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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

How To Avoid Holiday Pitfalls

With the holiday season already upon us, it is pointless to ponder why or how we have managed to turn the most joyful time of the year into the most stressful. Our energies will be better spent learning how to reduce the angst, whether it be vehicular, spousal, or Evite-related. Here’s the Globe’s highly selective insiders’ guide to overcoming December’s challenges.

HOW TO AVOID THE SLOWEST SUPERMARKET LINE

Every shopper knows the basics: Look for the shortest line and take cart load into account. But pros like Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, look at the check-out scene differently: It’s the cashier, stupid. “You want someone who is not hesitating, who doesn’t look annoyed to be there, and who isn’t chatting with another cashier,’’ he said. If the cashier is working with a bagger, you have struck gold. And don’t assume the express lane is the fastest. If the cashier is inexperienced, Flynn said, that might not be your best bet.

Of course, even the best line picker can be sabotaged by a coupon-wielding customer or a bagger who switches lines. In which case, find your Zen place and read about the Kardashians.

HOW TO AVOID A PRE-PARTY BLOW OUT WITH YOUR BELOVED

Parties are supposed to be fun, but Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, author of “A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage,’’ and a New York marriage therapist, says they can easily trigger fights between partners, whether they are hosting or attending. “The two words that come to mind are ‘expectations’ and ‘disappointment,’ ’’ she said,

“A typical thing that happens is that the couple doesn’t discuss when they want to leave the party, or they don’t leave enough time to get there,’’ and those things trigger arguments. “It sounds simple, but it really helps to discuss things ahead of time.

“If you’re hosting a party, you may have had disappointments in the past and you want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,’’ O’Neill said. “You need to get some things clear ahead of time, ranging from which jobs you’ll do to when you’ll allow yourself to relax and have a drink.’’

And if you have had a fight before the party? “Put it on hold until tomorrow,’’ O’Neill advised. “You’re going to feel really bad if something blows up at the party.’’

HOW TO DECLINE A PARTY INVITATION GRACEFULLY

It’s the holiday contradiction: You want to be invited to parties, but you do not want to have to go to them. But how to say no politely, especially in the age of the Evite, when your “No’’ response will be so public?

“You offer as little information as possible,’’ says Jodi R.R. Smith, of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead. Otherwise, this can happen: “Let’s say you invite me over for dinner but I don’t really like you. I say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t come on Saturday.’ By giving you that piece of information, that allows you to counter-invite, and say, ‘We can do Sunday.’ Now I’m trapped.’’

Instead, say: “I’m terribly sorry I won’t be able to attend, but thank you so much for the invitation. Please tell everyone season’s greetings.’’ And tempting though it is to offer a specific excuse, don’t. Smith explains: “If I’m getting married and someone says ‘I can’t come because I’m going on a girls’ weekend to Florida,’ you are saying I value this other thing more than your thing.’’

HOW TO FLEE A GATHERING EARLY

You have had your fill of passed hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and conversation. You have feigned interest in the host’s dog and children. You have hidden out in the bathroom. And the party’s only 45 minutes old. How can you get out without insulting the host?

“People tend to find themselves throwing out the little white lie,’’ said Jennifer Gullins, corporate director of sales and marketing at Saphire Event Group, in Sharon, “but it’s not a good idea. Eventually you might get caught because you don’t remember what you said.’’

Rather than pleading a baby sitter who needs to leave early, or another commitment, be honest(ish). “We’re so pleased you invited us,’’ you can say, “we wanted to stop by and say hello and give a hug and kisses before the holidays, but we’ve got a lot on our plate so we need to scoot out early.’’

HOW TO HANDLE AN UNEVEN EXCHANGE OF GIFTS

It’s a Seinfeldian situation: You and a friend are exchanging gifts. You show up with something nice, but tiny, and she hands you a present from a high-end store - bought at full retail. What now? The big spender needs to be gracious, says Robyn Spizman, author of “The Giftionary.’’ But, she emphasizes, the real aim is preventing the problem.

Agree ahead of time to give each other a book, she advised, or to treat each other to a holiday lunch. “A lot of relationships have suffered because of gifting,’’ she warned. “When someone gives you a bad gift, you feel they have no interest in you.’’ Yikes! But here’s a helpful strategy: “If a gift makes you feel like I know you, I’m paying attention to what matters to you, you do not care if I spend $10 or $30.’’

HOW TO FIND A PARKING SPOT WITH LESS STRESS

The best way to avert parking stress, says Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA, is to go shopping at off-peak times - or walk. But if your schedule is not flexible, and the sidewalk does not go to the South Shore Plaza, here is advice on reducing parking angst: Head for the least convenient spot in the lot. “Don’t circle the lower deck of the structure, go right to the periphery,’’ Shoup said. “If you can see your destination, the walk can’t be that far.’’

The author of “The High Cost of Free Parking’’ also offered this painful tip: “If the choice is between paying right now for off-street parking, or circling and hunting for a free spot, it’s probably bad for you and bad for everyone else if you drive around. You congest traffic, waste fuel, pollute the air, and interfere with pedestrians and bicyclists. If your time is worth anything, it’s probably a good idea [to pay for a spot] rather than spend 20 minutes circling.’’

HOW TO DEAL WITH TABLE TEXTERS

“I think one of two things,’’ said Peter Post, a director of the Emily Post Institute. “You can simply try to ignore them - talk to somebody else. They can sit there and be in their own little world. In a lot of ways it’s easier. If they don’t want to pay attention, you don’t have to pay attention to them.’’

But if you are too annoyed to keep quiet, Post said, you can make a remark, along the lines of “Gee, what’s so interesting?’’ However, he cautions, “Those things can end up causing ill feelings.’’

If neither approach feels quite right, perhaps there’s a middle ground: Take out your phone, and text the texter.

HOW TO AVOID IMPULSE PURCHASES AT THE MALL

We all know that you are not supposed to go grocery shopping when you are hungry, but who knew that hunger - and thirst - can also weaken your control at Macy’s or Nordstrom?

“When you’re hungry, especially if you are lacking in protein, it turns out you are much more susceptible to making impulse purchases,’’ said Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University. “What you feel is a sense of anxiousness. You are looking for something to make you feel better.’’ While in truth that might be water or some nuts, you grab a cashmere sweater.

“Your body is sending you an alarm signal that you need to fix something,’’ Yarrow said. And your brain can misinterpret that to mean you should buy a new handbag.

The bottom line: Fuel up before you shop.

HOW TO SPEED-CLEAN YOUR HOUSE WHEN COMPANY IS ON THE WAY

“There is a time and a place for deep cleaning,’’ said Janette Negele, innkeeper at the Beech Tree Inn, in Brookline, “but when people are coming over, that’s not the moment.’’

Instead, focus your efforts on the bathrooms, the guest room if it will be in play, and clutter. When it comes to the latter, just hide it. Make sure sinks and toilets are clean, and put out fresh towels. And don’t waste time thinking you need to vacuum, Negele and Bette Allen, the inn’s general manager, advised. Simply start vacuuming.

And open the windows. A fresh-smelling room will seem cleaner. Baking helps, too, but if the guests are knocking at the door, you can forget the banana bread and simply make toast.

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