How can I ask my brother and sister-in-law not to give me a gift for Christmas? She does the shopping for their family, and while I know it’s the thought that counts, her presents are never to my taste or things I can use. (Some also appear to be regifts.) So, I donate them to charity shops or throw them away. This seems like a waste of their money, and I’m tired of recycling their gifts. I always spend a great deal of time choosing gifts that I think each member of their large extended family will like. But I feel less joy in it every year. Any thoughts?

ANONYMOUS

I have one big thought actually — and it applies to everyone, not merely to virtuous shoppers like yourself, who spend countless hours hunting for that perfect gift only to receive rubbish in return. (Even better, it lets me sidestep the sanctimony embedded in your question.)

Given the terrible suffering of this year — as millions of our neighbors struggle with joblessness, food insecurity and keeping a roof over their heads, and as many emergency programs enacted to help them through this once-in-a-lifetime crisis are expiring — it may be the perfect time to rethink holiday gifts more broadly.

If you can picture a charitable gift being as satisfying (to giver and receiver) as four-ply cashmere, then ask your family and friends how they’d feel about a donation in their name to a charity that helps those in need this year. You can even discuss which charities you have in mind and encourage them to do the same. Now, this won’t work for everyone, but I hope you’ll consider it. So many of us don’t need or want for anything. And our communities are in dire straits now.

The Art of the Zoom Holiday Party

I was hired by a new company during the pandemic. I’ve never been to the office, and I’ve only met seven of the company’s 115 employees over Zoom. The company announced a virtual holiday party and game night with karaoke, Pictionary and colleague trivia. I’m not sure I want this to be the first impression most colleagues have of me. But at some companies, holiday parties aren’t really optional. Can I skip it?

ERICA

You can absolutely skip it! But here’s another idea. At large Zoom parties, most attendees never even know who’s there. (You have to keep scrolling through successive screens of nine people to see who is.) There’s one main conversation and lots of private messaging.

How about arriving on the early side, starting private chats with the colleagues you know — plus those you want to know — then leaving as soon as you please? Your colleagues and boss will know you were there, and the odds of public shaming (and catastrophic singing) seem low.

What Came in the Mail?

I am on the mailings lists of countless direct mail charities. I receive gifts by the pound: pens, self-address labels, coins, even first-class stamps. I have no trouble deciding what to do with these things — use, toss, give away — and they never affect my decision to donate. But lately, I’ve been receiving small checks from charities in the amount of $2, payable to me. They ask me to return their check and send a donation with it. It’s free money! So, why am I reluctant to cash the checks but have no problem pocketing the coins or using the stamps that charities send?

CHARLOTTE

The $2 checks are probably meant to grab your attention — wow, right? — or activate some guilty-giving response. But it seems like a poor use of resources (not to mention, environmentally wasteful).

As for your reluctance to cash these checks, I get it. The unsolicited pens and stamps simply arrive in the mail. Who would bother to return them? But cashing a check enmeshes you more closely with a charity. And it seems sleazy to take their money, even if that’s what their silly marketing plan deserves.

But We Had Plans!

We scheduled a Zoom happy hour, days in advance, with close friends we haven’t seen since the pandemic began. (They invited us for socially distant drinks outdoors, but we suggested a Zoom call instead.) Thirty minutes before the call, I got a text saying they had drop-in guests and had to reschedule. I said no problem, even though I’d planned my afternoon around our call. I doubt they would have canceled if our date had been in person. I’m put off. I think Zoom dates are commitments. What should have happened?

ANONYMOUS

“Drop-in guests”? (That’s another issue but, nevermind.) I know it feels as if the pandemic has been going on forever, but we’re still learning its protocols. I agree with you: A Zoom date is a commitment. But I also get how your friends may have felt awkward sending away unexpected guests in favor of a conference call.

Try not to hold a grudge. When they text to reschedule, tell them you’re really looking forward to seeing them. And, if you feel comfortable doing so, suggest lightly that they shoo away drop-in visitors this time.

For help with your awkward situation, send a question to [email protected], to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.

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