Polite Responses to 16 of Your Most Awkward Holiday Encounters

What would the holidays be without some cringe-worthy moments?

You absolutely hate the gift you just opened

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You tear the gift-wrap away, only to find a gift you can’t imagine ever using. First things first: You say thank you and express how gracious you are. How you proceed now depends on your relationship with the giver, says New York-based etiquette expert “Mister Manners” Thomas Farley. If it’s from someone you’re particularly close to, like a spouse or your parents, see if you can exchange it for something you’ll actually use. “That’s more important rather than taking it out every time they visit,” he says. “You’re carrying out a lie, and you owe it to someone you’re close to.” But if it’s from a neighbor or a relative you rarely see, mum’s the word. Send a thank-you note, but don’t feel obligated to keep it. (Enjoy getting the delicious foods and flavors of the holidays as gifts? Click here.)

You can tell your gift wasn’t well received

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You couldn’t wait to see the look on your partner’s face when he opened your Christmas present. Unfortunately, you know him well enough to realize the look he’s giving is just masked disappointment. If the unwrapping is in front of a crowd, pull him aside later and ask if an exchange would be better, and don’t press the issue if he says he does indeed like it. To avoid awkwardness in the future, always include a gift receipt, especially for an item with a scent or size, suggests Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “There’s not even a conversation and they can take it back on their own,” she says. This guide to gift-giving etiquette will prepare you for the holidays.

Your present was clearly a regift

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You excitedly rip open a present from your friend, only to discover a telltale gift tag announcing it was a regift. You might feel a bit off-put, but don’t call your friend out or crack a joke, says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. “All you’re going to do is embarrass them,” she says. “It certainly won’t change anything. They’ve still given you the gift and you’ve still received it.” Keep your lips zipped to prevent any awkwardness. If you plan to give away a present you don’t love, be open about the fact that you didn’t pick the gift out special—better yet, give it after the holidays instead of using it to replace a different present, suggests Farley. Read these regifting tips before rewrapping.

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You’re empty-handed when someone else gives you a gift

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Your neighbors stopped by for coffee toting an unexpected gift, and you have nothing to offer in return. Don’t lie about how theirs is in the mail or pretend something random from your closet was meant for them. Just thank them and accept the gift, then send a nice New Year’s card with a present to show your appreciation. If you’d like, you can keep a basket on hand with a few of the same generic gifts, like bottles of wine or boxes of chocolate, to offer. “It looks like these are the gifts you’re giving to everyone,” says Gottsman. That way, you don’t have to pretend a generic just-in-case gift was personal. Try one of these crowd-pleasing presents.

Your friend’s kid asks you if Santa is real

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You don’t want to go down as the person who ruined Christmas. First, ask the child what his or her parents say about Santa. Some moms and dads want to keep the magic going, while others prefer their kids to know the truth. “You don’t want to be contradicting mom and dad,” says Schweitzer. “You want to support whatever it is the parents are doing.” If the child doesn’t give a straight answer, Schweitzer suggests replying that you love Santa and offering to show the kid some gifts that St. Nick already dropped off. (Here's how to gently tell your kids the truth about Santa.)

Relatives are trying to pry into your private life

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You’ve been having a perfectly polite conversation about weekend plans with your spouse, when the uncle you only see once a year asks when you two will finally have children. Or maybe you’ve been job-hunting for months and someone wonders what you do for a living. Dodge those awkward conversations with humor, which is an effective way to brush off inappropriate questions, says Farley. If you know you have certain needling relatives, you could also enlist a wingman to have your back when certain subjects come up. “You don’t have to be the one turning beet-red and dealing with it, but someone else can jump in,” says Farley. You could also pull out one of these magic phrases that save an awkward conversation.

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An opinionated guest just brought up politics

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There’s a reason politics are notoriously impolite party talk, so you’ll want to shut this down before it gets too heated. “We have a responsibility to make others comfortable to be around us,” says Gottsman. “It’s our job to be pleasant and maintain a polite and civil conversation.” If you’re hosting a dinner, make it clear that you want to keep politics away from the table. If someone breaks the rules, keep redirecting the conversation until the person gets the point. At a cocktail party, excuse yourself for some fresh air or to talk to someone else. (Don't miss these other ways to avoid awkward situations.)

You’re stuck talking to a boring chatterbox

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You thought you’d try chatting someone new up at the company holiday party, but the two of you just don’t click. Don’t excuse yourself by saying you’re getting another drink, because the person might tag along for a refill, says Gottsman. Instead, find a moment to interrupt and then introduce the chatterbox to someone else you know and let them chat. “At a cocktail party, you’re not supposed to talk for very long anyway,” she says. “Mix and mingle with other guests.” Click here to find out if you'rebad listener.

You don’t know who to talk to at the office holiday party

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You finally escaped your last conversation at the holiday office party, but you’re not sure whom to talk to next. Don’t jump into a conversation between two people, says Farley. “They might be at the start of forming interest in each other or having an intense conversation about work,” he says. “You don’t know, so don’t step on it.” Instead, keep a lookout for a group of three—preferably a mix of men and women—and introduce yourself. It’s a safe bet, even if you’re just listening and smiling, he says. Here are more tips for navigating a holiday office party.

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Your holiday party conversation has gone silent

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The lighthearted banter that your group had going just dwindled to a halt, and everyone is staring uncomfortably at their eggnog. Nip any awkward silences in the bud by coming up with a few conversation-starters ahead of time—but give them some thought. “If you want to shut down a conversation with someone you don’t know well, ask a yes or no question,” says Farley. Pick thoughtful topics that get people talking about themselves (one of most people’s favorite subjects). Pretty much everyone can contribute to conversations about neutral, evergreen topics like travel, movies, or sports, says Farley. Or try one of these conversation starters that make you seem more interesting.

A host begs you to stay when you’re trying to leave

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You’ve suffered through your friend’s dreary holiday party for an hour—the minimum amount of time you should stay—and are finally about to make an escape, but your host asks if you really have to go so soon. “Here’s what you have to say: ‘It has been a wonderful evening and I really appreciate the invitation, but I really have to go,’” says Schweitzer. Stay firm without making up excuses about why you need to head out. Check out these other tricky holiday etiquette scenarios.

Your cousin brings a surprise guest to dinner

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Guests should always check before being a plus one, whether it’s a partner, child, or pet. But if one of your guests didn’t think to ask, you should still welcome the extra person with open arms. Don’t make the new addition to feel like a burden, no matter how stressed you’re feeling about having an extra mouth to feed. As a host, you should plan to have plenty of food and drinks just in case, so sneaking another chair to the table shouldn’t be a problem. “If you’re doing a good job, your surprise guest will never know they’re a last-minute add-on,” says Schweitzer. Use these etiquette tips when you're a guest in someone's home.

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You left the Christmas roast in the oven way, way too long

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With all the festivities and jolly spirits, you totally lost track of the time, and now the ham roast is burnt. Don’t stress that your blunder has ruined the meal—just roll with the punches and turn to plan B, which might be ordering a pizza or Chinese food. “The more you stress, the more the guests are going to stress,” says Gottsman. “They’re not going to remember the food as much as the experience.”

A guest went overboard at the open bar

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Your guest’s idea of bright spirits means overdoing it on the hot toddy, and now you feel like you need to babysit. Ask if the person wants to lie down or drink some water, but don’t act like you’re judging. “None of that lip-curl, snarl, and curt words that people can use to indicate someone has had too much to drink,” says Schweitzer. “Do it in a way that’s warm and kind.” Make sure the person has a ride home or call a cab to make sure there’s no drinking and driving.

You spill red wine all over the sofa

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You’re having an animated discussion at a holiday party, when all of a sudden your red wine is all over the host’s couch. “Don’t blame the dog or pretend it wasn’t you,” says Farley. “Those first few seconds after a spill are absolutely crucial.” Immediately grab the hosts, who can dig out their preferred cleaner so you don’t do any more damage. Offer to pay for professional cleaning service the next day if there’s a permanent stain. If you’re the host, you should turn down the offer and make sure the guest doesn’t feel guilty, says Farley. Accidents happen, and dealing with the aftermath just comes with the territory of hosting a party. Click here to find out how to remove red wine stains while you sleep.

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Someone asks for the recipe for your store-bought cookies

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You are in over your head with holiday prep and had to bring store-bought cookies to your cookie exchange. You almost got away with it, when someone asks for the recipe. Instead of claiming it’s a secret family recipe, ‘fess up. “Say, ‘Thank you, I think they’re delicious too. They’re one of my favorite treats and I got them at Russell’s Bakery,’” says Schweitzer. Guaranteed no one will judge. Get tips for hosting your own cookie swap here.

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