Editor's note: Every week during the holidays we're asking our etiquette experts questions to help you navigate the perils of giving and receiving gifts. Check back next week for another dilemma.
(CNN) -- You're having lunch with a friend when all of a sudden she pulls a gift out of her purse. "Here!" she says, gleefully, pushing the brightly-wrapped present in your direction. "Merry Christmas!"
You plaster a smile on your face as your brain searches for the moment when the two of you went from see-each other-once-a-month friends to BFFs. Aren't the holidays stressful enough without having to buy gifts for people you hardly talk to?
We've all been in a similar situation, whether it's a surprise White Elephant party or a co-worker's overzealous gift-giving spree.
Honesty is often the best policy -- that gift is so NOT in the mail -- so we asked our etiquette experts for the best way to respond without lying through our teeth.
Jodi Newbern, author of "Regifting Revival: A Guide to Reusing Gifts Graciously"
This probably happens to almost everyone, every year. (The same goes for people that break the "no gifts" rule, and give you something anyway.)
That's why it's always a good idea to have a few generic "spares" as back-up. Even better if they are already wrapped or in a gift bag ready to give! Of course, that is one of the main reasons why I am a big fan of the "Regift Closet."
Otherwise, unless the gift giver expects a gift -- and wouldn't that kind of defy the real reason for giving a gift in the first place? -- there is nothing wrong with just being very thankful.
Let the gift giver feel good about giving you a gift without getting something back. (After all, there is always their birthday to reciprocate!)
Steven Petrow, author of "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners"
It bears saying directly: Giving a gift is a voluntary action. Just because someone gifts you doesn't mean you need to reciprocate. Ok, so do we all feel better now?
Maybe not and here's why: When you get an unexpected trinket all wrapped up for the holidays, how can you not feel 1) cheap, 2) dumb, or 3) unprepared?
I certainly used to before I learned to "be prepared" -- as the Boy Scouts like to say. Over the course of the year I've learned to stock the pantry with some bottles of wine (red and white), beeswax candles, a jar or two of gourmet jams and chutneys, and a gift box or two of artisan chocolates. Generic enough -- but useful for a wide range of friends and colleagues; we just have to be careful not to give the wine to anyone in AA or the chocolates to a diabetic.
If, however, you're caught truly empty-handed, say as genuinely as you can: "You know, I'm so far behind on my holiday chores. I'll get it to you next week." And then, please do!
Another good option -- and an option that does good -- is to plan to make a contribution to a favorite charity. If surprised by the unexpected gift, explain that you've made a contribution in their name to said non-profit.
Just be sure to follow up within the week up with your donation and let the agency know that it's in honor of so and so and would they please acknowledge your gift to them.
Anna Getty, author of "I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas"
I usually try to be honest and say, "Wow, I totally forgot. I am so sorry I spaced but want to make it up to you somehow. How about dinner on me soon?"
I'm often met with a laugh and don't worry about it.
Peggy Post, great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post
If you arrive at a party where there's a White Elephant gift exchange that you didn't know about, don't partake in the game. You can just say something like, "Oh, I didn't get the message, I'm really sorry."
If everyone is giving a gift to the party host and you don't have one, send a thank-you gift afterward instead.
Or if someone gives you a gift and you don't have one to give to them, say something like, "You really shouldn't have." Then be sure to graciously accept the gift and don't let your embarrassment overshadow the moment.
Sherri Athay, author of "Present Perfect: Unforgettable Gifts for Every Occasion"
First, thank the giver for the gift. Graciously express your pleasure -- even your genuine surprise -- at such a thoughtful gesture. The worst thing you can do is make the giver feel he or she has made you uncomfortable.
Follow up with a sincere thank you note. If you feel so inclined, reciprocate with a gift at the next appropriate opportunity. By doing so, however, you could be entering into a long-term gift relationship -- be sure you're ready for such a commitment.
From our readers
Share your missing gift dilemma advice, and it could end up here later today.
Cometmom: As a teacher I am often the recipient of many thoughtful gifts and I can not possibly reciprocate. An idea for the many grateful parents giving their children's teachers gifts -- consider just a simple note to express your thankfulness.
Erinissuper: I know if i buy a gift for someone it's because I think they would appreciate that specific item and I'd rather not receieve a last minute gift with no thought put into it from that person because they felt like they had to reciprocate.
Reddyh: Instead of exchanging gifts, next year you all go out for an inexpensive lunch or dinner... or have a potluck in the lunchroom at work.
Jabbes: I keep a few food, restaurant or gas gift cards on hand for these incidents, especially during the holidays. I even enjoy getting them from other people and they come in handy after the holidays.