Miss Manners: My gag gift landed flat

DEAR MISS MANNERS: While my best friend and her partner do not believe in traditional marriage, they went to city hall following the birth of their child to ensure the family enjoyed the associated legal protections and privileges. There was no celebration, no announcements, and she told me directly that they did not want any gifts, although she did send me a photo from the day.

Several months later, I was delighted that they were coming into town so my husband and I could meet the baby.

We thought to have a little fun, and purchased a hideous trinket from a thrift store. During the visit, I produced the gift with a smile and the explanation that every newlywed couple receives something that is not to their taste, and I didn’t see why they should have to miss out. It was my intention that we’d have a laugh and that the item would go back to the thrift store afterward.

My attempt at humor fell flat. She refused to even take the gift from my hand, let alone unwrap it, and left the room proclaiming, “We said no gifts!”

The gift was put aside. On their last day, I unwrapped it and brought it to her to assure her it really was just a gag. I apologized that it didn’t land well. She remained steadfast in her offense in the moment, but I’m pleased to say there was no long-term impact on the friendship.

I’m wondering, though, did I behave badly?

GENTLE READER: Announcing a “no-gift policy” in the first place is impolite, in that it reminds guests that gifts are usual. Many people believe that it means the opposite, or is a demand for cash instead.


But chastising people for giving gifts anyway may well be worse. All your friend had to do was thank you politely and then do whatever she wanted with the present afterwards.

While Miss Manners does find the premise for your joke nominally amusing, its practical application was confusing at best, even without the unnecessary insult your friend took from it. Giving someone something wasteful, useless and hideous in order to mock their desire not to receive something wasteful, useless or hideous is a tough joke to land, even under the best of circumstances.

Fortunately, the relationship survived. In the future, Miss Manners would recommend suspending any pranks with this particular friend -- and perhaps her offspring, too, just in case.

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DEAR MISS MANNERS: I work for a law firm. A colleague of mine received an incredibly rude email from someone at another law firm, and responded as follows: “I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are having a bad day. I hope you feel better soon.”

Was this response rude? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t violate the rule against telling someone that they are being rude, but it certainly gets that point across.

GENTLE READER: What did the rude email say?!

Assuming it was as awful as you claim, Miss Manners thinks your colleague showed remarkable restraint. Being polite does not have to take into account what kind of day a person is having. In fact, it exists to mask the rude feelings that may come up because of it.

Miss Manners | Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin

Miss Manners, written by Judith Martin and her two perfect children, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Marin, has chronicled the continuous rise and fall of American manners since 1978. Send your questions to