It's the thought that counts, but putting those words into action, particularly during the holiday season, is not always easy.

For instance, what are you supposed to say when the friend you've been exchanging coffee mugs with since college gives you a cashmere scarf for Christmas? And what, guys, is a female friend to do when you give her a gift that is too intimate for your platonic relationship?

Holiday giving and receiving often requires a refresher course in etiquette. From good-natured competition and broken price limits to inappropriate gifts or no gifts at all, experts say there are ways to handle every situation as long as you remember some tactics, such as how to accept with grace or really mean it when you say "you shouldn't have."

(Jeff Durham/Bay Area News Group)

Last year, when a male co-worker gave Laura P. a bottle of perfume during a white elephant gift exchange, the 40-something Concord executive assistant told him she simply "couldn't accept it," even though he may have purchased the bottle at a discount store so it didn't exceed the $20 office limit.

"It just seemed inappropriate to me, and I didn't want people to get the wrong idea," says Laura, who asked to omit her last name to spare the co-worker's feelings. "So I told him I was going to donate it to a women's charity." And she did.

If you get a gift you don't feel comfortable with, you can say so, confirms Daniel Post Senning, co-author of the 18th edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette" (William Morrow, 2011).


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"Fundamental etiquette is honesty, but you have to follow through," he says. "If you say you wouldn't feel comfortable accepting something, then you must stand by that."

According to Post Senning, while it is important and respectable to honor price limits and traditions, you can exceed or change them, as long as you speak up.

"Even just saying, 'I got a promotion this year and plan to give a little extra to the people I care about' is enough," he says.

John S., of Oakland, has a hunch that's what happened when a family friend gave him expensive Bose headphones last Christmas. "I was surprised," says John, who is in his 30s and asked to omit his last name because he was bashful about the less expensive gift he gave the person. "I just kept saying 'thank you.' Next year, I'll get the person something really nice."

Post Senning says you don't need to compare gifts. "Generosity is the heart of gift-giving," he says. "Most people aren't intentionally rude or out to embarrass someone."

In fact, that competitive streak can come from a good place. Five years ago, everyone in the family was searching for the perfect gift for Post Senning's grandparents.

"What do you get a couple in their 80s who have everything?" he says. "It was a challenge, and because it was a way to honor them instead of being cutthroat or mean, we all had fun with it."

Post Senning "won" when he gave them carnelian stone carvings similar to those his grandfather had given his own grandmother when he was a boy. The gift made his Poppy very happy. "You nailed it," Post Senning's cousins told him. Indeed. He was pleased.

Nineteen-year-old Eliana Campos and her stepfather are in a similar race this Christmas.

"We're competing over what to get my mom," says Campos, who lives in Brentwood and attends the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco. Her stepdad usually gets his wife a coveted designer purse, but this year Eliana plans to outdo him. She's saving up to buy her mom a Tiffany necklace.

"She's been very supportive of me this year and paid for all of my schooling, so I want to get her something extra special," she says.

How do you handle the ultimate -- and all too common -- gift foul: When you made someone's holiday list but they didn't make yours?

"Admit your predicament, apologize, and move on," Post Senning says. "Something like, 'That is so kind and generous of you. I don't have anything for you.' "

Does that mean you have to run out and buy them something now?

"If you feel so inspired, I think that's an entirely reasonable response," he says. "But I wouldn't make it a deceptive move. Like, 'Oh, I left your gift on my kitchen counter.' You may think you save them the hurt, but it's never a good idea to lie."