with joy, there are a few ground rules which may be helpful. The safety of your family and your pets is of the utmost importance. Making sure all electrical wiring and cords are in perfect condition and out of the reach of small, exploring hands is key. Keep poisonous substances such as chocolates and Poinsettias out of the reach
of dogs.

Take time with your children to be together without the hustle and bustle of the mall, bazaar, parade, etc. Decorating the house, baking cookies, reading a Christmas story, watching a holiday film, listening to and singing Christmas songs. Driving through your town after dusk and looking at the Christmas displays are the special times that allow you to do fun things together and to create memories.

Try to plan and schedule your time as well as possible including time for shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning, and on it goes. A wonderful way to teach children is to include them in of these activities. This kind of experience is a wonderful way for them to have a hands-on idea of how things are done.

‘Tis the season to think of others. This is the surest way to have the most enjoyable holiday season. This is also a way to teach children about sharing and caring for others. The simple act of putting a can of soup in the Food Bank collection box will become a life lesson, one which they will take and practice throughout their lives. Now you have created a tradition.

Be grateful for the many blessings which surround us - family, friends, delicious food and good cheer. There is a familiar saying - "it is better to give than to receive". This time of year is when this saying comes to life. It instills gratitude in ourselves and others which stretches throughout the year.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

Holiday Obligations

Ready or not, it's that time of year again. This holiday season, some people will find themselves in the same quandary as years past. Do we drive to see our families, or do we get them to come to us for a change? A reader recently wrote me this question; my answer follows.

Dear Etiquette Guy,

This will be my first holiday season in my own apartment with my boyfriend of 2 1/2 years. As excited as I am to decorate, bake and enjoy the holidays as an adult, I am a little concerned about how to handle some of the holiday activities.

We are going to see our entire family (his and mine) on Thanksgiving. Is it wrong of us to want to spend Christmas Day in our own home this year instead of hiking from house 1, house 2, etc.? My family has a bit of an old mentality, and expects us to be there since we are 1) not married yet and 2) are not hosting the holidays ourselves.

Should we suck it up and travel all day during Christmas, or enjoy a couple's Christmas in the place we worked so hard to obtain?

Thanks for your advice,

L.P.

Dear L.P.,

Thanks for asking this really good question. I have found myself in this position both as a single person with a significant other and as a married person. My experience tells me that parents usually do want their children to make the trek, sometimes even if they are burdened with kids. I can totally identify with your position of wanting to spend Christmas in your home with your beloved. My advice is to be as compassionate to yourselves and to your families as possible. This means being accommodating when possible, yet protecting your private time as well and without feelings of guilt. I think family traditions become traditions because most of the time they work well. If you step and back and look at the big picture, you in fact may be the most flexible; in which case you would be appropriately expected to bend more.

This in no way diminishes your desire to spend a quiet private Christmas in your own home. The symbolism which surrounds that is very strong and important. It is also resilient. My advice is to follow your instincts and "suck it up". Be grateful that you have two families to visit on such an important holiday.

I hope this helps,

Jay

We all have challenging schedules. The larger our families and extended families grow, the more complicated these schedules become. When I was young, our holiday schedules were fixed. Routines were never broken and we knew what was to be expected of us and of our valuable time. As I grew older and my own world expanded, my time had to be more cleverly divided. The holidays are times when we want everyone to be happy and feel as though they are the most important people in the world. From a practical and logistical view point, this is not always possible. My rule of thumb is that those family members who are most senior in age deserve the most consideration for a lot of obvious reasons. Many are on a fixed income and travel is too expensive. Elderly people don't travel as easily as they once did physically. In the end it is easier to call on them or to spend the holidays with them than it is to expect them to do so.

Married couples are often faced with deciding which in laws to spend time with. Many have no choice but to drive between both families, weather conditions cooperating or not. This is trying, but it is often times the only solution. The festivities around the holidays carry with them many traditions which families want to share and pass on to their children and grandchildren. These traditions are important to a healthy society and facilitating this within a family is a good thing.

In addition to sharing with your larger families, the holidays are a time to create your own traditions. Pick a day during the season to spend with one another. Decide to cook a special meal, open a gift. Decorations can be put up and removed at your discretion. I have a friend who keeps a few Christmas items around her house all year long. It’s all up to you.

I can think of no better time of year than to pass on the number one cardinal rule of etiquette. Put others first. Whenever possible, this is a guideline not to be ignored. If we take the time to consider what may be best for others, we can be surprised at how easy it for us to be accommodating. The old adage "it is more blessed to give than to receive" became an old adage because it is the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

Honor Our Troops

November 11 is Remembrance Day. This is the time day when we take a moment to give thanks and pay respect to the men and women all over the world from countries far and wide whose jobs it was to protect the free world? We are reminded of the ultimate sacrifice they made. We honor past fallen heroes as we watch the news of the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. So many countries work together towards the common goal of a free world. We so often not only take for granted the choices that we can make, but in fact that we have the ability to make those choices at all. On Remembrance Day we show our gratitude.

Many of us have seen the advertisements on television showing troops carrying their heavy gear through crowded airports to the cheers and applause of well wishers. Some troops are going off to war; others are returning; yet others are on their first trip to basic training. What a nice way to openly show our gratitude. We take a moment; look them each squarely in the eye; smile and say thank you. Some will likely not return.

Remembrance Day is an official flag flying day too. Customarily, the flag is raised in the morning and lowered to half mast from 11 am to 12 Noon, when it is once again raised fully.

The armed forces serve to protect our country from harm and to help defend democracy around the world. They also are a wonderful way for young men and women to get a great education and to learn how to impart good values to their own children as well as to children overseas left homeless as a result of war and bloodshed.

The natural disasters which occur on an unfortunately unpredictable and frequent basis are further occasions for various branches of the military to come to our rescue. It amazes me how often I read about the National Guard moving in to help out in one serious situation after another. Those men and women are so skillfully trained in so many important skills. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires and other forces of nature leave a path of destruction. We are so blessed to have a well trained army of people who can step up to the plate when called upon. Remembrance Day remembers those who lost their lives in this line of duty as well.

I think about the day when war will sleep. The world will be quiet from gun blasts and rocket fire. Pirates will no longer threaten our precious cargo. Disagreements between us will be handled civilly. We as a human race can value life for what it is, free of discrimination, free of oppression, free of the need to exert unnecessary power over our fellow man. Until that time, our armed forces are important. There are tens of thousands of troops strategically placed around the globe keeping a watchful eye over potential harm. Second guessing the master minds of evil, while at the same time battling the dreaded diseases and poverty of the third world, are all in a days work for these brave men and women in uniform. And their valiant efforts were not done on some lush tropical island with gentle breezes. These folks were subject to the worst of conditions with danger lurking around every corner.

I like days like Remembrance Day. It is another of those punctuations on the calendar which reminds us to count our blessings and to be mindful of those who made our life of freedom possible. The next time you see an enlisted person in uniform, take a moment to look them in the eye and extend your hand from your heart to theirs. It shows how much respect we have for them and how much the dangerous jobs that they have chosen do not go unnoticed by any one of us. They will appreciate this kind gesture and so will your heart.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

More Civility on the Roads

I received this letter from a reader several weeks ago. As I was sitting at my desk watching winter approach, I thought that perhaps a column addressing driving might be a good idea. Driving in the snow and ice of New Brunswick present its own set of problems. Let’s first address the concerns of this reader.

Dear Jay:

I was disappointed that your previous column, "Civility rules on the road, too," did not address civility between different users of the road, as for example, automobiles and pedestrians or automobiles and bicycles.

In particular, I wish that more automobile drivers were aware of the following:

1) Your "right" to make a right turn at a red light is limited by the presence of pedestrians crossing the road in front of you.

2) Even though pedestrian-activated red lights are not part of what you personally may consider to be part of the normal signal cycle, you are still required to stop for them. If you fail to notice them in time because you are driving too fast or because you are overly distracted, as for example by your cell phone, it is your responsibility to amend your behavior, not the pedestrian's responsibility to stay out of your way.

3) Where a sidewalk crosses the entrance or exit to a driveway or parking lot, pedestrians on the sidewalk have the right of way, as do cyclists moving along the right-hand side of the road. You are required to wait until the way is clear for you to proceed. Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can...

4) Cyclists are required to ride along the right-hand side of the paved roadway. They are not required to ride on unpaved surfaces, across broken glass, through potholes that would rip their front wheels off, etc. If the presence of a cyclist at the right-hand side of the paved roadway does not leave enough room for you to pass, this does not give you license to run the cyclist off the road. You need to wait until you have room to pass safely. Patience is a virtue...

And finally, a word addressed specifically to young male drivers:

While you personally may think it fun to yell at pedestrians and cyclists as you go by in order to see if you can make them jump, no one else thinks it's fun. Grow up - or turn in your license until you're mature enough to handle it.

S.R.W.

Dear S.R.W.,

Thanks for pointing out these important rules which people do tend to forget. There is a civility which must be practiced while driving, peddling and walking so no one gets injured. It is advisable for pedestrians to walk on the left side of the street, thereby facing into oncoming traffic. This enables them to clearly see approaching vehicles and step off the road surface if possible as they pass. Cyclists need to stay to the far right hand side of the road when motor vehicles are passing. In many communities there are actual bike lanes specifically designated for their safety. The addition of more of these lanes will only enhance the safety of those riding bikes. Motor cycles and automobiles must follow traffic rules carefully and be prepared for any surprises that a pedestrian or cyclist may present. Even though there are designated cross walk areas in many towns, out of town visitors, of which we have many here in this tourist town, may be unaware of them and are particularly vulnerable.

Children need to learn about traffic and traffic rules at an early age. Although there are often well marked signs prohibiting bicycles on sidewalks, a lot of folks are unaware of them. Children feel and are safer riding on the sidewalks, signs or no signs. However it is up to a parent to teach their children that pedestrians have the right of way on or off sidewalks. This is an easy way to begin to instill the concept of respect for other in the minds of our youth. Being aware of traffic safety regulations protects youngsters against traffic dangers.

As far as driving around here in the winter, the same rules apply. However, because it is far more difficult to stop or swerve on an icy pavement, great caution must be practiced. Test your brakes from time to time as road conditions change. Drive defensively and slower than you normally would. There are also deer that leap onto the road coming seemingly out of no where. To enable you to be as safe as possible in the winter, make sure your car is winterized by a licensed mechanic. Keep warm clothes or blankets in the car. Remember to charge your cell phone and carry it with you in case of an emergency. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. If you are going to travel a long distance, check road and highway conditions before hand to be prepared for any delays. By taking these few precautionary measures, your winter travel will be safer. Erring on the side of caution demonstrates the respect you have for your fellow travelers and for you as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Etiquette of Making Small Talk

Last week's column prompted a reader to ask me to go into greater depth about how to initiate conversations at the dinner table, especially with people you don't know well. What encouraged me to pursue this topic was partly because it is a skill which is incredibly useful to have; and also the person asking me to talk the art of conversation seemed to me to be self assured and a good conversationalist, yet shared with me the fright and discomfort they feel when they find themselves in this very situation.

Whether you find yourself at a business mixer or a large family dinner, there will be times when you find yourself face to face with a stranger, be it a new business acquaintance or a distant cousin. The silence which can linger can make both people feel uncomfortable and starting a short conversation is one of the easiest ways to break the ice. It is as simple as beginning with, "hello my name is" and moving on to ' isn't this a lovely gathering; I'm glad to be here tonight with such interesting company."

When meeting someone for the first time in any situation, be prepared to shake hands, standing up straight and with confidence. Smile and repeat the person's name a couple of times in the next few sentences to help you remember it. Diving into personal questions or areas where there could be a difference of opinion, such as religion and politics, is best avoided during the initial introductions. Stick to noncontroversial topics such as the lovely hospitality, the weather, world news, food, books and hobbies. It helps to stay current on world events. Matters of health, wealth, gossip, age and other unpleasant subjects can also wait until a relationship of a more familial nature develops.

I find that people do enjoy talking about themselves and in a way, because it is such familiar territory, it relaxes them and makes conversation easier, albeit a bit one sided. Speaking about your family and other personal interests opens the door for your new acquaintance to ask questions or reveal information of a similar nature without fear of embarrassment. Finding common ground is the end result of these initial exchanges, which although referred to as small talk, can have a very large influence on what sort of first impression you make and how successful the friendship might be in the future.

While logic would lead you to believe that your initial nervousness and discomfort can be eased by talking about subjects near and dear to you, the same can also happen when you focus your attention on putting the other person's level of comfort ahead of your own.

Have you ever noticed how the different tones of voice and topics of discussion change from when men are speaking to other men and women to other women, to when men and women are speaking to one another? This is our inherent, often disguised way of posturing for position and this posturing can differ greatly from one situation to another. This is where the black and white lines of the social and the business worlds become spectrums of grey. Being aware of your tone of voice and being sensitive to other people's feelings helps to make it easier not to cross lines inappropriately.

Although the nature of these initial conversations appears unimportant on the surface, it does reveal a great deal about the speaker, especially his personality. Such seemingly superfluous chats can be quite brief and act as catalysts for more substantial, perhaps even urgent matters; or they can carry on indefinitely as is occasionally the case with some difficult family relationships.

The ability to be comfortable initiating these opening conversations comes very naturally to some people; to many others it takes time and practice. The effort put into honing these skills is well worth it. As mentioned last week, the dinner table is a perfect training ground for such practice. As adults, it is our responsibility to teach our youth, tomorrow's leaders, these important skills, and with practice, they become comfortable and healthy habits. Feeling confident and at ease around strangers makes it far easier not only to make friends but to begin establishing meaningful relationships.