DEAR MISS MANNERS: My faith is central to who I am and my life. Those who know me know this about me, as does my new neighbor, who is aware that I am careful about what I bring into my home.
When she went on a trip, she was kind enough to bring a souvenir back for me. It was quite thoughtful and I was touched. The gift was a small item that came wrapped with a magnet statuette of a local deity attached to the packaging. I thanked her immediately and told her I would enjoy using the item, deliberately omitting the fact that I would not be able to keep the magnet portion of the gift.
To my chagrin, she responded by saying that she hoped that it wasn’t a problem with the magnet statuette, and that everything in this place she had visited seemed to reference deities of one sort or another.
I responded that I loved the item, but that I would not be able to keep the statuette, at which point she offered to keep it in her apartment.
How could I have handled this better? Is there a way to graciously refuse a gift? For me, it is not an option to possess items linked with other faith traditions. Nor is there an option to lie.
GENTLE READER: Your reaction -- to express gratitude for the gift, and avoid an explanation that was both unnecessary and might be taken as criticism or ingratitude -- was not lying; it was compassion and good neighborliness.
That your neighbor did not know to quit when she was ahead is no reason to abandon your approach. In fact, Miss Manners wonders if the donor only realized the problem with the magnet as she was speaking.
A simple, repeated assurance of your gratitude might have stopped further, awkward attempts to smooth over a dawning fear that instead of doing something kind she might have inadvertently offended you. Not all train wrecks can be avoided, but there is no reason to contribute to the derailment.