When a gift can be impolite

Q  My sister-in-law is on a budget and said she doesn’t want to exchange birthday gifts anymore. I understand, but would still like to give her presents on her birthday. Is that all right?

A  No, in honoring her situation, you have to be part of the agreement and not insist on giving her gifts anyway. Since she has made this request, you really have to respect it. She would feel uncomfortable not to be able to reciprocate and might even be annoyed that you are ignoring her feelings. Give her hugs, a card, invite her for lunch or dinner, but don’t hand her a gift. She would be upset.

Q  We were at an event a few weeks ago and there was a ladies’ room attendant. All she did was hand me a paper towel. Should I have tipped her for that?

A  You should have, even though it seems excessive. Fifty cents would be fine for such a minimal service. If she did nothing but stand there, no tip is necessary. It is her job to keep the restroom clean and refreshed, and for that she should be receiving a wage from the restaurant, so the tip for doing nothing in terms of a personal service for you is nothing.

Q  Our neighbors have given us a key to their house as an emergency back-up, in case they are locked out. Do we have to reciprocate and give them a key to our house? We don’t really want to.

A  No, you don’t have to do a key swap. It’s nice that they trust you to be their back-up, but if they suggest you give them your key, you can just say, “thank you so much, but we already have a fallback plan in place, so we’re covered. Your key will be on our key rack you ever need it.”

Q  I’m in a job sharing situation — I work two days a week and another person does the same job another two days a week. She leaves the desk in a complete mess. Every time she’s there. Can I ask her to clean up?

A  Yes, although keep in mind that your tone is really important — you don’t want to sound hostile or mean — so it is best to discuss this in person, even if that means stopping by on your day off. A note or email often sounds more critical, angry or, as you said, mean, without a smile to soften your comments, while during a face-to-face you can keep it simple and upbeat. Try something like, “Georgetta, it would be really helpful if you could clear the desk before you leave. I’m always afraid I’ll misplace your things when I have to clear it when I come in.” If it’s a space problem, think about setting up an inbox for each of you so you both have somewhere to store your work on the days you aren’t in the office.

Have a question for Catherine? Email her in care of arts@hersamacorn.com.