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Secret Birthday Fund Leaves Friend Uncomfortable

By Thelma Domenici
For the Journal
          Dear Thelma: We have been asked to contribute money to a secret birthday fund for a friend who is giving a party but states on the invitation "No Gifts." We have given something, although we think this person will be upset when she learns that a friend created this birthday fund behind her back. We feel this is emotional blackmail. We don't want to be the only ones who do not contribute, nor do we know how much to give. What's the appropriate amount? What's insulting? How should we handle this in the future?
        A: I'm highly inclined to agree with you that this could be perceived as emotional blackmail. It really is an inappropriate thing to do. When the invitation says "No Gifts," those wishes should be honored. If you are someone who chooses not to honor them, don't pressure others to join you.
        I assume that in your situation everyone involved knows each other well and knows the birthday honoree well. No one should make the "No Gifts" request if they are not sincere about it. If I knew this friend well and were asked to contribute to this fund, I think I would realize how sincere the individual was in making the request that no gifts be given and I wouldn't contribute.
        If I had made the request of no gifts and I arrived and there were gifts or one large gift, I would be upset and embarrassed. I'm not sure that I could conceal in a pleasant way my dissatisfaction that my request wasn't honored and my embarrassment that a great deal of effort had been made to come up with the gift.
        You ask what is the appropriate amount to give. My answer is that there is no appropriate amount. The appropriate thing is to respect and honor a sincere request.
        If I were to receive a similar invitation in the future that I know will include the same group of invitees, I would prepare myself to politely refuse to contribute and be ready to explain that honoring sincere requests is more gracious than being the ultimate gift-giver.
        Dear Thelma: My husband, who is in his late 30s, is finishing law school. I think of this as a tremendous accomplishment and would like to have a graduation party for him. It would be a great opportunity to celebrate with extended family and friends and also represents a good example for our children. He feels he is a grown man and such a celebration is more suited for a high school event. We both agree if we do have a party, we would request no gifts from any of our attendees. Can you please tell us if it is appropriate to have a sizable get-together for this occasion or if it's better celebrated quaintly by our immediate family?
        A: Heavens, yes, celebrate. It is a phenomenal accomplishment and warrants as much celebration as you want to give it. You might ease your husband's worries by turning the focus toward sharing the celebration with the friends and family who have helped him reach his goals, rather than focusing only on him.
        I think it is a great way to introduce the people you know well, like family and close friends, to the new people he has met through law school and his professional activities. It is wonderful that you are including your children in the celebration. It is important for kids to see what it means to have a network of family, friends and colleagues and to see how to behave in a social setting.
        Joyful celebration and good manners never go out of style.
        Have a question about etiquette? You can ask it at www.askthelma.com. Thelma Domenici is CEO of Thelma Domenici & Associates, offering corporate coaching and contemporary social skills development programs to all ages.

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