On Christmas Eve, a reader (let's call him "Steve") received a call from an old friend (let's call her "Eve") who happened to be in town. Eve wanted to know if it would be OK for her to stop by Steve's house to pay a visit and to drop off a Christmas Gift.
Eve and Steve hadn't seen one another nor had they been in the habit of exchanging gifts for years, so Steve had not purchased a gift for her. Still, he thought it would be rude not to give her a gift in return. Earlier in the week, Steve had received a new book in an office gift swap. Even though the gift was meant for him and he had not purchased it with Eve in mind, he thought she might find the book interesting and wondered whether it would be wrong to rewrap the gift and give it to Eve when she arrived.
Etiquette experts used to classify regifting as inappropriate. But many have changed their tune and now hold that as long as no one's feelings are likely to get hurt and the gift is something the new recipient might actually like that it's OK. An episode of the sitcom, Seinfeld, points out that it rarely ends well if the recipient discovers a gift has been regifted and it's even worse if the original giver of the gift to the regifter discovers her gift is being passed on to someone else. It also doesn't sit well if the regifter forgets to take any tags or personal notes that might be tucked away with the gift before giving it to someone else.
In its annual "Spending and Saving Tracker" survey published in December, American Express found that 76 percent of Americans say that it is "socially acceptable" to regift and that 57 percent claim they are likely to regift an item this holiday season. (In case, you're wondering if you're the likely recipient of a regifted item, the top three items respondents said they were likely to re-gift were kitchenware (22 percent), sweaters (17 percent), and scarves (15 percent).
Books did not make the top 10 list of items people told American Express they were likely to regift, but more personal items such as pajamas (12 percent) did.
Just because a majority of people say it's acceptable to do something, does that make it right? Would Steve be crossing any ethical lines in re-gifting a book he had received from a friend at work to Eve?
Steve should decide if a gift is needed at all. After all, Eve's visit was unplanned and she should understand if he hadn't had time to run out and find. She might even find it a bit odd that Steve happens to have had a gift for her on hand, even though they hadn't been in touch in years.
But there's nothing wrong with Steve regifting the book. It is his to do with as he pleases and as long as he believes it's something Eve might enjoy he's in the clear. The right thing is to accept Eve's gift graciously and for her to do the same with Steve's gift to her.
Ultimately, the two of them should spend the time together catching up rather than worrying about the origin of any gift they should happen to receive.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program atHarvard's KennedySchool. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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