Most people think they’re pretty good at gift giving. I know I do.
But think about it: if everyone were good – and I mean really good – at selecting just the right gift for others, would we have quite as many self-storage units, garage sales, thrift shops as we do? Wouldn’t Craig’s List just be jobs and sex, would eBay even have a business model, wouldn’t our landfills be somewhat less overflowing?
It’s true, we also populate these last-chance depots and “stuff” graveyards with items we purchased for ourselves for no longer valid reasons– self-gifting gone wrong is another story – but for the most part, the items we own and wish we didn’t came to us by way of someone else who meant well. They ushered these unwanted things into our lives with some fanfare, maybe even with a bow on top, and with a great hope that we would like or at the very least appreciate this gift. And it just didn’t work out that way. According to one study, Americans spent about $9 billion on unloved presents in a year, and 54 percent of Americans received at least one unwanted gift.
It turns out that there are ways to avoid this sorry outcome. I began to think about this when I started my little jewelry business a couple of years ago. At first, I thought I was making things that people would purchase for themselves. It eventually dawned on me that I was basically in the gift business. The first holiday season was the big hint – while I’d heard that most jewelry businesses, like many retailers, do most of their business for the year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my aching hands by December 22nd proved this conventional wisdom to me beyond doubt. While some people purchase jewelry for themselves, most buy it for someone else, either for some special occasion, but mostly for Christmas.
This launched me into an informal study of gift giving, which, did you know, has long been of interest to anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists? I also started asking people about the gifts they received (or gave) that were real doozies on the theory that you learn more from failures than you do from successes.
It turns out that good gift giving is pretty complicated. In many ways, it’s an art — no one can tell you exactly what to get someone else — but there’s a science to not totally fucking it up. So let’s dive right in, shall we?
How to Give a Terrible Gift #1: You Don’t Understand What a Gift Is.
You may think you’re buying a book, a sweater, a key chain, but in reality what you’re buying is a symbol, and what you’re doing is communicating.
Gifts are tangible symbols given in a ritualistic fashion.
I’ll get to the ritual part of this later, but let’s take the symbolic part first – gifts are objects that express something about the giver, the receiver, and the nature of the relationship between them. This is why a great gift feels super awesome to give and receive — and a terrible gift feels super shitty. If you don’t realize this, and you think it’s just about handing over a mere object, it’s hard to understand why anyone can gin up any real emotion over a material object, and especially why someone might get really upset about it.
So before you buy a present for someone, think about it: a gift isn’t just about the object that’s transferred, it’s information about how this person is seen in the world. (N.B. You may not like this, or think it’s right, or want to participate in it, but hello, you live in society and like it or not, this is how it is. More on thi later.) Are you communicating a message you think the reciever will appreciate?
For example – and this is a classic one — a stay-at-home mom once received a set of stove burner drip pans as a gift from her husband. On one level, this is a gift that made sense, and was even thoughtful in its own way — she was spending time in the kitchen, this would make her life easier. But on another, deeper level, she was struggling with other’s perceptions of not being in a professional career at that moment in her life, and this gift communicated to her that her place was in the kitchen. Which was a terrible message and therefore a terrible gift indeed. (And they are no longer married, I’m not sure if these facts are related.) Now, in a scenario in which the mom had no ambivalence about domesticity, those drip pans might have been an okay gift.
Why just an “okay” gift? I’m not going to call this a rule, because I can think of lots of exceptions, but let’s just call it this a secondary principle: The best gifts are usually something that a person would not have to buy for themselves anway – they’re removed to some extent from mere utility. They’re a little indulgence, a little frivolity. But I’ve been really pleased with useful gifts in my past, so I can’t say this is an ironclad rule. Still, whether a gifted object is useful or not, it should speak to the best part of the recepient – and convey the message that the receiver is unique, extraordinary and special to you.
How to Give a Terrible Gift #2: You Don’t Understand The Person You’re Gifting To.
Which gets to another central point: a good gift depends on knowing the recipient really, really well. We tend to overestimate our intimacy with others. If you think that might be the case, try this test in advance of a gift giving situation: go out for a meal, or a coffee, or a drink with your intended recipient. Try to guess what they’ll order. If you get it wrong — or you can’t remember the last time you were in such a situation with this person, or when you will be again — the chances of selecting a terrible gift are on the higher side.
If you’ve failed this test, the only real solution is to actually get to know a person better — or to ask someone who knows the recipient better than you do for advice. (That would mean you know the recipient well enough to know who to ask.) Or, just drop the charade and ask the intended recipient what they’d like to as a gift.
But let’s face it, the direct ask isn’t as good as figuring it out on your own. When people say “it’s the thought that counts,” the thought that goes into selecting the gift is what they actually mean. But if getting to know the people on your gift list is beyond your ken, it’s far better to ask a few questions than to give a terrible gift.
How to Give a Terrible Gift #3: You Think a Gift Card Solves Everything
But what about a gift card? (Here, I’m referring to a gift card to a specific store, not one of those that can be used anywhere – that’s really cash, and I’m going to talk about that in a minute.)
Let’s just acknowledge what gift cards are communicating — you were able to choose a store, but were not able to make a specific selection in it for this person. This can be a fine choice when you know your recipient genuinely enjoys shopping for themselves– the gift then, is the gift of shopping. Or it can be a reasonable choice when the recipient has a deep interest or knowledge in a particular area that you can’t match — for instance, a gift card to a bottle shop for someone who has a deep interest in craft beer. (While it would be even more mind blowing if you secured a rare bottle of something or other, lacking years to learn as much as the recipient, you probably would not make the right choice.) Similarly, gift cards also work for people who have collections, and they can be acceptable for perishable or consumable items.
But bear in mind — gift cards can also make terrible gifts, because you’re relying on the store you’ve selected to the communicating for you. Maybe your recipient will be happy that you think they’re the kind of person who would enjoy a shopping spree at Dress Barn or Forever 21 — or maybe not. So a gift card doesn’t exempt you from the requirement of knowing your recipient.
How to Give a Terrible Gift #4: You Default to Cash
That brings into the category of things that people give and receive that function like gifts, but are’t really gifts at all — they aren’t symbolic or communicative.
Gift registries, for instance, should be more accurately called community wealth transfers – these strip almost all the communication and symbolism out of a gift, since you don’t have to know someone at all to purchase a gift off a registry. This is why we have them in the first place – they’re ideal for giving gifts to people you hardly know. These wealth transfers are traditional at the moment of family formation, which is why we have them for engagements, weddings, new babies — and not much else. (They’re the the ancestors of Kickstarters and GoFundMes.) Your only decision is your budget, therefore, it’s a wealth transfer. Besides events in which registries are common, certain occasions are more appropriate for community wealth transfers than others – graduations, Bar Mitzvahs, confirmations come to mind.
Many gifts given by older relatives to younger ones are actually wealth transfers, even on occasions where other people are expected to give a gift. (Bear in mind, a wealth transfer doesn’t have to be a BIG wealth transfer.)
But if you’re not in a community wealth transfer situation, and you’re not the older relative of the recipient, cash is totally a cop out gift. It’s the definition of generic — you could literally leave it out on the street and anyone who found it would appreciate it. Remember, the idea of a gift is to convey that the recipient is special and unique. Most of the time, cash doesn’t do that job.
How to Give a Terrible Gift #5: You’re Actually Giving “Advice”
Tears of anguish are the worst possible outcome when you give a gift — and when criticism is cloaked as a gift, it’s almost guaranteed to produce this result. Stories I’ve heard along these lines include a gift of hand-held vacuum to a person who was repelled by the recipient’s dust bunnies,a grooming kit to an employee who’d been counseled on their personal appearance at work, a game called “Pass the Pig” designed to teach table manners to kids that left everyone in tears.
A very common sub-genre of such “gifts” relate to weight loss – an uninvited gift of a scale, or a diet book, or a gym membership.
A gift is not a opportunity to criticize, even if you think you’re improving someone’s life, and no matter how much you think your intervention will be helpful. Gifts in support of someone’s efforts at self-initiated self-improvement can be appreciated — but they are tricky. You should consider this advanced gift-giving – you need to really know the person, and have a long track record of giving excellent gifts, with few, if any, known instances of giving terrible gifts lurking in your past. And if you’ve ever had a fight with the recipient over the subject of the self-improvement they’ve now initiated, you can consider the area off-limits for gift giving forever, unless you are very specifically asked, and even then I would not.
Remember, you’re looking for a gift that communicates that a person is special, unique and extraordinary. By definition, that means true gifts can’t focus on flaws.
How to Give a Terrible Gift #6: You Don’t Know the Rituals (Or You Don’t Care.)
Rituals of gift giving are highly determined by culture, not just a national culture, but religious, family and workplace cultures too. In the pluralistic United States, our national culture on gift giving isn’t nearly as rigid as it is in other places — but that just makes things more complicated, because whatever group(s) you’re a part of have their own beliefs about ritual gift exchange. Usually these beliefs aren’t clearly articulated, and the group members haven’t thought about them too much. That’s because most people just assume their traditions are normal and shared by pretty much everyone except for some weirdos– which means it’s likely no one will explains the rules to you.
In situations where you’re the new person in a group –joining a new family via marriage is a common for instance – the chances are very high you’re going to screw things up a couple of times.
In my opinion, this is to be expected, and you should just do your best, be very aware of what’s happening around gifts and how they’re received.
There are times when you’re in a gift giving culture (a family, a workplace, a friend group), you know the rules — and you just don’t feel like doing it anymore. Maybe everyone feels that way! It’s worth having a conversation about it. But if everyone is happy with the gift giving sitch but you, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to unilaterally extricate yourself without ruffling feathers. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it – gifts given grudgingly are usually hostile and terrible. But you should just expect to receive some blowback.
Unfortunately, it seems that the person who has the highest expectations is the one who sets the standards.
How to Give a Terrible Gift #7: You Gift Out of Context
This isn’t relevant in all circumstances, but because gifts are often given in group settings, they also are communication about where the recipient stands relative to others. This is a phenomenon that parents of multiple and competitive children are well aware of. The scientific name for it is “equipollence” – you may not get the same thing or spend the same amount of money on gifts given to multiple people— but you want them to have roughly the same relative force, power, or validity.
I will never forget the Christmas in which my former in-laws got their son the usual bounty of high end gifts – a ski jacket, a stereo, a new car, I actually don’t really remember what specifically he got, but good stuff – and I got some Christmas cookies in a recycled coffee can. The contrast was stark, not just with the gifts others unwrapped under the tree, but with what I’d received from them in previous years. (And not for nothing, what I’d gotten for them – reciprocity is important in gift giving.) Of course I didn’t make a fuss, but I was hurt, and I wondered what I’d done to so severely plummet in my mother-in-law’s esteem. (She was the gift buyer at that time). My father-in-law got me a lovely gift a few days later, a repair that wouldn’t have happened had the lack of equipollance not been an injury.
So if you’re gifting in a group situation, assume a comparison will be made. If you’re in a situation where you really do want to buy a better gift for someone – like maybe it’s an office gift exchange and you actually only like one person who’s participating – arrange to give that gift privately. Even a perfectly fine gift can seem terrible in comparison to a totally awesome one received by someone else.
Pssst! Want to give a great gift everyone will love? Head to Alison Wonderland Jewelry and do your very thoughtful shopping.