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When The Invite Doesn't Say 'No Gifts Necessary.' Etiquette, Social Rules, and Advice.

Updated on April 16, 2012

Dear Veronica,

This question is a manners question which I see from reading [your hubs] you’re very good at. By the way I see that we can no longer email you through your profile so I am leaving this in a comment, I hope that’s OK.

I’m throwing a 30th Wedding Anniversary Party for my parents. I’m paying for everything which is fine. It’s my gift to them for all they’ve sacrificed and done for me over the years. It’s a rented hall, I hired a DJ, there will be a full bar, and a big catered dinner. Guests do not have to pay to come, obviously.

My parents are very generous people. Everyone I’m inviting has experienced that first hand. Most of the couples they’re friends with have multiple children, many of which have gotten married. Some already have grandchildren. My parents had just me, and I don't plan on getting married or having kids for a long time if at all.

My parents have given birthday gifts, shower gifts, baby gifts, wedding gifts, graduation gifts, and much more to everyone who’s coming. I just feel like they’re getting up there in age, and they deserve to be treated as generously as they’ve treated everyone else.

These guests are coming to a party the equivalent of a wedding reception. How does this work? Will people bring my parents gifts? Is it rude that I want them to bring gifts for my parents? Of course if someone came that didn’t bring a gift I would never say anything and warmly greet them. But I want the people that want to bring a gift, to bring a gift. My parents deserve it. What is the social expectation here?

I really hope you get this and respond. I see in your questions how many people don’t know how to send questions to you and how many you don’t answer. I have looked at a lot o' advice columns and your advice is the only one I want.

DeeDee3

Me First, Then You.

Thank you for your confidence and your readership.

I disable the direct email feature for a while from time to time. Most people are great but the ones that abuse it really get to me. Leaving a question through comments for me as you did is always a great way to reach me. You’re right, I don’t get to answer all the questions people send. Between my Lupus and the sheer volume of questions I get, I just can’t do too much more than I’m doing. I try to pick out questions involving issues I haven’t tackled yet.

And now for your situation.

Dear DeeDee3,

What a wonderful gift to your parents! Throwing them a big anniversary party like this is really a beautiful thing for you to do.

The proper etiquette in situations like this is for guests to bring a gift.

When people are invited to an event for a celebratory occasion such as a wedding, a birthday, a graduation, an anniversary, or a baby shower, they’re expected to bring a gift for that occasion. The only time a gift isn’t necessary is when the invitation specifically states so. This would be proper if for example the guest of honor owns the restaurant where the party is being thrown, or if the guest of honor is an executive who has invited a lot of his employees.

If you’re invited to such an event in a catered hall or restaurant, you’re expected as a guest to give a gift with a value at least equivalent to what the host has paid for your dinner. If a guest can’t budget that expense, they should decline the invite. That’s been the correct etiquette for a long time, and it hasn’t changed. While a lot of old fashioned etiquette rules are passé now, this one certainly isn’t. With the financial climate the way it is, it is even harder for people to afford to throw these kinds of dinner affairs. Now more than ever it’s in truly bad form not to RSVP, and not to offer the proper gift for the occasion.

DeeDee3, there is nothing wrong with your hoping your parents will receive anniversary gifts from family and friends you’re treating to a nice night of dinner and DJ music.

Unfortunately, people can be clueless. Eh, there's not much you can do about it.

I have a friend I’d like to tell you about. She was one of my only two bridesmaids at my wedding. She’s from a well-known, well-off family. She’s doing OK for herself.

Several years ago I threw a milestone birthday party for my husband. I booked an expensive restaurant with an open bar. I sent out the invitations. Like yours, this was an event on par with a wedding reception.

She called me and said, “I just wanted to tell you that you didn’t put on the invitation not to bring a gift.”

“I know,” I replied, completely floored that even the rudest person I know could be that rude.

She didn’t drop it. “Did you forget?” she asked.

“No. The invitation is how I intended it to be,” I said, now even more shocked she pushed this further.

She just kept at it. “Well usually the invite says no gifts necessary so people know they don’t have to bring a gift.”

I had no idea what to say as she kept telling me she believed I should tell my guests that my $55 a head dinner plus full open bar means they should not bring a gift on her planet. I said, “You don’t have to bring a gift if you don’t want to.”

“Well, people usually say that. On the invitation. They say no gifts.”

I was appalled by how rude she was. It’s one thing to be ignorant of a social norm or a common custom. But she was far beyond that. First of all, she was one of my best friends. Why she would be so insistent not to give my husband a birthday gift is startling.

Even if our being friends wasn’t enough of a reason, and her lack of etiquette being what it was, the unbalanced nature of our gift giving should have dawned on her. If she wanted to go there, then she should have gone all the way there. After all the years of gifts I’d given her family and boyfriends, last year her partner was very ill. My husband and I had sent many gifts to let him know how much we cared, one of which was an item she let us know he wanted but she didn’t want to buy for him. We sent it, happily, hoping it would make him smile.

She would not drop it, and just kept batting it back at me. “Oh. Well, just to let you know that’s what people do.”

No, dear friend. It’s not what people “do.” And do you know what else people don’t “do?” They bring gifts to celebratory events, especially those thrown in a formal setting. And if they do not call their hostess and ask if they have to bring a gift.

My husband and I have no children but have bought shower gifts, baby gifts, communion gifts, birthday gifts and a gazillion other gifts for almost all kids of the people I invited to this celebration. Like you, I felt that on top of the proper etiquette, if people wanted to return the kindness and bring just ONE gift to someone in my family ONE time, that it was more than appropriate.

I have three sister-in-laws. Each has children. My husband and I don’t. We have given a ridiculous amount of gifts to these kids over the years. One sister-in-law reciprocates in many ways. Although we’re not close we are very polite and appropriate with each other. She was raised well, so was I. It's very much an even relationship.

Of the other two, one has a combined household income much higher than any of the rest of us. Not only does she never reciprocate in any way, she also doesn’t bother to send a thank you note, or even make a phone call to say they got what we sent. At family events she picks up her kid's gift expecting to find them, and that's that.

However, the other sister-in-law, who has a very money-tight and time-tight life, always always always has her children call me to thank me. She has them draw pictures and make thank you cards. She snaps photos of her children wearing the Halloween costumes we bought or the winter coats we sent. At Christmas she never fails to have something for us, usually something she baked. Oh and at that Birthday Party for my husband, she made him a scrapbook. Maybe it wasn’t expensive but it was priceless, filled with photos she had copied, artwork from her kids, and little notes about what my husband was like growing up. It was a treasure.

People can be selfish, ignorant, socially inept, lazy and greedy. The saddest part of that is those are always the ones that will twist social norm and politeness into something against those that were raised well. They'll leave comments such as, “It sounds like you only give gifts because you expect something in return.” Believing people should know how to behave in society is not something you, me, or anyone should ever be made to feel bad about.

DeeDee3, there isn’t much you can do to control how well or how poorly your guests may behave. I’m sure you’ll have at least some that will do the proper thing and offer your parents a token of congratulations, and take the time to come to you at the party thanking you for including them at such a nice shindig. And I’m sure you’ll have at least some that won’t. They will eat their paid-for dinner, drink for free, not thank you, and not offer even a card to your parents. Oh well, what can you do? Nothing, really.

The truth is, like me, you invited guests because you wanted their presence, not their presents. Of course it’s off-putting when people take advantage of your generosity, or aren’t as polite as you are. But that's life.

Don’t focus on the things you can’t control. Think about the day, the celebration. Think about what exemplary people your parents are, and how happy you’re making them by honoring them with this party. If some of their friends and family bring gifts, that’s just the icing on the day you gave them.

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