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updated: 6/28/2013 4:09 PM

Have the rules of gift-giving etiquette changed?

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Q. I am confused over gift-giving etiquette with the current generation. I have always been prompt in sending gifts, money, cards to my relatives for birthdays, holidays, weddings, births, etc. Yet none of these gifts has been acknowledged through mail, telephone or electronic means to (at least) notify me they had actually arrived. I have always been prompt in sending a thank-you note or calling within a day or two of receipt regardless of the size or nature of the gift.

As a retiree on a fixed income, I am inclined to cease sending gifts and only send cards. Is expression of gratitude no longer in fashion? I would like to know what the current protocol is. Thank you.

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P.

A. Short answer, nothing has changed. Recipients owe givers prompt thanks, in some form.

Long answer, everything has changed.

While it is rude not to acknowledge a gift, and while there seems to be an epidemic of silence by gift recipients, I think it's oversimplifying to add 1 + 1 and declare an epidemic of rudeness.

I think something else important has happened that doesn't get enough credit for the clear trend toward unacknowledged gifts: Stuff matters less.

When I was a kid about 1,700 years ago, it was a big deal to unwrap a sweater. New clothes were special. Now, even for many who struggle financially, it's a yeah-whatever experience; people can now get sweaters (or books or knickknacks or any goods within the purchasing power of a gift card) 24-7, often without leaving home, sometimes so cheaply that a kid's dog-walking money would cover it.

As a result, many kids and even adults now are immune to their own possessions. Despite the recession, Americans are largely staggering under the weight of their stuff. I want the people who love me to show it by supporting my effort not to accumulate more and more and more. If not for my sake, then the earth's.

And so I'm not just going to say yes, by all means, start sending only cards to mark your loved ones' special occasions. I'm going to throw it out there that we'd all do well to give our gift-giving habits a harder look.

Specifically, I think it's time to ask ourselves every time: Does this thing I'm about to buy have any chance of being important to its recipient? Does it get cash to someone strapped, free up time for someone busy, show support or appreciation for someone down, strengthen connections for someone lonely, provide a pleasant experience to someone who wants for nothing material?

Would this person prefer no gift at all?

Is there something only I can give, even just my thoughts, expertise or time? If I'm not sure, then can I redirect my gift energy into keeping in touch more between birthdays and weddings?

Most of us can, and should, do better both at showing gratitude and teaching its value to "the current generation." But we can also do better at listening to what changing mass behavior tells us, instead of just trying harder to make the old ways stick or escalating the protests when they don't.

• Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

2013 The Washington Post

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