Q: My boyfriend recently graduated from a master's program. His co-worker gave him a gift card. When he went to purchase something with it, he was told that "it had not been properly activated." Should my boyfriend say something to his co-worker or just not mention it all and be thankful for the thought?

A: This is truly a tough call. There can be issues with gift cards and fraud. Suffice to say that thieves are rather creative these days. It would be ill-advised for your boyfriend to embarrass a co-worker due to a generous gesture. Instead, your boyfriend should simply pen a heartfelt thank-you note. As we enter the gift-giving season, when purchasing gift cards, take the following steps to protect yourselves: Purchase directly from the store, ask for a card from behind the counter (not from a rack), watch the transaction to be sure the card is activated, and — most importantly — ask for a gift receipt to include with the gift card.

Q: A bunch of us went out to dinner to celebrate our friend's birthday. One of the diners, not the birthday girl, is a vegetarian. I was sitting next to her and ended up ordering a vegetarian meal, since I felt uncomfortable eating meat knowing how she feels. Others at the table did have meat in their dishes. My meal was OK, but I would have really preferred something else. What are the social norms for eating meat in front of vegetarians?

A: You have come to the kernel of all etiquette, considering the impact our behavior has on others. The polite guideline is for the person who has a dietary restriction of any kind to inform others prior to the meal. They should contact the host or event organizer to share the dietary restriction. Then those arranging the event can make accommodations as necessary. Since this is a friend of yours, the next time you are chatting, ask, "Suzie, I know you are a strict vegetarian and I was wondering how you feel when we all go out to eat." Based upon her reply, you can adjust your behavior as needed. And, of course, for her birthday, your group should choose a vegetarian restaurant!

Q: I was invited to a holiday party that included some of our neighbors. Overall, my neighborhood is lovely. But there is one woman whose political leanings are just shy of crazy. Even when the topic is completely unrelated, she keeps bringing the conversation back to her out-of-the-mainstream views. Last gathering, she monopolized my time and made the party quite unpleasant for me. I know she was invited and plans to attend the upcoming party, and it pains me to think of having to speak with her. Can I decline the invitation? What do I say?

A: Invitations are not obligations, and you should not be forced to attend. But before you decline, are there others you would like to see? If so, have a plan in advance. If you have a spouse or significant other, make it clear that if this woman has trapped you, to come and save you: "Sweetie, there you are! May I borrow her back?" If you are single, choose a neighbor with whom you are close to do the same. If there is no one available to save you, use your firm big-girl voice to say, "It was great catching up with you, if you will excuse me now" and walk away.

You need not be a captive audience to this woman's political diatribes. Lastly, you could decline the invitation, no need to share the reason why. But I would hate to think that one person kept you from enjoying time with your other neighbors.

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Jodi R.R. Smith is a nationally known etiquette expert and author. She is the president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. You are invited to e-mail her your etiquette emergencies at Salem@Mannersmith.com.

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