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Ms. Geek Speaks: Gifts for when one is a houseguest

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As I continue my studies in etiquette in my dragon lady fashion, I've found many of the suggested gifts to be boring and perhaps even out of date. If you've been granted access to someone's domain, you must bring a gift. That can be a real one or a virtual one.

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Let's look at the 12 gift ideas from "Emily Post's Etiquette" (18th edition).

  1. New best-selling book
  2. Hand towels or beach towels
  3. Packages of cocktail napkins, perhaps with the host's monogram
  4. Desk calendar for the coming year (appropriate in the late fall or winter)
  5. Bottle of liqueur or cognac you know the host is fond of
  6. Sturdy canvas tote bag (monogram optional)
  7. Two or three unusual kitchen utensils, or a set of nice nesting bowls
  8. For the golfer, a dozen golf balls
  9. Set of nicely packaged herbs and spices
  10. Picture frame, with a picture taken during your visit sent later
  11. Candles and informal candlesticks
  12. Houseplant in a decorative pot

The latest online version of this list substitutes a movie package for #4 and board games or a jigsaw puzzle for #5. Number 9 has become gourmet foods.

Miss Manners recommends little presents at a rate of one a week.

Real Simple suggests "Try a delicious delicacy from your hometown, a flowering plant or the kind of gift a vacation house can never have too much of: beach towels, mugs that keep their drinks frosty, a book or a tote bag."

These are all pretty dull. Don't be lazy and fall back on one particular gift which might not be suitable for your host.

I'm not sure a framed photo taken during your visit would work well if the home is either super cluttered with photos or very austere. If the host is a photographer, your photo skills might be more sincere than noteworthy and not best displayed in that person's home.

Should your host have a black thumb, please spare the greenery and think of something else. How many nested bowls can one household use, particularly if cooking for that particular host is limited to using the microwave? For the culinary-challenged host, gifts related to cooking or baking might be seen as an unkind encouragement to learn how to improve your life and not theirs.

As for golf balls, be sure that the present is something that the host and family can enjoy. If your host is a golfer, but someone else in the family will be doing most of the chores associated with hosting, then you've missed the point. You'll score more points if you bring something for that person or persons.

Should your host be a practicing Mormon, then caffeine-related items such as coffee or teas would be a bad idea. For practicing Mormons, Muslims and Baha'is, alcohol is an extremely bad idea. Not only will it show how ignorant you are about major world religions, such a gift shows how very little you either know about your host or how little time you spent on buying the gift.

Also consider if your host lives in a popular area such as Hawaii, California or Florida, just how many picture frames, candles or desk calendars can one really use. Towels, however, can always be used. Full-sized towels with matching hand towels and wash cloths would be lovely. Do your friends really use hand towels and cocktail napkins? If not, skip that all together. Otherwise, they will be seen as hints they need to change their lifestyle.

For the geek, I suggest the following:

  1. If you play multiplayer games together, the gifts don't have to be real. You can give a weapon or other earned resource, however, consider if your host has a significant other, roommates or housemates. If so, you want to bring something they all can appreciate.
  2. A power strip and if it looks cool, even better. Check out Belkin. Also Eubiq or the PowerSquid (for $59.95). Have a thing for Egypt or pyramids? Try the Powramid.
  3. A cool looking flash drive. How about some toast? Or the Doctor Who 4GB TARDIS flash drive? ($29.99) Then there's the UFO Robot Grendizer Flash Drive with Saucer Docking Station ($44.99). At USBGeek, there's Skeleton for $17. Other USBGeek flash drives include R2D2, VW Buss, Lipstick, Ninja Turtle, Sushi, etc. Mimoco.com has an Army Elvis (from $24.95), Batman, Star Wars characters, Einstein, Hello Kitty, Bruce Lee and more.
  4. For the practical, try a $25 and up gift certificate to Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.
  5. Other gift certificates that would work would be Starbucks, Amazon or eBay.
  6. If you're friend is a true geek, gift certificate to Think Geek or Shirtoid.
  7. Tickets to a special event such as a concert or a comic-con.

Most geeks are good at math, so let's use math to determine the value of the gift. First consider how much money you are saving per night and divide that in half. Your gift should be a quarter to 1/2 of that. Let's use a third for the example.

($ x #night) /3 = Amount $ spend on gift

If you're a student or on an extremely limited income, then you should do what you can afford and try to make up the difference with your time. By this I mean spending time helping out cleaning or what no, doing those things you hate to do at home and probably everyone dislikes doing as well. You can offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, clean the bathroom.

Be sure to ask how things should be done. In some areas, water is considered a precious resource as it electricity and that means the household may take measures to conserve their resources and limit their expenses.

I agree with Miss Manners--unless the gift is exceptional (like a new washer or dryer), one gift per week you are staying. Once you've stayed over a week, you should be pitching in on the regular chores.

Do not bring gifts for one host and not the other. I once went with some friends for Thanksgiving at one friend's house. The family was a well-to-do doctor. We all had gifts. Next we went on to visit my sister who, with her housemates, put us up and then with her then-boyfriend, took us one city over to sightsee. We were all college students at the time. I brought a homemade loaf of bread for my sister. My two friends brought nothing. Both were from well-to-do families, much better off than myself. My sister and I worked our way through college. Something would have been nice. Bringing nothing for the second host was definitely not nice.

I do know a family of five that stayed for nearly a month as guests and as all of the children were now working adults, they did buy a major appliance. Now that's the kind of relatives and houseguests one wants. The family was by no means rich or even well-to-do, but they did do well in terms of consideration.

On the other hand, I know a very well-to-do scholar who stayed and stayed and stayed until a half a year had passed and still thought occasionally making dinner would suffice. I can only think that the wife was quite relieved when her husband's friend finally left and they might think twice before hosting him again. As previously, the scholar had been living in a spacious one bedroom apartment near campus by himself, that means he saw a considerable savings, but apparently didn't pass it on. All is not lost, however, one can hope that over time and after a few comments (not by me), he's seen his way to sending them gifts to resolve that inequity.

Now I haven't been good at thank you notes, but writing and the U.S. postal service are nearing extinction, so do send a thank you. At the very least by email, but a thank you note will make you stand out and help the postal service survive.

Your motto as a houseguest should be to make your hosts feel at home and leave your hosts and their home better than when you arrived.

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