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Eight Sure-Fire Gifts for Uncertain Occasions

Recently, a coworker asked about the proper way to acknowledge the birth of her neighbor’s child. In situations like these, when there’s no formal event like a baby shower to dictate proper gift etiquette, it’s hard to know what action to take. Even when attending a dinner party, where bringing something to offer the host or hostess is par for the course, exactly what to bring is heavily debated. Luckily, for those of us eager to avoid etiquette errors, Lizzie Post, author and spokesperson at the Emily Post Institute (which just launched Etiquette Daily, a Q&A blog about common etiquette issues) offers some helpful advice on choosing the right gifts for uncertain occasions.

New Birth
When you hear of a coworker or neighbor becoming a new parent, social etiquette doesn’t necessarily require a gift, but it is a nice thing to do. Lizzie says that standard baby shower gifts like blankets or a bouquet of flowers are always welcome, but she suggests coming up with something especially for the new parents, such as making a couple of freezable meals they can pull out on particularly hectic nights. “Anything to make the parents comfortable is always really good,” she advises.

Dinner Party
Google “dinner party gifts” and some of the first recommendations are scented candles, stationary, and wine charms. Now, I’ve never seen anyone bring anything like this to a dinner party, and as a hostess, I’ve never expected any such offering from even the most perfect of guests. Reading that made me question my usual contribution of wine or dessert, but Lizzie says that just bringing a little something is a good gesture. “Everyone has their go-to,” she assures me, “and whatever it is, it’s nice to bring it over. When in doubt, just bring something.”

She lists flowers as a possibility, or a wrapped box of chocolates so the hosts can decide whether to serve it or save it for later. “Just don’t pull a George Costanza,” she jokes, referring to the Seinfeld character’s infamous reclaiming of his dinner party gift. (Actually, doing the opposite of George Costanza is just a good rule to follow all around.)

Engagement Party
I’d always assumed that engagement parties were just another occasion to shower the betrothed in presents, but according to Lizzie, the expectations can vary. “More often than not, the South is where you’d be invited and a gift would be something you’d bring, whereas in the Northeast, it tends to differ depending on the size of the party and the nature of the relationship with the couple,” she explains. The best bet is to call the host ahead of time to find out what, if anything, people are bringing. (Sometimes gifts get sent to the house ahead of time instead.) If a gift is necessary, Lizzie likes to choose something more relaxed than usual wedding fare, like a gift card to the couple’s favorite restaurant to give them a night free of wedding planning stress. Or if you know their favorite activities, a more personalized gift, such as a new cookbook for two gourmands, is a great idea as well.

Graduation
Though it seems like getting an announcement is akin to a call for gifts, Lizzie maintains that it’s not an obligation yet. (However, since it’s becoming increasingly common, gifts at graduation will probably become standard in a few years.) One potential gift she mentions is a photo album, saying, “It’s a time of moving on, so it’s nice to bring some of your past with you and leave room for the future, too.” Dorm accessories, books about the college experience (like Lizzie’s own book, How Do You Work This Life Thing?), gift cards, or cash or checks work, too.

Housewarming
“A housewarming gift can be anything from a plate of edible treats to a vase with fresh-cut flowers,” Lizzie explains. In other words, the gift itself is at your discretion because the gesture itself is what counts. One of the best housewarming presents she ever got was a booklet of coupons to various places in her new neighborhood. It’s best not to get decorative items, unless you’re sure of the person’s style; stick to house plants, gift cards, and when in doubt, homemade cookies are always greeted with a smile.

Staying at Someone’s House
If you’re staying overnight at a friend or family member’s home, it’s polite to offer something as a way to show gratitude, whether it’s dinner at the host’s favorite restaurant, something simple like a candle or plant, or a bottle of wine. And while the length of your houseguest status is something to consider, it doesn’t necessitate a more expensive gift. “If you stay a week, it doesn’t mean you have to get $500 gifts,” Lizzie advises. “Budget always comes in.”

Anniversary
Obviously, if it’s your anniversary, a gift better be in the works. But what if it’s your friends’ anniversary? Are you supposed to acknowledge that beyond a congratulatory greeting? “This is a tough one because for some people, they’d never expect to get a gift from their friends,” Lizzie says. She believes that it depends on how comfortable and close you feel with the couple. If there’s a party celebrating a milestone anniversary, such as the tenth or twenty-fifth year together, call ahead of time to ask the host if gifts are expected. If you can’t come up with something appropriate for the couple, “There’s nothing wrong with using your words as a gift,” Lizzie believes. “A card with a good message is certainly welcome.”

Meeting the Parents
This is one of those events that don’t require a present, but bringing one would make a good impression and speaks well of your considerate nature. Any gift you might bring to a housewarming is appropriate, though it might help to quiz the significant other a bit about his/her parents’ preferences to get a better idea of what to get them. Lizzie suggests framing a nice picture of their son or daughter, which is budget-friendly to you and invaluable to them.

When considering how to best recognize important events like these, the two most important factors are cost and the relationship with the recipient. “Stay within your budget and comfort level,” Lizzie recommends. With all of these new occasions popping up that require a gift, it might seem like expenses could get out of hand, but as Lizzie shows with each of her suggestions, giving a little something doesn’t necessitate much money or even much effort. What it takes to honor someone’s big day is a small price to pay to see someone’s thankful face and feel like a million bucks.

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