MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And for many of us, the week will kick off the final round of holiday parties. And that's the time for connecting with friends, celebrating the season and, in some cases, really messing up. So here to help us keep our holiday parties happy and faux pas free is Harriette Cole. She writes the nationally syndicated advice column "Sense and Sensitivity." Harriette Cole, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.
HARRIETTE COLE: Great to be with you. Happy holidays.
MARTIN: Is there one thing that people tend to write to you about this time of year that just sticks out time and time again as kind of a common etiquette dilemma or something that people constantly feel burdened with?
COLE: Probably the most common is when they receive a gift and they don't have a gift for the person who has given them a gift. That is one of the most awkward situations for people, whether it is a coworker, a neighbor, a family member. And then they start feeling guilty. They usually say - they usually retract. Instead of being grateful and even looking at the gift, they often will retract and say, oh, I'm so sorry, you know, I didn't get something for you - or - I'll bring you your gift tomorrow. You know, there's some excuse. And actually, Michel, what you should do is simply say thank you and receive the gift completely.
And when you do that, you honor the moment of having been given a gift and you complete the cycle. You don't have to go and run out and get that person a gift. The person gave you something. But many people - I get it every year - people ask what do I do in this situation. Now I do also add because - especially at your home if people are coming and going, you have a lot of traffic - I like to have extra gifts around in case you want - especially for children. If kids come over, who you didn't anticipate, you can give them a little something. But for that first thing, it is just say thank you and really mean it. And that should be enough.
MARTIN: Because maybe that person isn't expecting a gift or he or she just likes to make cookies or something like that and doesn't expect you to, you know, reciprocate.
COLE: Well, and by the way, people who give gifts with expectations are setting themselves up for getting their feelings hurt. So that's their problem, not your problem.
MARTIN: What about some of the other dilemmas that we hear? We hear often about people at...
COLE: Like at parties?
MARTIN: Yeah. At parties where there's mistletoe. And you're not a fan of all of that, you know...
COLE: That's funny.
MARTIN: Somebody seems kind of - yeah.
COLE: Come here baby, let me give you a kiss.
MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. And there's even people who carry it around. I mean, that's never happened to you?
COLE: That has never happened to me.
MARTIN: Obviously, you're hanging out with different people than I am. But...
COLE: That's funny.
MARTIN: How do you handle that, when somebody seems very enthusiastic about physical contact and you're just not feeling that?
COLE: That is a great question. That question has not come up before. But I would say when there's mistletoe around and someone wants to kiss you and you don't want to kiss the person, you don't step under the mistletoe - oh, that's for you, find someone else. You know, with a smile, with humor, you just step out of the situation. I think that's what you need to do. If someone's carrying a mistletoe around, that's really a little twisted I think, but - not to say that there aren't twisted folks out there, but that's very funny.
In terms of physical contact, though, beyond the kiss, many people do like to hug. I know folks who don't like to hug. You can place your body in such a way so that you don't have to do the full-on hug. An interesting thing, men with facial hair who are touching their faces to people's faces, especially women who don't - for me that creates a rash on my skin. So I'm very careful to not have face-to-face contact with a lot of people, and so I would do a kind of shoulder-in hug rather than anything that allows a kiss, if I don't want you to kiss me.
MARTIN: Let me bring up another issue for some people - potlucks, I think, have become quite popular.
COLE: They have.
MARTIN: There are lots - all kinds of social reasons why these are a good thing because sometimes you people with very different backgrounds. It kind of helps people all contribute and kind of do something together. I think also because finances have been tight...
MARTIN: ...In recent years. A lot of people feel that this is a very nice way to be convivial. But for a lot of people that's tricky - they may have very strict diets or they may have very serious food allergies. They may be squeamish about eating somebody's food that they don't know. How would you handle that? I mean, do you nip that at the bud? Or do you say I just don't - I don't do potlucks?
MARTIN: How do you handle that gracefully?
COLE: I think if you are the host or if there is more than one host, whoever the hosting group might be should create a menu of suggestions at least. And if there are people who have food sensitivities, you ask them to let you know that. You could even create a part of the table that's for the food sensitive people - you know, these are gluten-free, these are dairy-free, whatever it might be. If people have nut allergies - I mean, we have this at my daughter's school and they're not even allowed - nuts are not allowed in the school. If you have those kinds of challenges, you want to know upfront. So ask the people you have invited if there are any challenges.
But also you want to have a lovely menu. So it's smart to help to organize it by making menu suggestions, having people sign up to say that they will make X or Y dish. That also, Michel, will help to make sure that there's a balanced meal and you don't just have a whole lot of pies and no protein or vegetables.
MARTIN: But I think another good thing, which I always appreciate, is when people don't push other people to eat something. I just...
MARTIN: ...Find that...
MARTIN: You're forcing people to - well, you know, you're forcing people to explain, you know, things that they may not want to talk about, you know. And I just think that's always kind of painful, particularly if you have a diverse workplace. I mean, maybe people might be, you know, religiously observant and there are things that they just cannot eat. And I don't think people should be forced to explain themselves.
COLE: Well, there that, Michel, and also it could be that you just don't want it. And I know people get excited, you know. I'm a recent cook since my daughter was born. And I have these things I love to make and that my family loves. And I made the mistake of bringing something to one meal and saying look at what I made, don't you want some? And I realized not everybody wanted it.
MARTIN: Not everybody wanted pork belly on your muscles? Muscles steeped in pork bellies?
COLE: And I had to step back and say I'm being too pushy, calm down. It's not all about me. And I think that is the big lesson during the holidays - remember that it is not all about you. It's about fellowship. You need to step back and notice the people around you, figure out how you can be kind to them as you would like for them to be kind and thoughtful to you. And it takes that moment of taking a breath, paying attention, standing outside of yourself for a moment to say I'm part of this community, the community is not just focused on me.
MARTIN: What's the one bit of advice - I think you were just giving it now, but we have about a minute left - is there one bit of advice that you would offer for people who just feel - you know, kind of dread this time of year because there's so many social demands to help them enjoy the season more?
COLE: Well, social demands - and I would go to family because one of the biggest challenges is being around family, even though we usually are at this time of the year. Remember that you are an adult. You are not seven or eight - whenever those old relationships happened. Bring your best self to the family gatherings as well as any other gatherings. You know, obviously, don't go to the party and get drunk. Be careful and aware of where you are and who's with you. And tend to other people - when you remember to care for the people around you, hopefully they in turn remember to care for you. And that, indeed, is the spirit of the season.
MARTIN: And have taxi fare.
COLE: That's very important, absolutely. Take keys when necessary.
MARTIN: Harriette Cole writes the syndicate column "Sense and Sensitivity." She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Harriette Cole, thank you so much for joining us once again. Happy holidays to you and yours.
COLE: Thank you. Same to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.