Penny Pinching

Lectured by clerks, gifted by out-of-touch relatives, and condescended to by Ph.D.s

Dear Social Grace,

I recently had an embarrassing incident with a cashier at a lunch counter, and I hope that you can help decide an issue for me. Many establishments have bowls of pennies next to the register, welcoming customers to take or leave them as needed. I assume that this is supposed to make life easier for the cashier when it comes to handing out odd amounts of change.

My bill came to several dollars and three cents. Rather than have the cashier go to the trouble of counting out 97 cents in change, I grabbed three pennies from the bowl. Much to my chagrin, the cashier gave me a lecture about pennies being offered one at a time. As someone who contributes to the bowl as often as I take from it, I had no idea there were limits involved. I thought I was doing the cashier a favor, was I in the wrong?

No Cents for Free

Dear "Centsible" Madam or Sir,

In fact, I'd say that a cashier who would "lecture" a customer over a matter of three cents would be in the wrong. The proprietor of my friendly neighborhood corner store agrees, wondering why anyone would risk losing a patron over such a small sum. He and I also agree that, although the "take a penny, leave a penny" tray does seem to invite you to take only one penny at a time, those pennies do not really belong to the establishment in which they sit.

The pennies are left by customers (and sometimes by the store management) for cashiers and other customers to use, as needed, to make a purchase run more smoothly. It is largely understood that they are to be taken in amounts smaller than there are silver coins for. But those pennies are examples of good faith, gift-to-the-universe acts (albeit in rather small quantities) -- the "random acts of kindness" that were so popular a few years ago. You can't control how and where those gifts work their magic. Please, gentle shopper, put this incident behind you and keep sharing your wealth.

Dear Social Grace,

How do I tactfully let family know when their gifts, while appreciated for the thought, are not to my taste? I am 45 years old, and my tastes have changed considerably in the last 25 years. However, my mother and sister seem to believe I have the same tastes as when I graduated from college. My sister sometimes chooses for me as if I were 13 years old. A recent example is a box of stationery with Snoopy, Woodstock, and flowers on it.

I started giving them exhaustive "wish lists" each holiday season, but this tends to take out all surprise at the tree. I don't want to offend anyone, but I've run out of ways to say thank you but not encourage any more gifts like this.

Thank you,
Pins and Needles

Dear Needled Madam or Sir,

When you receive a gift that doesn't suit you, what you should do is express your gratitude. And you'll never run out of ways to express that gratitude if you can repeat two little words: "Thank you."

There is no proper way to explain that a present is all wrong. You can, however, make sure that you're communicating with your relatives, throughout the year, about your life -- which is much nicer than giving a "wish list" just before the holidays. (In some families, such lists are part of holiday tradition, but I hope you weren't just handing copies out, unasked.) In fact, after reading your letter, I felt a pang of sympathy for your relatives: I imagine your dear sister purchasing that Peanuts stationery in a moment of gift-buying panic, perhaps because (although she loves you very much) she just isn't very familiar with your interests anymore.

This is all conjecture, of course. Maybe your relatives just need broader, and better, hints. In either case, I suggest more plainly discussing your interests with your close family members. If you're passionate about gardening these days, for example, write a note to your sister or your mother and describe your delight with your early-blooming spring bulbs. If you've started collecting antique postcards, share your excitement about a great garage-sale find. Better holiday gifts might not be the only benefits you gain.

Dear Social Grace,

Is it proper for a person to include his degree with his signature (i.e., Charles Wilson, Ph.D.)?

Thank you,
Kenneth M. Hathaway

Dear Mr. Hathaway,

In professional correspondence -- or where a degree or a professional affiliation is pertinent information -- yes, that is an option. In most social notes, however, to include this information might seem a bit odd. The courtesy titles "Mr.," "Ms.," and so on aren't usually included in signatures (and they are never included with a degree -- as in "Dr. Charles Wilson, Ph.D."). An exception is if you need to let someone know how to address you: If, for example, you have a gender-unspecific name and are writing to someone who doesn't know you, you can put your title in parentheses before your signature, thereby helping him write back: "(Ms.) Lesley Jackson," for instance.

 
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