Ah, the holiday season. The parties, the gifts, the gathering of friends and family … the grilling by Aunt Jane about your marital status, the horror of not bringing a gift for Uncle Rick’s third cousin’s wife (who knitted you a scarf). Yep, it’s the holiday season, the time of year that’s most ripe with awkward scenarios through which to navigate.
Fortunately, we’ve got some experts on speed dial who can help us get through awkward holiday situations!
Many Memphians know Baylor Stovall as the owner of The Stovall Collection, the pretty store in Laurelwood where you can order invitations and stationery, pick up a cute pair of pajamas or find the perfect birthday gift for a friend. But few people know that Baylor is also a nationally recognized etiquette expert. She’s a graduate of The Protocol School of Washington and is the co-editor of Crane & Co.’s The Wedding Blue Book, the go-to source for all things etiquette when it comes to wedding stationery and correspondence.
Chantal Johnson, owner of 20twelve, the gorgeous boutique on Broad Avenue, has chaired her share of events around Memphis, including big fundraisers or functions for The Exchange Club, Dixon Gallery and Gardens and Carnival Memphis. Chantal is known for her grace and style, whether she is the chair of an event or simply a guest.
We outlined a handful of awkward holiday situations for Baylor and Chantal to assess and then provide practical advice to help us all breeze through the season. Here’s what the had to say:
How do you handle it when you’re given a gift, but don’t have one for the giver?
“Accept the gift graciously and confidently,” says Baylor. “Do not mention the fact that you do not have one to give. Remember, it is always better to give than to receive. By bringing attention to the fact that you cannot reciprocate the gift, you are taking away from the joy of giving!”
“This doesn’t have to be an awkward moment at all,” Chantal agrees. “When you receive an unexpected gift, it lets you know how special you are to the person giving the present.” She adds that gift giving isn’t meant to be a tit-for-tat process, and that the happy moment for the giver could be lost if you get caught up in guilt. “In other words, don’t make a sincere act of kindness awkward because you were caught off guard,” says Chantal.
And of course, a heartfelt thank you note is a must when receiving a gift.
What’s your advice for navigating out of a difficult or controversial conversation?
Whether it’s politics or personal issues, removing yourself from — or navigating around — a conversation that is heated or negative requires both poise and a bit of planning.
“The best advice I can give on this is to look beyond what controversial conversations may start brewing,” says Chantal, who notes she has friends and clients from all walks of life, and she tries to never engage in something that will be upsetting for them or her. “I do enjoy hearing all sides of an argument, and then at the end of the day, I still have my beliefs. But if you find yourself listening to or saying something that is clearly not going to end well, then keep it light and fluffy,” she advises. “You never know what someone is truly going through, and so I challenge myself to be the happy person they can talk to and make that positive kind of impression on them.”
“Take a moment to listen to the conversation … use eye contact, but do not engage in the discussion,” Baylor adds.” After a few moments, excuse yourself to find the powder room or offer to refill drinks.”
If a quick escape isn’t possible, as in you find yourself truly stuck at a seated dinner party, Baylor says to adopt a look of interest but don’t add to the conversation. “Remember, sadly, most people who like discussing controversial issues really just want to persuade you to see their side,” she notes. “Nod, listen and hope that dessert is served quickly!”
Let’s say you are the recipient of a gift you find to be just awful. How should you respond?
“Easy! Accept it graciously!” says Baylor, who advises saying something kind and personal, such as, “I just can’t wait to see how precious this glow-in-the-dark elf scarf is going to look on my holiday dress!”
Chantal says it’s endearing to think that you were in the gift giver’s thoughts, and that they found something they liked and wanted to share it with you. “Remind yourself that someone did think of how special you are with a gift, and say thank you.”
How about if you find yourself having a little too much of the holiday spirits, in other words, you were over-served at a holiday party or event. What’s the best way to minimize the damage to your reputation?
Our experts agree that the first order of business is an apology. “Make apologies to the host if you were at a party and made a scene,” says Baylor.
Chantal agrees, adding, “Also let them know you misjudged how much you were drinking, and that it is not a reflection of who you are.”
Both ladies concur that after that, drop the subject and don’t bring it up again!
With multiple generations gathering around holiday tables, how do you encourage people to put cell phones down during meals or special family time together?
Both Chantal and Baylor agree putting technology aside is difficult, in an age when many of us use our phones as cameras and to take videos. “Cell phones are often pulled out as one would have a scrapbook years ago,” says Baylor. “Be flexible during casual gatherings. I would make a rule that you ‘check your cell phones’ for family and formal meals!”
“Encourage your family as they arrive that while you are seated for the meal, you would like for them to be unplugged from social media and enjoy the company and conversation of the family for a little while,” says Chantal. “Maybe the idea of the small window of dinner time won’t cause withdrawals for long!”
With this great advice from Baylor and Chantal, you’re sure to easily navigate your way through every awkward situation or hot topic this holiday season!
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