Thursday, July 24, 2008

showers

In April, a reader who we can call 'Newlywed' wrote to me, asking for some advice:

I have recently married a Brit (me being American) and we are expecting our first child. As is custom in the U.S. we throw Baby Showers. I was not aware that Baby Showers are not common in the U.K. and was baffled by the in-laws' apparent offense [BrE offence--ed.] at being invited. Even though they currently reside in the U.K. and we in the U.S., I had sent invitations to all of the new in-laws regardless. In America if the family were not invited this would be considered extremely rude as it would send the message that they were cut out of a major part of our lives. In my mind, it would be akin to having a large wedding and not inviting the family. I would like to mend this obvious misunderstanding. Can you provide any suggestions as to how I can explain this American phenomenon to my new in-laws? Most importantly, that the Baby Shower’s function is not an intentional display of over-the-top American greed only designed to ring in gifts.

Newlywed should be a mother by now, what fun! And as a new mother, I hope she'll appreciate my low-on-time recycling of her note and my response as a quick way to write a long blog entry! In April, I replied:
We had the baby shower problem here as well. The thing about them is--they are designed to ring in gifts, that is their purpose--and inviting people to something whose purpose is to get gifts is just seen as crass to most (especially older) British folk. By inviting people who obviously could not attend, it really looks like an attempt to get gifts. The British would not see such a party as 'a major part of [your] lives' (they'd see that as a great exaggeration). So, I think the best you can do is to say 'Sorry if that invitation seemed like an attempt to be greedy. It really was an attempt to let you know what's going on in the run-up to the birth. Of course, we don't expect you to send a gift to a shower you are not able to attend, but we really look forward to the time when you'll meet your new grandchild.' Or something like that.

Usually baby showers are organized by the friends/families of the expectant mother, not the mother herself. If that's the case, you can also just shift the blame--i.e. 'Cousin Fifi wanted to include you in the invitation. Sorry about that.'

The need to explain yourself/your intentions to them [in addition to apologi{s/z}ing] is in itself kind of an American thing. So, you might want to ask yourself whether you're doing it for them or for you. Your husband might be able to help decide whether his parents would be made to feel even more uncomfortable by prolonged discussion of the topic.

Wow, I feel like Miss Manners.
In our case, a wonderful American friend wanted to organi{s/z}e a 'cybershower' for me, and wanted a list of my friends' e-mail addresses from the US and the UK. I was happy to give the US addresses, but hemmed and hawed about the UK ones. She really wanted them--she felt it would be a way to 'bring together' all the people who care about Better Half, then-future-Grover, and me. So, my compromise was to give her friends' addresses, but not in-laws'. And some of the UK friends participated, and some didn't. (All gave baby gifts, though. We've only just had to start buying Grover clothes, since we were catered very well for in the first three sizes.)

So, there are two linguistic issues to cover here: the lexical item shower and the sociolinguistics/pragmatics of the invitation. But, you know what? I've only got time for the word. So, your assignment (should you choose to accept it): think back on some of the anthropological observations on Americans that have been discussed here (e.g. the compliments post and the social class post), then try to untangle what's going on with Americans inviting people to a little party that they know the invitees cannot attend. (Or, disagree vehemently with my claim that this is American--and not English--behavio(u)r. Your choice.) Let the party begin in the comments section.

As for (AmE) shower, the term is becoming more familiar here, but baby and bridal showers are still considered to be very American (and often thought to be very crass) activities. To give the OED definition, a shower is: 'An abundance of gifts of a similar kind presented by guests at a party to celebrate esp. a wedding or birth; a party given for this purpose.' In other words a 'shower' of gifts. The parties usually involve games and sentimental traditions. A baby shower I once went to had a great game, in which they'd taken the labels off (of) about 20 jars of baby food and you had to work out (guess, really) which orange thing was the carrots, which the squash, which the sweet potato, which the peaches, etc. (OK, it's a great game if you like silly games.) A bridal shower tradition I've seen involves taking all of the ribbons and bows from the gifts, assembling them on a paper plate and then giving it to the bride to use as her 'bouquet' at the wedding rehearsal. (Wedding rehearsals and their traditions are [AmE colloquial/jocular] a whole nother ball of Americanness.) The OED's citations for this sense of shower go back to 1904, but the term must be a bit older (since the source, a newspaper, didn't see the need to define the term).

While bridal showers are relatively rare over here, hen nights are bigger in the UK than in the US. (Click on the link if you want to discuss hen nights!)

Another sense of shower--which I assume is BrE, since I've never seen it before and American Heritage doesn't have it--is given by the OED as:
A group or crowd (of people). Usu. derog., a pitiful collection or rabble. slang.
I imagine that if you know that sense of the word shower, the party meaning could be somewhat humorous. And if you know the 'pathetic crowd' sense, but not the party sense, it would not seem like a compliment to be invited to a shower.

45 comments:

Jennywenny said...

This is a tricky one. It took me a long time to understand this, and now I quite like it. I think brits are naturally very cautious, so they prefer to celebrate the baby when it is born over a christening, or similar naming celebration.

We definitely go all out with 'hen nights' which I'd parallel with a batchelorette party in the US. They seem very popular both sides of the atlantic to me!!

Anonymous said...

When I saw 'ring in' in the original question, I thought, hmm, typo for 'bring in' ? But then you used it without comment in your reply, so I suppose it is perfectly cromulent AmE, though I can't readily make any online dictionaries tell me about it. To my BrE ears it sounds, well, wrong :)

Mrs Redboots said...

I, as a middle-aged Englishwoman, find the concept of "baby showers" and "wedding showers" profoundly disturbing. Can't you trust your friends/family to give you presents to celebrate these events without having to hold a special party for them to do so?

The culture here is that if you are invited to the wedding, you send a present even if you can't go, so Ms Newlywed's in-laws would assume that an invitation to a shower meant that a present was expected. And would definitely be offended, as grandparents would expect to give lots of presents without having to be asked! They would arguably have felt that their daughter-in-law didn't trust them!

I also agree with the anonymous poster about "ring in" - that doesn't make sense to me.

Kevin said...

As an "older Brit" I have to agree with you that if I were to be invited to an event (even a family one) which it would be clearly unreasonable to expect me to attend -- AND I was given to understand that the main purpose of the event was the bestowal of "gifts" -- I would certainly see it as a crass and rather poorly disguised begging letter (especially since I would have no idea what sort of value of "gift" might be expected). To those unfamiliar with the practice, "baby showers" (once you have got the idea of the poor little mite not being able to adjust the water pressure out of your mind!) do LOOK like the kind of greed and wealth-flaunting that, however unjustifiably, gets Americans a bad name.

On a purely language note, I thought that the phrase "designed to ring in gifts" was a typo for "...bring in gifts", but as it appears twice it evidently isn't. Have never heard "ring in" used in that sense before (one to add to the list of future SbaCL topics?).

Simon said...

...and another Brit who would be a little put out if he was invited to a baby shower. I dunno what counts as 'older' - I'm 28, if that helps.

That said, I wouldn't mind if an American invited me, as I had heard of them before and understand it to be part of the culture, but I would be put out if a British friend did the same.

And to continue the 'ring in' comments, I didn't notice it as jarring when I read the post. I'm guessing it's in the same context as used in the Rawhide theme tune? :-)

eimear said...

That last sense of "shower" is common in Ireland. E.g. "Who did you vote for? - Oh, I voted for (party X). I don't trust that (party Y) shower".

Mark Etherton said...

The use of "shower" to mean a rabble is, to me at least, inescapably linked to Terry-Thomas, who first used what became one of his catch phrases "You're an absolute shower!" as Major Hitchcock in the Boulting Brothers' film 'Private's Progress'. I can't imagine it now being used in this sense without a certain knowingness.

Anonymous said...

Alan Sugar in The Apprentice is also prone to saying "What a bloody shower!" to the losing team.

itinerantlondoner said...

Another more colourful variant of the final use of 'shower' is in the phrase 'shower of shit', which makes the sense even more derogatory. I presume this usage is BrE too.

lynneguist said...

I wondered about 'ring in' tool. I understood it, and used it in allusion to Newlywed's use of it, but it wouldn't be a natural thing for me to say. So, I had looked it up, and it seemed to go with an OED sense related to bell-ringing (i.e. you ring the bell and the congregation or the dogs or whatever comes to you)--though I would have naturally assumed that this had more to do with 'forming a ring around' (as hinted at in the Rawhide reference above).

So, I'm not necessarily willing to say this is AmE, since it wasn't very familiar to me either. I think it might just be Newlywed's creative language use (which we're all allowed, as well as our dialects!)

nineveh-uk said...

An interesting post, but I feel it misses out a major reason that baby showers have not caught on in Britain – the idea that they’re bad luck (or at least foolhardy). Asking for presents for oneself is vulgar. Asking for presents for a baby that isn’t yet born is tempting fate. There is a long-lasting superstition that you shouldn’t prepare too much for a new baby before it is born, which endured even when not doing so might be taken as indicating that you had murdered a still-born infant. Today the superstition is weaker but still lurking in the background, and even for people who think that fate has nothing to do with it, there is a sense that it is foolish to count your chickens before they’ve hatched. Even today, some babies die, and having a house full of presents that represented hope and now represents disaster is something people prefer to avoid.

Anonymous said...

One thing is, in regards to Mrs Redboots comment, is that the Baby Shower has become the time when the gifts are given. When did it become like that? No idea...but it is true.
Though some might mike to know that there is a growing resentment towards Bridal showers over here...for all of the reasons that you might think..."I have to give a gift to celebrate the other time that I have to give a gift?"
But Baby showers don't take the same hit...as you are not expected to give a gift at the birth if you already gave something at the shower. (oftentimes peopls still do, but the "big" gift is usually presented at the Shower if I am not mistaken.)

Cat. said...

I believe we here in America frequently ring in the New Year.

Mind you: I don't. I'm usually asleep by midnight, with earplugs to block out the fireworks--no church bells in the vicinity, as if churches would ring them for the New Year anyway.

As for showers, my feeling is that the whole wedding and pre-baby etiquette thing is a swamp of potential misunderstandings and excuses to be petty about ridiculous issues instead of focusing (focussing?) on the important and joyous reasons for celebrating.

Cat. said...

I should add that my response to baby showers is somewhat colored by something to which Nineveh alluded. The last one I attended (and planned) was for relatives whose baby subsequently died prior to birth. I helped them sort through all the gifts and decide what to return to stores and what to store for (maybe) later.

bill said...

As for the "invitation to something you can't attend." The invitation is more a gesture of "I would like you to be there" as opposed to..."you are expected to come and bring a gift."
I don't know if this sentiment is as prevalent in the UK as it is in the US, but we very much subscribe to the "It's nice just to be asked." mentality.

I would guess that it can fall along similar lines as the other US societal issues Lynne mentioned in previous posts. Americans generally just like to be included. In whatever it may be. I can see it all coming back to the "making connections" thought that has been discussed before.

If you are invited to something in the US where gifts are standard, but are not able to attend, you are not necessarily required to send a gift...I know that technically and according to Miss Manners,you should. But, in practice, if someone was invited to my birthday party, and they could not come, if they didn't send anything, I would not see it as an insult. More formal occasions like wedding might be a little different, but I don't think that I would feel differently.

biochemist said...

I agree with the comments above from nineveh-uk (and jennywenny). I've heard pregnant women say that they would on no account buy or accept large items such as a pram or a cot until the baby had been safely born. At least toys and small items of clothing can be put away until a later occasion if there is a miscarriage - and of course many people delay announcing a pregnancy for a similar reason.

A 'baby shower' seems as strange as giving gifts to an engaged couple - who knows, the wedding may be called off! On the other hand, girlfriends may like to celebrate the good news before their friend becomes a sleepless new mother, tied up with entertaining grandparents and other family members at the baptism.

The other use of 'shower' is definitely laddish, although I (BrE) naturally assumed it was AusE... A new, politically correct use was recently reported in the UK - instead of 'brainstorm' to describe a group search for new ideas, which may be offensive to mental health clients, one should apparently use 'thought showers' - what shower thought that one up?!

Kevin said...

>>no church bells in the vicinity, as if churches would ring them for the New Year anyway<<

That's odd, cat. Why wouldn't they? (Especially when you've just said: "I believe we here in America frequently ring in the New Year.") Where are there bells to be rung if not at the churches?

The celebratory ringing of church bells has especial significance in GB where all bell-ringing was banned for the duration of WWII -- except as a warning of invasion -- so that there was a veritable orgy of bell-ringing on VE (Victory in Europe) Day, but the tradition is, of course, very much older.

(Sorry for the digression-ette, Lynne!)

Cameron said...

I was once invited to a baby shower by an American friend in Munich (although she termed it a "baby party") and she made it clear that she saw it as the equivalent of a christening, she being an Atheist. I love that idea; celebrate the beginning of a new life, introduce a new citizen to the significant adults in their life, and to the world. I knew there was absolutely no obligation on me, express or implied, to bring a gift and at the time I certainly couldn't afford an expensive one. But I had been in the process of writing a fairy tale when I got the invitation, and so I finished that and dedicated it to the baby, bringing along to her first party the first printed copy of her fairy tale, complete with dedication.

As a "shower of gifts" idea, I agree with other British contributors here that it is appallingly crass, but had I been invited like Newlywed's inlaws I would not have been offended, would have understood that it implied inclusion, and would have felt under no obligation to send a gift. Although possibly only through obliviousness.

Jack said...

I also assumed "ring in" was used in the same sense as "ring in the New Year."

Around here almost all the churches have bells that automatically ring on the hour, every hour - so of course all of them would ring on New Years. Some even play music (such as the Angelus or common hymn tunes) at certain times of day.

As an American, I'd consider it kind of rude to not invite someone to a baby shower or big family party even if they couldn't attend. However, I generally wouldn't expect a gift if they couldn't make it.

Rickard said...

I wonder if part of the problem with Newlywed's British in-laws was that they felt they had be relegated to the same level as friends and acquaintances. Relative (in both meanings) status can be very important to some British people and the role of grandparents can be viewed as a very exclusive position.

As BrE I agree with mark etherton on Terry Tomas and 'Absolute shower!'

Interface said...

In AusEng 'ring in' is usually used as a noun, meaning someone or something brought in at the last minute to make up numbers. It can have a meaning similar to 'stand in'.

But it has a connotation of sneakiness about it. For example an ex professional football player playing for a country team to boost their performance would be a ring in.

Kevin said...

Thanks for the explanation, jack. Bells ringing on the hour, though, is what we Rightpondians would call "chiming" (e.g. the chimes of Big Ben). "Ringing in the New Year" involves "pealing" the bells in what is known as "change ringing". An example of bellringers at work here; and another, specifically on New Year's Eve here. On the mainland of Europe, bellringing is different (far more "anarchic") but still a "joyous noise" in its own right: see here. Personally, I love the continental Sunday-morning "blam blam": it tells me I'm on holiday!

lynneguist said...

A few quick comments:

nineveh-uk said "Asking for presents for oneself is vulgar. Asking for presents for a baby that isn’t yet born is tempting fate." In case this is what you meant, we should be clear here that one does not throw a baby shower for oneself--it's always a friend or relative who throws it for the expectant mother (and, these days, often for both parents). However, since these days people's social circles are often loosely intersecting rather than small and tight, it usually involves the collusion of the expectant mother to sort out the guest list. And since people are getting more particular and consumerist about their baby-having, these days they often involve a registry for the baby gifts (i.e. this is the type of car seat we want, these are the colo(u)rs of the baby's room, etc.).

I wouldn't allow anything to be bought for Grover until I was well into the 3rd trimester--which was a problem, since I didn't have much of a 3rd trimester, so we had a baby and no where to put her and no clothes to put her in (not that we would have bought 'early baby' size clothes if we had had the chance to go out shopping). But the fact of the matter is that things do need to be bought for babies before their born, and the tradition arose because young couples were usually short on cash. So, it's a nice tradition in a lot of ways, but the consumerist take-over of nearly everything in American life makes it a bit sadder.

Cat., I don't see "ring in the New Year" as the same sense of 'ring in' here. The new year is not being called by the ringing, but greeted with the ringing. But maybe that's just the way I see it.

bill, thanks for doing the heavy lifting on the matter of 'why Americans do this'. I think you're spot-on (which strikes me as a more BrE than AmE thing to say, but maybe it's just because I'm hearing it in my head with BrE vowels). The other bit of the matter is the lack of the superstition that's been noted by some of the BrE speakers here. Americans are naturally optimistic, so don't feel they're tempting fate by having a baby shower.

On the other hand, none of the Americans I know would dream of letting others know they're pregnant before the first trimester is over and there's a very good chance of it going well. I've had two BrE speakers tell me of their weeks-old pregnancies in the last few weeks and I wanted to say "NOOOO! Don't tell me! That's really bad luck!" This may have a bit more to do with the fact that my American friends are my age, and we know we can't trust a pregnancy to take hold, but then one of the Englishwomen who gave me such early news is the same age as me (and due any day now).

Cameron said "I was once invited to a baby shower by an American friend in Munich (although she termed it a "baby party") and she made it clear that she saw it as the equivalent of a christening, she being an Atheist. I love that idea; celebrate the beginning of a new life." That wasn't a baby shower, Cameron, as such things only happen before the baby is born. What you seem to be describing is closer to a naming party, which are more common in the UK/Europe in my experience than in America (where religion is more popular). We had a naming ceremony and cream tea for Grover (with "please, no gifts" on the invitations, though grandparents and guideparents--our Humanist version of godparents--couldn't resist the gift-giving opportunity).

Rickard's theory re the exclusivity of grandparent status is interesting--I think there may be more than a grain of truth to it. The use of the notion of exclusivity is much more widespread in British culture than in American, and I can see that grandparent thing contrasting a bit in the two sides of our family. Maybe.

Cat. said...

Kevin: I really ought to have said that I believe the expression is 'ring in the New Year.' No one I know uses this expression to mean actual bell-ringing. It's more a leftover phrase meaning nothing but "Greet" only fancier.

And around here, in the midwestern U.S., we don't ring in the New Year with church bells. There are churches in my smallish city with carillons but they only 'peal' them on Easter morning and a few other times of the year. New Year's being a non-religious holiday, churches don't involve themselves (the churches that I'm thinking of in my town, especially!).

I hope this makes sense--I'm feeling a little late-in-the-day-ish.

Also, yes, as lynne says, this is an odd phrase for "calling in", but we Americans are odd in our phrasing so often! :-)

Anonymous said...

I was struck by your line I was happy to give the US addresses, but hemmed and hawed about the UK ones. As a Nepali-speaking American (learned in Peace Corps), I've taken US friends trekking in the Himalayas and occasionally found myself in a similar position where they asked me to do something that required Nepali but which I just couldn't bring myself to do because it felt wrong to me in Nepali culture. Unfortunately, I can rarely explain quickly and precisely why: it's usually just a strong gut feeling. Quite awkward all around.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if "ring in" is an extension of ringing things in on a cash register--thus making it a very crass exercise. Saying that, as an American and because it is an accepted part of American culture, baby showers are fine with me. The shower is the point at which I would plan to give a gift.

Kevin said...

>>New Year's being a non-religious holiday, churches don't involve themselves<<

That sounds a very "Puritan" attitude, cat.! Not all that surprising really, though, I suppose, given the story of the Pilgrim Fathers and all that. At least they've stopped banning the celebration of Christmas (outlawed by the English Puritans between 1947 and 1660), I hope!

New Year may not be formally a Christian feast day in Europe (although New Year's Eve is Saint Sylvester's Day) but the churches generally do join in with the festivities. See the hymn

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land --
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


(taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson : In Memoriam)

Before I get into too much trouble for deviating yet again (Tangent ought to be my middle name), can I be allowed to point out the difference between AmE "New Year's" (stressed on the first syllable?) and BrE "New Year" (stressed on the second): we have New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, but the holiday itself is called New Year. In American films I hear people calling out "Happy NEW Year('s)" -- here, it's "Happy New YEAR".

Happy Saint James's Day (25 July), everybody!

Kevin said...

P.S. No, the English Puritans weren't time travellers -- they banned the observance of Christmas between 1647 (not 1947) and 1660.

Curses! (<-- Oh, and they banned that, too)

Cameron said...

GUIDEparents! Fantastic word, Lynne! All these years (nineteen of them so far) I've been calling myself my niece's godlessfather and now I KNOW what I am. Thank you so much for that.

Also, Lynne:
"things do need to be bought for babies before their born"

I don't think I had a born when I was a baby...

lynneguist said...

As you can see from my spelling, Cameron, the main thing parents need is MORE SLEEP!

Elizabeth said...

I've never really thought about whether churches peal bells to celebrate the new year, but I did always assume that's what was meant by "ringing in the new year".

This is probably Catholic/Protestant thing, but churches near me peal bells for 17:00 Mass on Sat, 10:00 Mass on Sunday and Wedding Masses in addition to religious holidays. So it's occasional, just very frequent occasions. To be honest I can't recall ever hearing a Protestant church have bell that did anything but ring the hour except on TV or in movies.

On the baby shower issue... While I do understand the other side, I'm a bit amused that such an invitation would be taken so badly. For a baby shower my instinct would be to invite all family members (or at least all female ones) up to and including ones I know can't come and ones I don't particularly like. It is, after all, a family occasion. I wouldn't expect gifts from people who don't come, it's a way to say that (especially in my own family where there's a lot of divorce and remarriage and physical distance) these people are a part of my family and I love them and think of them.

Ankaret said...

Firstly, thank you for writing this fascinating blog! I check every couple of days or so to see whether you've updated.

Vaguely on the subject of showers, I'm a thirtysomething British woman, and about eight years or so ago a friend and I actually threw an 'American-style wedding shower' as a novelty for a friend (also British) who hated the idea of a boozy hen night. We looked up silly games on the web, and so on - I think we did the one where someone noted down what the bride said as she opened the presents and read it back as 'this is what S will say on her wedding night'.

We only invited people who were close enough that they would have bought the bride and groom an engagement present anyway, though - I don't think we'd have felt comfortable inviting people the bride knew less well to something where the price of admission was a small present.

Since then, showers seem to have got a bit more common, so I don't think I'd do it again. I'd worry that people thought I was being grasping, or that the bride was.

Robin said...

It's so strange to me that people would think a baby shower was "crass." What's crass about a tradition where family and friends help soon-to-be new parents with the burdensome cost of getting all the stuff a new baby requires? Babies are expensive! And then the parents return the favor and buy gifts for friends and family as they have their first babies. It helps alleviate the financial burden that comes with being a new parent. Plus, you get to buy things for babies, discuss a hugely pregnant lady's round belly, and play silly games. What's not to like? And who wouldn't want to at least receive an invite (even if they couldn't come) so they know they are thought of?

Rickard said...

Robin: That's why cultural differences can be such a minefield. It's not that the things you've mentioned would be considered crass to most British people (or at least me), but the holding of a party that has the main aim of collecting gifts. All those things will occur but not at the same time and not with the same people present in every case. Gift giving is far more a private exchange, rather than a public display, especially if the gift is expensive. Such activity could feel very uncomfortable for some people.

lynneguist said...

And I HATED it when my belly was the topic of conversation (and lived in mortal fear that someone would uninvitedly try to TOUCH me). Made me feel like cattle.

Mrs Redboots said...

Robin, the point is that in the UK, we assume our friends and family will give us presents for our wedding or new baby without having to have a party to remind them to do so. And if we were invited to such a party, we would assume we were expected to send a gift, even if we were unable to go, as, indeed, it is customary to send a wedding/Christening present if invited to a wedding or Christening, even if unable to attend.

Siubhan said...

I am an American working in the UK. My American friends also living here informed me last weekend that they want to throw a baby shower for me and the little one due in October. Many of the people I work with are British (the rest come from the continent) and were not familiar with the idea of baby showers. When asked what they were, I explained that they were a chance for a group of women to gather together, chat, eat food and celebrate that I'm about to have a baby. I didn't mention gifts as the last thing I want to do is beg for gifts. We are only going to be in the UK for about a year after the birth and didn't want lots of gifts to send back to the States. I also didn't want to tell my friends that I didn't want a shower as I would like to have the social aspects of the shower.

Emma said...

Really interesting discussion! 24 year old UK female here, and I have to say my feelings about baby showers are as expressed by most other non-Ams here (it's not just an age thing).

My boyfriend and I have been invited to his friend's baby shower, and we're both not that keen on the idea. Friend is actually Columbian (I'm not sure whether it's a widespread tradition there or not). I've only actually met this woman once, and my first thought, I have to admit, was "I resent being asked buy a present for someone I barely know". It's just not the way things are done! I'll happily buy for a wedding, or post birth of a good friend, but this just isn't seen as the same thing.

From what Americans say, I can see why they view these things very differently, and appreciate that baby showers work well in their original cultural context. It's a very difficult thing to transplant, though, since we don't have the same cultural understanding here. Giving a baby gift to a friend after the birth is normal (without being asked to do so), and I also share the feeling already expressed here that you shouldn't count your chickens before they've layed.

bill said...

And I think Emma's comment might really focus on the real difference.

Brits view an invite to a shower as an invitation to bring someone a gift.
Americans see the invite as an invitation to go to a party.

Another thing that occurred to me through thinking of this and other posts, is that a shower is often an opportunity/excuse for friends from all over the country to get together as well. From what I understand from this blog about UK friendships, they are often much closer and tighter, whereas in the US, friendships are scattered all over the place.

But I think that there is some fodder for another post somewhere about the multiple comments from the UKers saying that it is obvious that they would give a gift without some sort of gathering, whereas it seems a bit different in the US...but that set of hypotheses could go on forever.

TootsNYC said...

I work at a weddings magazine in the U.S., and I field most of our readers' etiquette comments, so I can tell that even in America, people are split over the idea of whether to invite someone you are pretty sure can't attend.

There are definitely in-laws in Pittsburgh who would be greatly offended NOT to get an invite to the shower in Oregon.

And there are friends and cousins in Houston who forget that a present is NOT obligatory for a shower if you do not attend, and who think the new mom is greedy for allowing her shower hostess to invite them. (Bill is wrong; Miss Manners would say that you are NOT obligated to send a present to a shower or bday party you cannot attend--and he shldn't be throwing his own bday party anyway)

(there is debate about whether wedding invites MUST be met w/ a present, but most etiquette books say yes, agreeing w/ the Brits, as explained by Mrs. Redboots. And therefore, some cousins are insulted at being sent a WEDDING invite)

Also--hey, don't blame us *AMERICANS*. The most crass and materialistic and show-offy showers I have ever attended were made that way by the 1st-generation Yugoslavian immigrants whose family I married into!

In the middle American culture *I* was raised in, the shower is attended by only the guest of honors closest friends and relatives, the ones who are local (though the out-of-town parents & siblings & bestest of friends may get an invite, plus a call from the G.O.H., who says, "I know you can't come, but I didn't want to hurt your feelings by leaving you out"). The people who might actually be interested in giving TWO presents--because the shower present is not a substitute for a wedding present.

So, 20 people would be a pretty big shower.

And, showers in my regional culture (which may have changed in the last 18 years) didn't involve particularly expensive presents, either.

Showers also serve as a social event--a chance for those closest to gather w/ the G.O.H. and themselves for a bit of dedicated socializing at a highly emotional time.

But I disagree w/Bill when he says that Americans view a shower as an invitation to a party, and not an invitation to give a gift. I know other women who, upon hearing of a pregnancy or an engagement, begin to plan what to buy for the shower. I do, myself.

But I'm also "in the stream"--I benefitted from showers, and so I "pay it back" by giving to other showers for people I know.

Karen J. said...

It's fairly common in this part of the U.S. (Texas & Oklahoma) to send invitations to people you'd sincerely like to have attend; even if you know they can't. Baby showers still tend to be for the close friends of the M2B, so it is likely they will send a gift if they can, whether or not they can attend. But a nicely written card is still just as good as a gift, and will be treasured long after the gift is gone and forgotten.

Wedding invitations can be more of a scattergun-type thing, sent to anybody (friend or family) you thing would be offended if not invited, even if you know they won't or can't come.

However the current trend of multiple baby showers simply to gather in more goodies is appallingly rude, and I can see where that would be distasteful to our overseas cousins. Thankfully, this trend has yet to take a firm hold in this area, and I hope the "gimmie" mindset is starting to fade away.

Karen J. in N. Texas

(A note about myself. Born and raised in Oklahoma and Texas, I've had the privilege of living and attending school in Belgium and Norway, as well as having traveled a fair bit in the U.K. and on the Continent. As such, I have enjoyed reading the blogs and accompanying comments since I found this a couple of days ago.)

Robbie said...

The idea of wedding and baby showers began when times were harder and it would be a serious struggle for a young couple to afford everything they needed to start a home or care for a baby. A few of the bride's/mother-to-be's close friends would throw a surprise party and "shower" her with a profusion of small useful presents.

Apparently it used to be common for friends to hold several showers before a wedding, each one set to a different theme. So you might have a "kitchen shower" (tea towels, utensils, aprons) followed a week or two later by a "linen shower", and perhaps later still by a "hosiery and handkerchief shower".

Part of the concept behind the shower is almost the idea of a whip-round: everybody contributes a little, and it adds up to a fair amount.

There's also a cultural implication. In the days when all young women expected to marry young and start a family soon afterwards, the entire circle of friends would all give and receive roughly equally over the space of a few years. Nowadays that doesn't hold true any more.

A traditional shower follows the same rules: It's for women only. It's a small party of close friends. It's supposed to be an informal surprise party (although usually some discreet hints are dropped, so the guest of honour will look her best). The presents are small useful things, though there may be many of them.

For a baby shower, typical presents would be nappies, bibs, bootees, rattles, etc. Big expensive stuff like pushchairs and furniture don't fall into the "shower" category.

Since a shower is a small select party anyway, and supposed to be informal and almost spur-of-the-moment, I can't imagine anyone feeling too left out at not being invited -- unless it's someone living nearby who considers herself one of the inner circle of best friends.

I grew up in the US and was dragged along to a few showers, as described above, at the age of about 10 or 12. (Very boring I found them too, even with the inclusion of party games and cake.) Whether the idea of a shower has grown bigger and more materialistic in recent times, or in some parts of the US, I can't say.

In my opinion, inviting someone to a shower is like inviting them to a birthday party. You don't invite anyone unless you expect them to come. Sending an invitation to someone who obviously can't come is tantamount to begging for a present. If you sincerely wish they could be there to share your happiness, but know it's not possible, then a brief phone call or note to that effect would be far more polite.

Johnny E said...

Someone "Anonymous" commented on bridal showers earlier, "I have to give a gift to celebrate the other time that I have to give a gift?" - Are they seriously in *addition* to wedding gifts? I'd always assumed Americans just had a separate party before the wedding at which the gift-giving part was done away with. If anything it seemed the opposite of crass, you give the presents at a fun little hen-nighty party so as to avoid cheapening the wedding day proper. But expecting two sets of gifts really *is* greedy!

It's just occurred to me, after mentioning hen nights, that possibly bridal shower gifts are... of a different tone to wedding gifts. That at least would explain sharing them away from prim relatives and small children...

lynneguist said...

Yes, it is in addition to...but the shower gifts are smaller (i.e. less expensive) than the wedding gifts. (For babies, the rules are less clear, I think.) Showers can be themed--e.g. 'kitchen shower--and then the gifts might be things like a nice set of (BrE) tea towels or some baking tins/pans--rather than the china or appliances that one would give for the wedding. Lingerie is another common shower gift--though getting less common these days, I think--so (arguably) a gift for the bride, rather than the couple.

Harry Campbell said...

Trivial point I suppose, but I'm slightly surprised not to see "gift" in bold labelled AmE or at least esp AmE with the BrE equivalent "present". It still feels pretty American to me.

Incidentally, I rather like Johnny E's (hypothetical) idea of a separate wedding party to get the present-giving out of the way and "avoid cheapening the wedding day proper". You often don't get the chance to "give" them to the couple anyway, just leave them in a room as if handing over your coat or paying your entrance fee, to be opened later when you're not there.