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Miss Conduct

Yankee Swap sins?

Attempting to guard against hurt feelings, plus allowing unknown guests at weddings.

By Robin Abrahams
November 28, 2010

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We have a family Christmas party that includes a Yankee Swap for adults. The agreed-upon gift limit is $20. No one is obligated to participate. Last year, a couple of gifts were clearly less than $5. Those who have spent the limit and end up with a minimal gift can find the swap disappointing. I don’t want anyone to feel bad if they can’t afford to participate. Is there a tactful way for me to address the limit in this year’s invitation? And to let folks know it’s OK not to participate? C.S. / Bedford Isn’t the very point of the Yankee Swap that some people get good gifts and others don’t? If you can’t absorb the possibility of getting a joke gift in good spirit, you probably ought not to be participating in a Yankee Swap at all. (Full disclosure: I grew up in the Midwest and only encountered the Yankee Swap in adulthood. Obviously, this game was the Puritans’ way of removing unwholesome levels of fun and personal gratification from the holidays. It’s all very Calvinist when you think about it: If you wind up with the set of batik bamboo-fiber napkins, you know you are among the elect.) It’s possible you’re being overly sensitive to the entire matter.

But if you feel that the standard swap-erating procedure (sorry) is leaving folks unhappy, you can always reduce the limit to $10 or even $5 and say on the invitation that it is to encourage people to be more creative in their gift buying. Or you can standardize the swap in some way: All gifts must be joke gifts; or an item the giver already owns; or something homemade, be it edible or craft; or something the receiver can eat or drink (you can get some awfully nice chocolate for $10); or a copy, new or used, of a book or movie that has influenced the giver’s life. You get the idea: something that will spark conversation and is appropriate to the culture of your family. When you describe the swap on the invite, mention that it is optional, e.g., “Yankee Swap for those who choose to participate (nonparticipants may point and laugh).”

Do people actually invite a person to a wedding with “and guest” added? It seems absurd to include people quite possibly unknown to the happy couple. And it provides the known invitee with a way to avoid meeting and mixing with the other friends and family of the couple. D.B. / Arlington Yes, people do indeed do this. You may choose not to believe in “and guest” as a moral question, but you are not free to disbelieve it as an empirical fact. Some people cherish a certain openhearted, openhanded ethos about their wedding day. Let’s not criticize them.

Your question, oddly, assumes that interacting with strangers is a joyful opportunity for guests but a chore for the bridal couple. At most weddings I’ve been to, at least a handful of people were unknown to one or both parties in advance, whether “guests” were included or not. Also, most people’s social network includes a few outliers – friends or relatives who don’t know most of the target person’s other friends. It’s a kindness to those folks to allow them to bring a companion, if they choose, to ease the social path. (The comments section of the online version of this column will, I’m sure, contain many stories of how uncomfortable it can be to attend a wedding alone. If you’re not invited “and guest,” you don’t get to ask or throw a tantrum – but let’s face it, it’s an option most people appreciate.) You needn’t worry for the invitees’ social development. If they’re shy, having a guest might make the difference between attending and not attending. If they are outgoing, they’ll choose a guest who will make a good wingman or -woman.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to missconduct@globe.com. BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct. CHAT Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.

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