Pain-free Christmas presents

Sadly, for many of us, the season of Christmas gift-giving all too often turns into an onerous chore, as we agonise endlessly over our choice of presents or, Scrooge-like, put in very little effort at all. Last minute panic-stricken Christmas eve dashes are nerve-frazzling and liable to cause stress and grumpiness – which all too often gets taken out on the recipients. At the other end of the scale, there is often a tendency to throw too much cash at the problem – we end up being embarrassed by our own generosity, and possibly resentful of the money we have squandered.

This year the cost-of-living crisis poses a new set of problems for many of us. Splashing the cash may simply not be a viable option, so we’re exploring other ways of navigating the Christmas gift-giving challenge.

Was it ever thus? We’ve taken a brief look at the history of Christmas gift traditions…

Saturnalia, Santa Claus and Wassail

The Romans celebrated an end-of-year feast, called Saturnalia, which was a riot of drinking, merry-and anarchy. Small gifts, such as combs, dice, writing tablets and toothpicks, were exchanged during this period, mainly between men. With the advent of Christianity, these rituals morphed into the custom of gift-giving on New Year’s Day, seen as a tribute to the gifts brought by the Magi of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

By the Middle Ages the New Year gift-giving tradition had turned into opportunity to seek favour and appease the powerful – monarchs received a rich booty of gold and silver trinkets from grateful, and ambitious, subjects. Ordinary people, meanwhile, restricted their presents to items such as oranges and cloves, which were considered extremely exotic. December 6th was a celebration of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, and this was a time for indulging and gift-giving. Over time, Saint Nicholas, known to the Dutch as Sinterklaas, became Santa Claus, and his gift-giving day moved to Christmas Eve.

It was the Victorians, ably assisted by Charles Dickens, who turned the wassailing and carousing of the traditional British into a family-friendly festival, which brought the family together on Christmas Day to eat and exchange presents. Initially, gifts were no more than the cheap trinkets, fruit, nuts and sweets that hung from the newly introduced tree (a German tradition that arrived courtesy of Prince Albert). As the century progressed, presents became slightly more elaborate, and a great premium was placed on hand-crafted gifts, which showcased ladies’ needle-working skills.

The commercial phenomenon of Christmas accelerated throughout the 20th century, especially as society became more secular. For many manufacturers Christmas represented a peak sales season and increasingly they turned to mass marketing – from themed window displays to Christmas branding and elaborate seasonal television and social media campaigns – to shift their goods.

Today, we are all inundated with Christmas campaigns, fed an aspirational diet of “perfect Christmases” through tv advertising, and bombarded with marketing campaigns and special offers. It is scarcely surprising that we are susceptible to the relentless sales pitch and liable to go overboard when it comes to purchasing presents. It all seems a long way from the exchange of humble trinkets, exotic fruits and hand-crafted items enjoyed by our ancestors.

There are several ways in which you can remedy your approach to present-giving this Christmas to ensure that you spread seasonal cheer without breaking your budget:

• Decide on a present budget

It may sound over-pragmatic, but a lot of present-giving problems are caused by people having entirely different expectations when it comes to Christmas expenditure. If your simple gift is hugely trumped by an extravagantly indulgent present, it is highly likely that you will spend Christmas Day feeling both embarrassed and resentful. Discussing this dilemma openly beforehand and agreeing a budget with your family (which can be calibrated to ensure that more money is spent on the children) will pre-empt these problems without detracting from the magic on Christmas Day.

• Agree a Secret Santa scheme

This is a good solution for large families, where presents multiply alarmingly. All you need to do is organise the list of participants, set the budget, draw the names out of a hat (or you can use an online generator) to nominate a gift-receiver for each participant. This will certainly curtail your Christmas expenditure, but you will find that it is much more popular amongst adults than children, who may well be bitterly disappointed to find they only receive one present.

• Opt out Altogether

There is no rule that dictates that presents should be exchanged on Christmas Day, and it is quite acceptable to agree with relations that you are not going to do so (though this solution is only recommended for adults). Before you suggest such a dramatic step, you will need to establish that other people are on-board and are genuinely happy to forego presents. If there is just one stand-out, who feels the whole policy is disappointingly mean-spirited, then you may find that Christmas Day conviviality is severely impaired.

• Get Creative

Encourage your children to make gifts – a framed picture from a child’s art class, a box of cookies the child has baked, a plant that has been cultivated from seed. Most aunts, uncles and grandparents will be deeply touched by these handmade presents. 

• Consider Regifting

It clearly makes economic sense to find a new home for unwanted gifts, but you must employ the utmost caution. Only re-gift if you are absolutely confident that the original present-giver and the recipient of the re-gifting will never cross paths, so you are probably wise to avoid re-gifting within your immediate social circle. Never make the mistake of re-gifting a present back to the original giver – that is a faux pas from which it is hard to recover.

• Give Gourmet Treats

This year, as food costs escalate alarmingly, many of us will be cutting back on seasonal indulgences. So this is a really good time to assemble your own Christmas gift hampers, where you can put together a selection of salmon, pâté, cheese, home-made mince pies and cookies, chutneys, chocolates. If you buy in bulk and divide your Christmas booty up between hampers, you’ll find it much more economical.

• Plan your Purchases

Some of the most expensive present-giving blunders are the result of panic and desperation. If you wander the shops, feeling devoid of any inspiration, you are much more likely to be tempted by ill-advised purchases, which are frequently more than you can afford. Before you start present-buying, whether it is online or on the high street, sit down with a pen and paper, list the people you have to buy for, and try to allocate a present idea to each (note the probable cost and ensure it is within your personal budget). The list might not be definitive, but it will set some parameters and make you feel you’re in control.

Office Parties in a Hybrid Working Era

Office parties have taken a hit over the last two years. The convivial and
raucous get-togethers of the pre-pandemic era seem like a distant memory,
and many of us may be finding it hard to reboot old office traditions.
The advent of hybrid working has taken a lot of wind out of our sails. In the
days of 9-5 working, we socialised with our colleagues all year – lunches out,
after-work drinks, planned team-building events, spontaneous outings. Now
our workforce is scattered, atomised array of postage-sized images at a
weekly Zoom meeting, or a series of ships that pass in the night, as we all
evolve our own working patterns.

For some people this is the ideal option: they thrive in their home office, find
their new working lifestyle blends in perfectly with family and childcare
obligations, they do not miss the ups and downs of office social life at all. But
this is not the case for many workers, who – while they may appreciate more
flexible working practices – sorely miss daily human contact, office gossip,
office friendships.

This year we need to take a fresh look at office parties. We are no longer
subject to Covid restrictions, we are free to meet in person. The question is do
we want to?

Many managers, who are keen to build productive teams and foster loyal and
supportive friendships amongst their staff, will recognise that now is the time
to break free of our virtual bonds and meet in the flesh. A group celebration of
a successful year is always a bonding experience, and erstwhile colleagues
will enjoy the chance to see each other again. We no longer need to indulge
in on-screen cocktails, quizzes and drinking games have been consigned to
the (online) past.

Perhaps it would be sensible, since this is the first ‘normal’ Christmas since
2019, to take baby steps. Your increasingly scattered and de-institutionalised
staff might find a big corporate bash overwhelming. For people who have
embraced a solitary work life, the social shock to the system might well be
over-stimulating, leading to drunken dramas and histrionics. This year, it might
be easier to place the emphasis on smaller team celebrations. These will be
easier to organise – rounding up a team who have unpredictable working
patters and are used to being at home could turn into a logistical nightmare,
so give them plenty of warning.

Some offices, undaunted, will be reverting to their pre-pandemic office party
rituals. Whatever path your workplace decides to go down, follow our
recommendations and get the most out of your return to Christmas
socialising:

How to Handle the Office Party

Behind the gloss of festive celebrations and the camaraderie of Christmas
lunches is the reality that you are socialising with colleagues under the
watchful eye of those further up the food chain.

Socialising, chatting to everyone, being helpful about making introductions
and getting drinks are all ways of fully participating in the party that will play
well with bosses and team leaders. So do your best to showcase your
manners and charm. Go to the party armed with some icebreaking
conversation (extra-curricular activities, families, holiday plans). Circulate and
socialise but keep it upbeat and general. Don’t talk shop, you’ll come across
as a work-obsessed bore.  Now is the time to get to know your colleagues, so
don’t spend the evening bitching and backbiting. Steer clear of mistletoe and
keep goodnight kisses innocent.

When conversation falters it’s all too easy to fall back on unchecked alcoholic
intake. Inhibitions fall by the wayside and inner truths are broadcast to all and
sundry (clumsy crushes, latent dislikes). Office socials may look very much
like any other party, but never forget they are a test of interpersonal skills and
how you fit into the company.

Follow the basic drinker’s survival guide: avoid shots, eat well, alternate drinks
with water. If you fear your behaviour is getting out of hand, withdraw
gracefully. Keep your eyes open for flagging colleagues; helping them to find
coats and hail taxis is an act of responsible friendship, which may be
observed and applauded.

Thanking the host on departure is basic good manners (you can usually slip
quietly away from larger parties).

Office Party Dos and Don’ts

Hosting a drinks party

It’s the season for entertaining friends and some of us will be contemplating hosting
drinks parties over the Christmas period. For many of us, who refrained from large
gatherings over two Covid-dominated Christmases, this year offers a chance to re-boot
our social lives and revel in some seasonal conviviality. But we may also be feeling a bit
rusty when it comes to organising social events, and in need of quick refresher.
Our etiquette experts have put together a simple guide to hosting a drinks party:

Pre-Party Planning

Drinks parties or cocktail parties are traditionally held before dinner, often from
6.30–8.30pm. Increasingly, drinks parties last for a whole evening from 7pm until
around 9–10pm. Slightly more substantial food is served and then guests may take
themselves on to dinner or go home.

A large, formal party is indicated by a printed invitation arriving weeks or even months
ahead of time. A formal invitation would specify cocktails or drinks and canapés and
indicate a dress code. A more contemporary printed card or email invitation would
indicate a less formal event. A text or telephone call asking friends to come round for a
drink would imply that you are organising a very casual get-together, so avoid using this
method if you’re planning a more formal event.

Unlike most dinner parties, drinks parties may be held at a venue other than the host’s
house, for example clubs, pubs, hotels, other people’s large houses or hired rooms in
museums or galleries.

Drinks parties are where waiting staff, or at least help of some sort, is most worthwhile.
Having a bar person and one or two waiters makes a real difference, as does having
someone to greet guests and take coats. A club or venue’s own staff, or possibly those
from an agency or the caterer, may be used. At home, if professionals are not wanted,
then the host’s (or their friends’) teenage children, plus a friend or two, may be a good
option. If there is no help, a host needs to be very organised, with drinks set out ready
poured and a few friends enlisted to circulate with refills.

If you’re hosting a party at home then a single room that is big enough is preferable –
while parties that overflow into more than one room can allow for different ambiences,
they can be tricky. If multiple rooms must be used, then set up a bar in one and provide
some, but not too much, seating in another. Most people will stand and circulate, but
some seats are considerate for older guests.

Pay careful attention to the ambience of the room. Flowers or seasonal decorations will
create a celebratory atmosphere; lighting should be low and subtle. Music is not
essential and should be kept low – the din of conversation can soon reach deafening
pitch in a crowded room.

Pay careful attention to coats, especially for a winter party. Ensure that there is a designated place where they can be left, preferably in a separate
room.

Drinks and Food

Drinks can range from champagne or sparkling wine to cocktails (though you will need a
dedicated and experienced bar person to cope with demand). Always serve a good
selection of soft drinks and perhaps a non-alcoholic cocktail. Have a bottle of whisky to
hand for the guest who only drinks Scotch. Get too much of everything, including extra
glasses, as demand can never be anticipated, and drinks often get mislaid or spilt.
Some food needs to be served at a drinks party, even though it is not central to the
event. Canapés are customary and may be provided by a caterer, shop-bought or
homemade. It is smartest to serve just one type of canapé per tray and, most
importantly, they should be easy to eat in one bite, without cutlery. Avoid any canapé
that is overloaded or crumbly.

Serve canapés in stages, introducing new kinds progressively throughout the evening.
For a party of a hundred people then six different canapés per head, three hot and three
cold, would be about right, but this may be impractical or require too much cooking if
professional caterers are not being used. It is not always necessary to provide little
napkins. If food is served on sticks or skewers, then thought should be given as to their
disposal. Receptacles should be provided on the canapé tray or be offered separately.

Hosting the Party

Hosts must be ready to greet their guests on arrival and make sure they have drinks.
Ideally, someone else should open the door and take coats. Guests should be
introduced as much as possible, especially in the early stages of the party. Once most
people have arrived, the host can move to the middle of the room where they can keep
a close eye on proceedings. If there is no help, it is sensible for the host to take a bottle
with them as they circulate. This will keep glasses topped up and signal to guests that
the host cannot linger for a long chat.

The host’s job is to ensure that everyone is circulating and conversing and to check that
there are no lonely wallflowers. But don’t take the compulsion to introduce people to
each other too far. An over-assiduous host who is continually breaking up interesting
conversations to make new introductions can cause irritation.

Now is not the time to get absorbed in long conversations with people you haven’t seen
for years – you may be able to catch up with them after most of the guests have left. A
good host will keep on the move, exchanging friendly greetings, chatting briefly and
moving on. If you feel you’re getting too drawn into a conversation, just say: ‘I’m so
sorry here are so many old friends I need to catch up with so I am going to circulate…’

It is perfectly in order to stop serving drinks to signal the end of a party. If the party is in
a venue and the host is aiming to go on to a restaurant, then it is easiest to apologise to
any stragglers and let them know that everyone has to vacate the premises by a certain
time. If the party is at home, hosts may well have to accept that they’re in for the long
haul – dwindling drink supplies and subtle tidying up should convey the message

The parent-school relationship

An effective education has always required collaboration between parents and the school. Clearly, talking to your child’s teacher about goals, problems and progress is a fundamental expectation, but there are other more subtle ways of building a relationship with the school, which may involve giving up your own time for school events, volunteering to go on school trips, helping with fundraising drives and so on. All these activities will cement your relationship with the school and benefit your child.

Parents’ engagement with schools might be shaped by their own experiences as pupils. If parents did not ‘succeed’ in, or enjoy, their own education and have good experiences of the system, it may mean they are less trusting of teaching staff and may not be so supportive when it comes to homework and extra-curricular activities. It’s very important to put personal experience behind you and embrace the opportunities your child is being offered.

While communication between schools and parents has been revolutionised by emails, this is not always positive. Demanding parents, who may have unrealistic expectations for their children and a tendency to be highly critical, now expect an instant email response to their complaints – some teachers spend many hours a week simply communicating with parents.

It is important for parents to realise that the relationship is not single-sided. The school is not simply providing a ‘service’ (educating children) to demanding ‘customers’ (the parents). An education is so much more than a litany of classroom achievements. It involves developing social skills, building confidence, nurturing relationships, spotting special skills and talents, nipping social problems in the bud. A good education will create a well-rounded child, not simply a grade-achieving automaton, and parents have a vital role to play in this process.

If you are responsive to requests from your child’s school, involve yourself in the life of the school and build positive relationships that go beyond the classroom, your child will feel relaxed, secure and ready to learn.

These are the things you should always do:

• Take the time to say hello to your child’s teacher when you’re dropping off or picking up, and exchange a few pleasantries. If your child is young, the class teacher will be a major figure in their lives, so it’s a good idea to start building a cordial relationship from day one.

• Turn up for regular meetings with the teacher. If you can’t do it, make sure your partner can (both of you should attend if possible). Pleading that you’re ‘too busy’ to discuss your child’s progress will be a real black mark against you.

• Always fill out all the material that comes from the school, and promptly. This may mean signing a homework diary and adding a few comments, or filling out forms for school activities, assessments etc.  Lots of children are really forgetful about handing over this material, so inspect your child’s bag at the end of the day to check out what needs doing.

• Check your emails regularly and always answer emails from the school promptly.

• Always be available to help your child with homework tasks – they might need help or clarification or maybe you’ll need to forage for craft materials or pictures. Young children need a lot of learning support and you owe it to the school to do your bit.

• Always turn up for end of term concerts, school plays, carol services etc. if you've said you're going to be there. Your child will look for you and may feel anxious or disappointed if you're not there having said you would be.

Things you should try to do:

• Give a little time to the school – it may be assisting in the classroom, manning a stall at the school fête, putting together a newsletter in the evenings, or helping on a school trip.

• Try your best to answer all appeals for help from the school – be it for cash contributions, food for the harvest festival, old clothes for school plays, gifts for a sister school in Africa.

• If you have enough spare time, consider joining the Parents’ Association or becoming a parent-governor. You will be able to work with the principal and senior management team to make sure the pupils get a good education.

Things you should never do:

• No matter how frustrated you feel, you must never storm into the school at the end of the day and berate your child’s teacher. If you have a concern, always make an appointment. Even if you have a serious grievance, keep your language moderated and your temper in check – anger will only make people defensive…

• It is vital that you don’t embarrass your child in front of his/her fellow pupils or teacher. Aways take your cue from your child if you accompany them on a school trip. Behaviour that is acceptable in the privacy of your own home may be absolutely mortifying in a school context.

How to avoid a social slip-up

It’s party season and over the next few weeks we’re all likely to find ourselves, glass in hand, making conversation with a stranger. Some people respond to this challenge with ease and panache – they never seem to run out of topics, are excellent at drawing out the shyest people, and spread an atmosphere of enjoyment and conviviality. But even if you’re not the world’s greatest conversationalist, you should be able to cope with the social challenges ahead, if you avoid the following cardinal errors:

• Wandering eyes

People who only half-engage in social conversations, who let their eyes wander around the room or look over the shoulder of the person with whom they are nominally talking, are undoubtedly very rude. We have all felt trapped in party conversations at one time or another, aware that we might miss the opportunity to waylay someone with whom we really want to chat, but it is imperative to suppress these feelings and ruthlessly eliminate any sign that you are anything other than 100 per cent engaged.

You just have to accept that you must let the conversation run its course, until you reach a natural point where you can make your excuses – these can range from refilling your glass to a more generalised statement that you feel you must ‘mingle’. Alternatively, you might see someone you know and introduce them to your conversational partner. If you take this route, stick around for a few moments to ensure the conversation is under way, then mutter a polite excuse and escape.

•Talking, not listening

Many people are over-loquacious – they like the sound of their own voice, have opinions on everything and are not at all inhibited about airing them. They may find that a stranger at a party, especially someone who is a little shy or not particularly assertive, is a perfect target. They can bang on happily about their favourite hobby horse, secure in the knowledge that nobody is going to interrupt them.

In the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus (c. 60 CE) “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”. Good conversationalists are great listeners; they ask open-ended questions (which do not demand simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers), listen carefully to responses, then pick up threads and elaborate on them to create a multi-layered conversation, replete with shared references and a sense of intimacy.

• Boasting

Many people see socialising as primarily a means of self-promotion. They are intent on making an impact, becoming the person at the party that everybody is talking about, and maybe even see this ambitious form of socialising as a way of advancing their reputation or career.

Unfortunately, they all too often use extremely crude methods to get their message across. They boast and brag about their achievements, status, wealth and abilities in the deluded belief that they will sweep all before them. Far from gaining kudos, they rapidly become social pariahs.

• Name dropping

A close relative of boasting, name-dropping is another way of trumpeting your self-importance, by claiming that you are intimately acquainted with famous people. This painfully transparent attempt to coast through life on the coat-tails of more talented individuals is only going to make you look needy and pathetic. It certainly won’t win you any friends.

• Asking intrusive questions

While it is certainly important to listen to your conversational partners and to ask questions, you must be careful about just how probing your interrogation is. We all accept that social chit-chat is a delicate dance that skims the social surface, flirting with intimacy, but moving on. You will be transgressing this social law if you start questioning people about money, salaries, divorce, political allegiance, religion and so on.

Accept that there is no short cut to intimacy and revel in the skill with which seasoned practitioners of the conversational arts can skirt around the big questions, make generalised observations, and obliquely extract all sorts of information from their interlocutors, without once asking an intrusive question.

• Interrupting

Big talkers are often keen interrupters. They are conversationally over-bearing and are therefore quite likely to break into other people’s conversation, stopping them in mid-flow, or talk over them. Obviously, the tendency to interrupt is closely linked to an inability to listen – impatience and frustration build up and the interrupter is filled with an overwhelming desire to butt in.

Interrupting is extremely rude; it devalues what the ‘interuptee’ is saying and belittles them. If it is essential that you should break into a conversation – to relay some important news or to alert people to the fact that dinner is served, for example – establish eye contact with the person who is talking, and then say “Please excuse me for interrupting, but…”

• Making people feel excluded

It is very important at parties to make people feel welcome and included (wallflowers should always be taken under your wing). Sot if you are chatting with a group of friends or colleagues and a stranger is present it is very rude to talk exclusively about people, issues or events that only concern members of the group.

A fundamental rule of social intercourse is that nobody should be made to feel superfluous and irrelevant. So, if you find yourself in this position, do your utmost to lead the conversation into more general areas and if members of the group will not be led, consider addressing the issue directly: “I’m sure Alex doesn’t want to hear about our sales teams’ antics in Abu Dhabi!”

How to behave around babies

If you don't have children, or if memories of early parenthood are fast fading, you may find friends with babies a real challenge. While there are undoubtedly many parental pitfalls that must at all costs be avoided, you should be aware that your behaviour is equally important. Impatience or censoriousness will destroy new parents’ confidence and will make a difficult time unbearably fraught.

Here are some ways of behaving around babies and new parents with tact and diplomacy:

• If you are hosting new parents (even if it’s just for a few hours), make sure that they have the sole use of a room in your house. They’ll be able to dump their baby paraphernalia, retire here to change nappies, breastfeed, or just have quiet time with the baby. They may be able to set up a carry cot in this room and put the baby down for a nap.

You’ll benefit from allocating them their own space, as otherwise they’ll inevitably colonise your whole house (it’s difficult to avoid), and you may begin to resent the territorial encroachment.

• If the baby is mobile (ie crawling or toddling), you must make some basic preparations before a baby comes to your house. Remove breakables so that they are beyond a baby’s reach, secure kitchen cupboards, and, if possible, move a piece of furniture in front of the bottom of the stairs. At least you have now done the best you can to safeguard the child’s safety and the parents will appreciate the effort you’ve made.

• Test your own tolerance. If a baby creates a certain amount of mess (saucepans on floor, books taken off shelves, newspapers shredded around the sitting room), can you live with it? If all that it entails is a quick five-minute tidy around once the baby has gone home, then you almost certainly can. Why make a fuss over something that is comparatively trivial?

• Communicate with the parents. If a baby is doing something that you can’t bear to witness (playing with your best china, breaking the flowers off your precious pot plants, smearing jam on your white upholstery), point it out – quietly and firmly – to the parents. Never react directly to the baby – snatching it away, shouting etc. will cause open-mouthed shock followed, inevitably, by lusty screaming and pained looks of reproach from the parents.

• Never criticise. It’s almost inevitable that you will see behaviour around babies that you find baffling, provocative, or just plain stupid. But unless this behaviour is life-threatening, you must keep your criticisms to yourself. Head-on critiques will cause anger, or painful self-doubt and defensiveness and are therefore totally pointless. If you want to convey a message to a parent, you must use the tact of a seasoned diplomat; anecdotes about your own experiences, self-deprecating tales of mistakes made, lessons learnt and so on, might work, but only if they are deployed with the utmost subtlety.

• Lead by example. If a baby is causing unacceptable disruption (at a dinner table or in a restaurant, for example), and the parents are resolutely determined to ignore the interruption, offer to take the child outside yourself. There’s always a chance, of course, that they’ll just let you do what you suggest (although only the most insensitive parent will leave you in sole charge for long); but they may also correctly read your suggestion as a gentle reminder of their responsibilities.

• No snatching. Many babies don’t enjoy being grabbed by comparative strangers (and almost everyone, apart from their parents will seem like a stranger to them at first, even if they are blood relations). They will wriggle miserably in your arms, reach out for their mother, start grizzling. It’s really not a good idea to put either the baby, or the parent, through this misery. Wait until a compliant and relaxed baby is handed to you and then you can welcome it with open arms.

• Accept parental fussing. If parents make a song and dance about feeding the child, getting it to bed, settling it etc., don’t adopt a world-weary “been there, done that, never did me any harm” line. The parents’ fussiness is, obviously, a manifestation of anxiety about new responsibilities, and will have to be worked through at their own pace. Just try and let it all wash over you…

Sending regrets... how to decline an invitation

At this time of year, the pace of social life picks up and you may well find yourself invited to multiple events and gatherings. This is a matter of celebration for energetic and convivial extroverts, but for many people this frenzy of socialising can become oppressive and exhausting. Many of us are still slowly re-booting our social life in the wake of the pandemic, and our social stamina is diminished.

So, if you want to curtail your socialising or simply to enjoy a quiet night in, how do you politely decline an invitation without causing offence?

Formal Invitations

It is easier to be circumspect when you receive a formal invitation to an event. It is not actually necessary to give a reason for non-attendance, and is quite acceptable to simply send regrets, for example:

Florence Cavendish thanks The Board of Trustees for the National Society of ……. for their kind invitation for Saturday December 17th, which she very much regrets being unable to accept.

If the formal invitation is personal, then it is usual to add an excuse, though not to add much detail (‘due to a previous engagement’, ‘due to the illness of ….’).

Informal Invitations

The whole business of declining becomes a little more fraught when you are responding to less formal invitations. You probably know the hosts and/or their friends personally, they may be part of your social circle, or family members, and you therefore need to think carefully before making your excuses.

 If somebody puts you on the spot and asks you to an event in person, or on the phone, don’t panic – that might lead to a kneejerk (and regretted) acceptance, or an over-blunt refusal. Instead, buy some time – say you’ve got to check your diary or calendar, or check your dates with your husband/wife/partner/babysitter. Give yourself the time to really think about the invitation and to assess whether you are able to go before replying.

When it comes to replying to informal invitations – written or verbal – the following general rules apply:

• You should always RSVP to invitations promptly, and this is certainly true when you are declining. Don’t allow your reluctance to let the hosts down become a reason for procrastinating. Bite the bullet and send your regrets as soon as possible.

• Always express your gratitude and appreciation for the invitation. Even if you are going to decline it you should indicate that you recognise you have been honoured.

• It’s always fine to plead a previous engagement, if that is genuinely the case. Everybody knows that social events clash, and that it’s unavoidable.

• Don’t tell lies to explain your non-attendance – your cover story may be blown by well-meaning friends, especially as social media now tracks and exposes our lives in unprecedented ways, and you wouldn’t want your hosts to discover that you lied in order to avoid their party.

• Don’t plead fictional illness, either your own or a family member’s. You will be provoking unwarranted sympathy and, more troublingly, interest, which may well mean that your story is exposed.

• If you’re not attending because you’re suffering from social exhaustion and want to spend a night slumped in front of the TV, it might be best to come clean – especially if you know the hosts well. This excuse will be much more acceptable if you imply that your exhaustion is due to over-work and/or parenting commitments (which everybody accepts are out of your control) rather than over-socialising (your hosts will conclude that you chose to go to other people’s events and as a result cannot summon the energy to go to theirs, which they may find hurtful).

• If you are asked to an event that involves spending money that you don’t have, for example a lavish Christmas dinner at an expensive restaurant, it is quite acceptable to be honest and say you can’t afford to participate – you can make this blunt statement more palatable, and less liable to induce guilt in your friends, by saying something like “I always spend far too much money at this time of year…” or jokily saying “I’m afraid there won’t be a turkey for Christmas dinner if I keep on splashing the cash!”. Keep it light-hearted and people will find your excuse understandable.

• If you are basically making your excuses because you are feeling over-tired and over-committed, you can always mitigate the impact of your refusal by suggesting an alternative social event in the near future (it might lighten the January gloom). Proposing a dinner or outing in the new year will ensure that your hosts don’t feel rejected.

• Above all, be decisive. Don’t prevaricate – putting an invitation on one side because you can’t make up your mind whether you’ve got the energy or will to go to the party is the height of bad manners. Your late RSVP, even if it’s an acceptance, may inconvenience your hosts. Sending a late refusal is never acceptable – your hosts may well detect that you have been hedging your bets about attending their party, and your subsequent decision to turn them down will be doubly insulting.

• If you change your mind at the last moment and decide to decline an invitation you have previously accepted, it is imperative that you contact the hosts (by phone, email or text) to let them know you won’t be coming. You should apologise profusely for the last-minute cancellation and should also offer an excuse for not attending. If you have decided not to go because you just can’t face it, then you must take on the blame (“I’m afraid I have bitten off more than I can chew, and severely under-estimated how exhausting the last two weeks would be. I am so sorry to let you down.”). Soften the blow by suggesting alternative future arrangements.

Beware arrogance

Arrogant people are lucky enough to be thick-skinned, brandishing their own certainty and lack of self-doubt or humility as they ride roughshod over the petty issues of other, lesser mortals.

The innate self-belief of the arrogant is transmuted into a conviction of superiority, and a fatal inability to ever admit a mistake. Arrogant people are undoubtedly resilient; their ability to remain unbowed, and to breeze through everyday life without a care about the effects of their actions on those around them, can be quite awe-inspiring, but the effect of arrogance is distinctly undesirable.

Arrogant people are, quite simply, rude. People who have no self-doubt, who proceed without looking left and right to check the feelings of those around them are not people we should be rushing to befriend. Unfortunately, arrogance – that overbearing pride and superiority shown towards perceived inferiors – is now all too often associated with the drive to succeed, to get on, not to be held back by lesser mortals. Ambition is applauded and its unattractive attributes, such as arrogance, are tolerated.

There is a fine line between arrogance and confidence, but they are very different traits. Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance that comes from a realistic appreciation of our abilities and qualities. Arrogance is, at root, an inflated sense of personal value.

Arrogant people are know-it-alls, who feel they have nothing to learn, and therefore are resistant to listening to other people’s points of view. Confident people, on the other hand, have no problem listening. They’re aware that they don’t know everything and are happy to learn from others.

Arrogant people brag about their achievements, skills and abilities, and often ignore those around them. They like to hog the spotlight, making others feel less important. They might use condescending or patronising language or simply talk over people. These unattractive characteristics often mask deep-seated feelings of insecurity.

Conversely, confident people are willing to share the spotlight, and like to acknowledge other people’s achievements. In a social context, this is revealed in a propensity to ask questions, a willingness to listen to other people, and a tendency to encourage other people to ‘shine’. In a work context, confident people are collaborative and cooperative; they ask for input from their colleagues and encourage teamwork.

We’ve all come across arrogant people in our social life. We may have suffered an unpleasant encounter at a social event, where we have been bored to death, alienated or patronised by an arrogant guest, who is boastful and overbearing, yet blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings. In the context of a short-term social encounter, the best policy is to swiftly move on – engaging with an arrogant ego can be a bruising experience.

However, it becomes much more troubling in the workplace, where arrogant people can be truly disruptive. Their inability to listen to other people, to engage in constructive dialogue or to work collaboratively, can poison the office atmosphere and disrupt team dynamics.

Here’s how to manage arrogant behaviour or people in the workplace:

1.  Spot arrogant applicants

Be cautious of CVs that look too good to be true. Arrogant applicants may exaggerate their skills and experience or may argue that they are uniquely suitable for the role. When you interview them, you may find them over-demanding – they may state at the outset that they cannot contemplate overtime, or they require a desk near the window. They may enquire about promotion prospects before they are even offered the job. These kinds of demands denote a sense of entitlement, which may well emanate from an over-inflated ego.

2.  Call out arrogant behaviour

Inform your employees that you will be reviewing their attitude as well as their output and performance. Arrogant people may feel that their rude behaviour is justified by the results they get, so you need to let them know that no amount of expertise will justify disruptive or demeaning behaviour. If you want to encourage teamwork, you need to make it clear at the outset that getting along with colleagues is a high priority.

3. Confront the arrogant employee

Sometimes, you need to tackle arrogant behaviour head-on. Set up a meeting with the employee and be specific about revealing incidents. You will need to spell out the negative consequences – for example low team morale and productivity, resignation of key personnel etc.

Don’t make the mistake of associating overweening pride and feelings of superiority with success.

Consideration for others is a fundamental life-skill that should not drain away in the face of driving ambition.

How to avoid a festive faux-pas

As the Christmas season approaches we look at a number of potential pitfalls for hosts. We all know that laying on a lunch or dinner party can be a daunting prospect, but it is likely to go much more smoothly if you plan ahead, cook within the limits of your abilities and do as much preparation as possible before your guests arrive.

Here is a faux-pas checklist to guide you through the festive season:

• Watch out for allergies

It’s always a good idea to check out if your guests are allergic to any particular foods when you invite them. Also check if they’re prone to food intolerances. This might mean you’re left with an unwieldy list of sanctioned foods, violent dislikes or dietary no-nos, but at least you’ll be forewarned and can plan evasive action beforehand.

• Tidy up beforehand

Make sure you allow enough time to de-clutter your house, remove any domestic debris (scattered shoes, discarded toys, drying laundry), and clear a space for guests’ coats – you don’t want to keep people standing around in the hall in their coats for longer than necessary. Giving a lunch or dinner party is a bit of performance and you need to ensure that the stage is set.

• Lay the table

It is reassuring for guests to arrive at a house which is neat and tidy, with the table laid and ready and delicious cooking smells wafting in from the kitchen. If they arrive to find an empty table and a distracted host, they may well be filled with the grim realisation that they in for a long, and chaotic, evening.

• Wash the dishes

Check your cutlery carefully when you’re laying the table ­– we’ve all seen how dishwashers can occasionally bake food fragments on to utensils rather than washing them off.

• Don’t run out

Make sure you have more than enough food and wine to last the evening ­ ­­– nothing is worse than having a panicked host announcing that they’ve just got to ‘nip down to the shops’. 

• Control yourself

Giving a dinner party can be a stressful affair and it’s very tempting to lay into the wine before the guests even arrive. If you’re drunk, it will certainly impair your abilities to serve a complex meal and get the timings right ­ – you may end up burning the main course or forgetting the cheese altogether.

• Avoid a kitchen lockdown

If you don’t plan a sensible menu and do as much preparation as possible beforehand you may find yourself chained to the cooker for much of the evening. This is very boring for you, but it is also uncomfortable for the guests, who will be worried about their host’s absence and may be forced to fend for themselves.

• Don’t poison your guests

Oysters and mussels are a delicious treat, but if a few bad ones sneak in the gastric consequences will be horrible, so it might be safest to avoid them. If you’re cooking meat, remember that only single cuts of lamb or beef should be cooked rare. In all other cases (especially burgers) ensure that the meat is well cooked.

• Frame the food

If you’re serving a magnificent joint of beef or a whole fish, you want it to be admired in all its glory. Plating it up on a highly decorated serving platter will obliterate its impact and make it look like a mess. Plain white dishes will set off your culinary creations.

• Watch the tannins!

Red wines are rich in tannins, which will taste horrible if the wine is too cold. Make sure you bring the wine up to room temperature, or a degree or two above.

• Offer both red and white

You may be serving red meat and savouring the prospect of a robust Bordeaux. But some people can’t bear red wine, and just because you can’t contemplate a white wine in these circumstances doesn’t mean you should refuse to serve it. Give your guests a choice.

• Cater for non-drinkers

It’s easy to overlook the people who won’t be drinking when you’re planning a convivial evening. So make sure that you’ve got something to offer them – elderflower cordial or sparkling mineral water are a reliable stand-by – and put large jugs of tap water on the table (wine-drinkers will appreciate this too.)

• Keep it Flowing

It’s tempting, once the main course has been served, to sit back and relax and let events take their course. But if you’re hosting, you’re on duty for the duration, and that means ensuring that the courses follow on in a stately progression – with a reasonable pause in-between – and the drinks keep flowing, including after-dinner offers of tea and coffee. Stay alert for empty glasses and don’t let long hiatuses develop.

How to announce a birth

Etiquette may not be at the forefront of most parents’ minds when a baby is on its way but there are British cultural traditions about announcing births, and it is always helpful to remind yourself (well before the birth) of traditional customs. Inevitably, personal style will always play a major role when it comes to the choices of any given family, and there is no right or wrong way of announcing the arrival of a baby. Social media now plays an important role, and some couples will opt to go down this contemporary, rather than the traditional, route.

Spreading the Word

Traditionally, it is the father’s responsibility to spread the good news, but a grandparent or other relation often shares the duty. Immediate family and close friends should be informed as soon as possible by phone; it is sensible to prepare a list in advance of those nearest and dearest that require a phone call.

Other family and friends can then be contacted and it is customary to use other media – for example, text message or email – to spread the word. It is essential that the most important people have learnt of the news in person before it is announced on social media sites.

Cards, sometimes complete with a coloured ribbon (or a photograph), may be sent out at a slightly later stage. There are myriad designs available, so you can choose a design, or use your own photograph, and order personalised cards online. Conventionally, this card would contain the following information: parents’ names, baby’s full name, date and time of birth, place of birth, weight (if desired). Often, this may double up as a thank-you card if a present has been received.

If there are complications, the announcement may be delayed until the health or wellbeing of the mother and baby are known.

Conventional Announcements

Birth announcements in the paper are traditionally very simple and succinct. Announcements are usually confined to the broadsheets – effectively The Times and Daily Telegraph, though fewer people now do both – or, if appropriate, a local newspaper.

A traditional announcement would read: 

Mayhew – On 20th December to Richard and Emily (née Berkeley), a daughter, Olivia Anne.

Unmarried couples will use both parents’ first name(s) and surname. For example:

Maddox – On 20th December to Richard Maddox and Ilsa Curzon, a daughter, Alice Louise.

Single parents may use only one parent’s name. For example:

Jameson – On 20th August to Rebecca a son, Gabriel Paul.

If it is not a first child the sibling may be named (for example, ‘a sister for Joanna’) and occasionally the hospital (certain fashionable private London hospitals include the announcements in their package and always name themselves). Thanks to the medical team are less traditional but may be included and may reflect particular circumstances.

It used to be rare to announce the adoption of a child but is now much less so. Some parents choose to send out cards and the traditional wording would read:

Mr and Mrs Berkeley wish to announce the arrival of Thomas Edward into their lives.

A less formal and more contemporary version might be:

Edward and Charlotte Berkeley are thrilled to announce the homecoming of their son Thomas Edward.

Social Media

There are no conventions that govern announcing a birth on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on, and the style and wording of the announcement will be very much dictated by the people involved. However, there are some issues that should be taken into consideration:

• It is a good idea to plan ahead when it comes to announcing the birth on social media. If they are inveterate users of social media, both parents need to agree a coordinated approach – a mother would be understandably annoyed to find that her partner has posted a blow-by-blow account of her labour on social media before she has even had a chance to announce the birth. Decide which platform/s you will using, work out the wording and decide what you want to do about photos.

• If you’re a friend of the new parents, you must not steal their thunder by announcing the birth to the world on social media. It’s quite common for parents to wait before making a public announcement, as they want to be sure that everything has gone well.

• If your friends have posted images of their new baby, you will of course want to like or comment. But you must not re-share the photograph on your own page – the new parents may be understandably annoyed to hear that pictures of their child are being displayed to total strangers.

• You can always take it offline – a heartfelt text to the new parents might well be a more direct and intimate way of expressing your excitement.

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