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November, 2008

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Ask Alana: Holiday giving in offices and un-neighborly mail theft

This week: How office gifting is like grade school and other holiday matters. If you have a question for our etiquette maven, write to

Dear Alana,

I work in a fairly small office. Some of my co-workers I love; others I loathe.

Would it be impolite to hand out holiday cards to some and skip others?


Gerry Boss, Los Angeles


It wouldn't be impolite to hand out the cards to only some people, but it also wouldn't be The Right Thing To Do. Think of it this way: When you were in elementary school, you probably handed out birthday party invitations only to your friends and the cool kids you wanted to be your friends who could snarf milk through their noses. Impolite, yes, but hey, that's what kids do. But then your mom probably made you invite all the other kids, even the ones who hogged all the Legos, because it was The Right Thing To Do.

Same with holiday cards in a small office ...

You might not want to give a card to that lady who only wants to talk about her miniature glass ponies or that guy who always snarfs milk through his nose, but it's probably worth the effort. As Lisa Mirza Grotts of etiquette training firm the AML Group told me, "Doing unto some while not doing unto others, especially in a small office, could be very hurtful."

I have noticed that it is difficult to loathe people quite as much if you're buying them a card or gift, which is a psychological phenomenon surely worthy of scientific study. Besides, the holidays are supposed to be about kindness and giving, etc. You can always wax poetic in the holiday cards of the people you love, and just sign all the others "Best, Gerry," which is kind of a passive-aggressive way of saying "I got you a card but don't think this means we're BFF or that I'm super interested in your glass miniature ponies."

Of course, if you have more than, say, a dozen people in your office, you shouldn't feel obligated to get everyone a card. In that case, just try to be subtle when you give cards to your friends, or leave them in their mailboxes. If you're giving gifts to some co-workers, give them something not-so-obvious. In other words, stay away from those So Glad We're Friends Mugs that your work friends will use when they hover around the water cooler and gossip about others when the holiday spirit and all those feelings about giving and kindness have passed.

- Alana

Dear Alana,

What should I do if my neighbor keeps taking all my gift order boxes from

Thanks for the advice,

Nicholas Bauch, Los Angeles


These are the ripple effects of a down economy -- people steal each other's mail and Christmas presents in the hope they'll find something worthwhile. The next thing you know, they'll be stealing each other's babies. In a recession, etiquette goes out the window, which is why these days it isn't uncommon to hear people burping in public places.

Now Nicholas, you need to decide whether you want to be responsible or be a vigilante. The responsible thing to do is go to the postal police, which I bet you didn't even know existed. Peter Rendina, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, recommends that you call their toll-free number at (800) 372-8347 to make a complaint regarding mail theft. Stealing mail is a federal offense, after all.

Until the postal police fixes your problem, you can rent a P.O. Box at your local post office, where it will be much more difficult for your neighbor to steal your packages. You can also invest in a locking mailbox that your neighbors can't get into unless they have a blowtorch or super flexible fingers like that the monster in the "Squeeze" episode of the "X Files."

However, if you're fed up and don't want to wait for the postal police, you could take matters into your own hands. Step one: Ask your neighbors if they're having the same problem, which is a subtle way of indicating you're on to them. Step two: Put up a sign in your mail room saying you will report the matter to the police if it doesn't stop, and that stealing mail is a FEDERAL OFFENSE (use caps for emphasis). Step three: Buy a spy camera so you can find out who is doing the stealing. Rendina says that's what the postal police do anyway to figure out who's making off with mail, although he said he "would not recommend" that consumers do it themselves.

Rendina says neighbors often steal mail when they know packages are coming, like around your birthday or the holidays. As an etiquette expert, I am releasing you from the obligation of talking to your neighbors about things like your birthday or packages you're expecting, as they could just be using that information to commit their crimes. It may feel rude, but don't worry, rudeness is the norm these days. It is, after all, a down economy.

- Alana