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(MCT)—This is the time of year when you get that call from Aunt Vivian saying: “Hello dear, I just wanted to make sure I have your address right. I’ll be sending my fruitcake!”

And you politely say: “Oh, great, Aunt Viv! It’s a holiday tradition!”

Then the fruitcake comes, and you don’t eat it because you know it tastes like feet. It sits around a few days, then you and the kids take it in the backyard and roll it around. A couple of squirrels nibble on it, and then you toss it in the trash.

Happy holidays.

In the workplace, this festive season is brimming with Aunt Vivians offering up an array of different metaphorical fruitcakes. There’s the bubbly organizer of the annual Secret Santa gift exchange, the holiday party planners, the charity-donation requesters and the folks pooling money to buy the boss a token of their faux appreciation.

An astute reader sent me a question last week that gets to the heart of this: “How does one gracefully decline participation in holiday stuff at the office—Secret Santa, Holiday Happy Hour, Christmas Potluck—without offending one’s co-workers?”

Allow me first to quote Mahatma Gandhi, whose thriftiness made him the least popular Secret Santa among spiritual leaders: “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”

That statement is profound and, around the office during the holidays, largely ignored.

We are a “no”-averse culture. We aim to please, we want people to like us, we eschew things that might hurt another’s feelings.

And so we chip in more money than we want to toward the boss’s charity of choice. And we go to the holiday party when we’d rather be elsewhere.

“For a lot of us, ‘no’ has been drummed out of us,” said Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “The Book of No.” “A lot of people just agree to say ‘yes’ because we want to avoid confrontation. It’s just easier to go with the program. We’re lemmings, and we buy into all the traditions.”

But it’s a ruse, fellow workers. While it’s certainly good to be engaged with your colleagues and take part in some office activities or events, you simply don’t have to be part of everything.

“Most people are afraid to turn someone down because they’re afraid they won’t like them or that they’re going to be on the outs,” Newman said. “But what really happens is, when you say, for example, ‘I have my favorite charities and I give to them and I just can’t afford any more this year,’ the person asking moves on to the next person. That person’s not really thinking about you. What they want is a ‘yes’ for their favorite charity or event, and when they don’t get it, you’re forgotten.”

If someone wants you to take part in the annual office gift exchange, and you would rather not attend, just politely decline. If that person is going to hold a grudge over that, well, that person’s the one with the problem, not you.

“The fallout from a ‘no’ is never as great or as bad as we think it’s going to be,” Newman said. “We think somebody’s going to be furious with us or not talk to us, but that rarely happens.”

She suggests asking yourself a series of questions when considering whether to participate in or avoid something:

• Will I feel pressured to get it done?
• Will I be upset with myself?
• Will I resent the person who’s asking?
• Will I feel duped, swindled or had?
• What do I have to give up to do this?

“By answering these questions, you’re setting up some emotional and physical boundaries,” Newman said. “You’re reserving some time for yourself and getting your priorities straight so you’re not succumbing to all the holiday ‘shoulds’—I should do this, I should do that.”

Jacqueline Whitmore, author of “Poised for Success” and the founder of, said it’s key to be honest when you’re declining a co-worker’s request, and keep your reasons short and sweet.

“I don’t advocate going into the woes of what your problems or reasons are, but I do think, for example with a donation request, you can say, ‘This is a really difficult year for me to chip in,’” Whitmore said. “You’re saying ‘no’ without going into a long explanation as to why.”

If you have family plans around the same time as the office party, just say so and move on. If you have other charities you donate to, tell the person collecting at work and thank them for asking.

But Whitmore does warn against being totally uninvolved with workplace holiday festivities.

“If you don’t want to participate just because you don’t want to participate, that’s a bad attitude to have,” she said. “I believe you should participate in work-related things to the degree that you can because it shows you’re a team player.”

So approach the holidays with an open mind. Be selective about what you take part in, try not to dodge everything, but don’t be afraid to turn down activities you know you’ll find annoying.

There is nothing wrong with an honest and well-placed “no.”

And remember, you can always bring in Aunt Vivian’s fruitcake as your contribution to the holiday office party. Unless you’re already using it to get rid of the neighborhood squirrels.

©2011 the Chicago Tribune
Distributed by MCT Information Services