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Send Letter To Explain Returned Gifts

Judith Martin United Features Sy

Dear Miss Manners: Two years ago, my father’s wife of seventeen years left her family, including her almost 16-year-old son, in order to rediscover her inner self. As it happens, that included having an affair with someone she met a few weeks before gaining the strength required to end her marriage.

While her decision was somewhat surprising to our family and to all of our family friends, it was devastating to my father. The divorce was final six months ago.

Although I was never particularly close to my stepmother, we were both part of a family that was interesting, active, and (I thought) vital. Now, after witnessing the revealed inner self that was apparently hidden from us over the years, I have concluded that, at best, I have neutral feelings toward this woman; at worst, I don’t like her at all.

Unfortunately, she has attempted to continue interacting with me almost as though nothing has happened.

Although I have not reciprocated, I have received presents from her on my birthday and on other special occasions during the past two years. I have not opened any of these presents; they are stored away in a box, still in their original wrappings. Needless to say, I do not want this to continue. Among other things, the presents are unhappy reminders of times past that I thought were very happy occasions.

Assuming that there is no protocol for returning unwanted gifts, I wonder if it would be acceptable for me to return these presents with a note to the effect that I appreciate the thought, but would prefer to receive no more gifts from her in the future. It seems to me that there is neither a kind nor friendly way to handle this. The best that I can hope for is a resolution that is not too hurtful.

Gentle Reader: You are quite right that there is no kind or friendly way to break off relations with someone out of disapproval of that person’s conduct or loyalty to another.

But Miss Manners notices that you have correctly hit on the polite way.

To return a present to its donor is an insult, which is why it should never, ever be done out of dissatisfaction with the present, rather than with its donor.

In cases when breaking off relationships is justified, there are degrees of harshness. Doing so without comment is, in etiquette terms, a full declaration of war. The milder version is to send an accompanying letter of appreciation, just as you say. The useful phrase to add by way of minimal explanation is, “Under the circumstances, it is impossible for me to benefit from your generosity.”

Dear Miss Manners: Exactly what does “Black tie optional” mean on the invitation to a wedding to be held at 2:30 in the afternoon? I presume it means something like “We would prefer that you wear black tie, but we would rather have you attend less formally dressed than decline over the matter,” but I am not sure.

We wish to please our hosts, but evening attire at an afternoon event seems awkward. Should we avail ourselves of the “optional” loophole and dress for a festive and dignified afternoon occasion?

Gentle Reader: Having always loathed that weasly expression “black tie optional” - exactly because it doesn’t mean anything - Miss Manners has to admit that she is, for once, awfully glad to see it.

Torn as you are between two unthinkable alternatives - ignoring the hosts’ directions about formality of dress or wearing evening clothes during the day - you are badly in need of an escape clause.

A snazzier alternative would be to wear the daytime equivalent of black tie - the gentleman in a sack coat with striped trousers, the lady in hat and afternoon dress.

That may not follow the letter of their law (which is the etiquette equivalent of unconstitutional, anyway), but it follows the spirit.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Judith Martin United Features Syndicate

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