Modern Etiquette: Gift The Right Gift (And Dealing With the Wrong Ones)

Illustration by Anna Emilia

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be talking about gifts- a lot. This time of year can gross me out a little with all the product talk, but I find it’s helpful to bring things back to the basic sentiment of the season: celebrating the ones you love. To that end, we’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on ways celebrate people without buying things, making things with your own hands and sharing tips from pros that will help you gift more thoughtfully (and cost effectively). But before we start making or thinking about gifts, I think it’s important to think about the actual people we’re celebrating. What makes the best gift for them? I find more often than not, people get stuck on what they would want or what they would want that person to have, rather than considering what means most to that person. I think, at the end of the day, a smaller, more meaningful gift, is way more important to someone than a big showy gift that doesn’t have much meaning for the person receiving it. So the goal of this post is to share tips for gifting thoughtfully and to get us in the right frame of mind to celebrate the people we love in the best way possible (by remembering to celebrate who THEY are what THEY love).

I. A gift is not always required….

A find a lot of people feel pressured into getting everyone gifts (i.e.: all members of a sports team, co-workers in a large office, etc.). That can lead to gift buying (and money spending) that doesn’t necessarily need to happen. A genuine, heartfelt holiday card can go a long way toward serving the same purpose of a gift (celebrating or thanking someone) and can be a much better answer when you don’t know enough about the person you “have” to give a gift to.

II. …But a thank you note is.

If you’ve received a gift from someone, a thank you note is a given. Whether or not you liked the gift- or the recipient- a thank you should be sent. Someone asked me online the other day if they ‘had’ to thank someone for a gift that was given by someone they didn’t like (who possibly didn’t buy the gift with their own money) and it surprised me. Whether or not you love the gift or the giver, a thank you should always be sent for a thoughtful gift. [If you are the unfortunate recipient of some sort of rogue rude gift or gag gift, I don’t think a thank you applies. If someone goes out of their way to be a jerk and send you something that’s crude or inappropriate a thank you isn’t what you need to send- perhaps a letter explaining why it was upsetting would be best.]

III. The most important thing is to REMEMBER THE RECIPIENT

The biggest mistake people make when approaching holiday gifts is to buy what THEY would like, rather than what the recipient would like. Does that mean you have to support causes you’re morally opposed to or companies you don’t like? Of course not. But it does mean that just because you think someone should be dressing a certain way, you buy them clothes that suit your taste. If your brother really loves sports t-shirts, for example, buying him a fancy suit jacket because you think it would look good on him, isn’t the most thoughtful thing to do. If you care about someone enough to get them a gift, consider what they would like. You can put a spin on it that suits your beliefs, etc., but don’t forget the person entirely. For example: If your sister is a huge fan of steak dinners and you’re a vegetarian, you don’t have to put yourself in a position where you are ordering meat from a fancy delivery catalog. Instead you could buy her a nice set of knives (perfect for cutting steak or vegetables!), a gift certificate to her favorite restaurant, a cookbook that includes recipes for her favorite food or even some gourmet spices that would pair well with her meal of choice. And in a reverse example, if your dear friends are vegan but you know nothing about which vegan gift baskets are the best, consider something that would align with their passions, like sponsoring an animal on a no-kill rescue farm, etc. Something like that shows you considered the person and their interests while finding a way to buy something you feel good about.

IV. Gifts should not be tit for tat, period.

I believe VERY strongly that gifts should not be a contest or an obligation. I don’t give gifts in order to receive one in return and would hope people don’t do the same. That said, if there’s a tradition of gift-giving and someone seems to skip you each time, then perhaps it’s time for a conversation about the state of the friendship, etc. But at basic level, gifts should never have to be matched in quantity or cost-point. They should be matched only with genuine celebration of the other person. So if someone surprises you at your door or your desk with a gift, and you don’t have one in return, the most thoughtful thing you can do is to warmly thank them and follow up with a heart-felt thank you note. Nothing makes that situation worse than someone saying, “Oh nooo! I feel so bad, I didn’t get you anything.” That only highlights the gap in gifts, so instead smile and say thank you and how much you appreciate the gift.

I find people often get hung up on price tags. You make someone a homemade batch of cookies (hopefully their favorite kind) and they end up giving you a gift certificate to your favorite restaurant for $200. Guilt sets in and you wonder if you should have spent more, gifted more extravagantly, etc. There are two problems to consider here:

-An expensive gift should not mean the recipient is expected to reciprocate. Sometimes people with larger gift budgets truly enjoy buying luxury items or expensive items for people. If you’re comfortable receiving it and don’t feel pressured to return it, thank them and enjoy the kind item someone purchased for you.

-When giving an expensive gift, consider the recipient. Some people don’t mind- and would love- to get a luxury gift from someone who has the gift budget to provide one. But some people feel as if it’s a flaunting of income or pointing out an economic situation the recipient is unhappy with or wouldn’t like discussed. If you can tell your gift is making someone uncomfortable, consider dialing things back the next year. You don’t need to apologize if your gift was well-intentioned and thoughtful, but if you can tell someone feels uncomfortable or feels the need to save up to reciprocate, consider having a heart-to-heart about the gift and discuss perhaps a type of gift or even a budget cap on gifts (If you’re the recipient, it’s ok to bring this up thoughtfully and express appreciation for the gift but also express discomfort with being given something so extravagant each year. Simply stress the gift that is their friendship and the desire to focus on gifts that are less about the object and perhaps more about spending time together.). When I was in college we agreed, among friends, not to spend more than $25 on gifts for each other. For some people that was a lot and for some, not enough. But it was a number we all worked with and it made everyone feel comfortable and definitely made us all focus on the message of the gift rather than the price point.

V. Belated gifts: sometimes better late than never

I have a family member that always sends gifts wayy after the holidays. I’ve gotten used to it and it doesn’t bother me anymore. I used to take it personally and then realized that it was just the way they functioned and the gifts were always thoughtful, so I was happy to see that the message was still clear, even if a bit delayed.

If you’re late sending gifts, just send a simple “So sorry for the delay!” along with a thoughtful gift or card. It’s better to apologize for something that’s slightly delayed than to not send it and have a conversation about why a gift was never sent in the first place. Better late than never (without reason)….

VI. Double Gifts (The forgotten Christmas babies)

I have two cousins whose birthdays are on Christmas and New Years. Every year they get one present that doubles as both their Christmas and birthday gift. I always feel bad for them and, while it’s of course nice to get a gift at all, I’ve always felt like it should be acknowledged in some way that they have a birthday as well as a holiday to celebrate. If finances are an issue than of course cost-conscious or homemade gifts are always a great idea, but if your objection to buying 2 gifts is more of a principled stance, it’s time to put your grudge aside and allow your loved ones to have both a birthday and holiday gift- just like the rest of us every year.

VII. No shame in your wishlist game

If you have no idea what to buy for someone but it’s a given you’re getting them a gift each year (ie: nieces, nephews, in-laws, etc.), there’s no harm in asking for a wishlist. Especially when it comes to people you don’t have direct contact with often (or children who can be hard to buy for at certain ages), feel free to ask people what they’d like. I did this for years with my cousins when they were young and they didn’t feel like talking to an older cousin like me (oh, teenagers) and if it ensures they’re happy with what they get, there’s no harm. But if it’s for someone you should know well (ie: your spouse, best friend, etc.) consider paying closer attention to the things they talk about rather than requesting a list each year.

VIII. Duplicate gifts + Re-gifting + Exchanges

Sometimes you get the same thing twice- double yay! If you need two blenders, keep them and rejoice. But if you don’t, there’s nothing wrong with returning it. However, you don’t need to tell the gifter than you’re doing that. If you’re keeping one of them, they don’t need to know if that’s the white blender they gave them or Aunt Sheila gave you.

If you want to re-gift something there are two things to consider:

-Is this someone who could possibly know about the original gift? For example, if Grandma Pat gave you a reindeer sweater and you re-gift it to her other granddaughter, she might recognize it. So re-gift outside of the family if you must (or outside of your friend group).

-Is the gift worth re-gifting and is it in great/new condition? If you wouldn’t want the gift you received (I once received a torn-up book that had nothing to do with any of my personal interests and wasn’t a collector’s edition, etc. It was just a busted book about space travel. Random) don’t pawn it off on someone else. Donate it if possible. However, if it’s a perfectly good item you just can’t or don’t want to use, and you know someone else it would be perfect for, feel free to re-gift. The biggest question is always how to handle a missing gift the giver notices being absent from your home. If you’re not ready to answer that question, re-consider the re-gifting.

-Exchanging: Straight-forward exchanges (wrong size, wrong color, etc.) are fairly easy to explain and handle. But exchanging something for a totally different object may bring up a different discussion. I think that if someone includes a gift receipt, that’s a message that says, “Please exchange this if it’s not right, I’d like you to have something you enjoy.” I don’t think you need to say anything about it to the giver unless they comment on it. If someone says, “Oh, is that the sweater I bought you…in blue?” You can say, “Yes! I loved it so much but I prefer blue so I exchanged it for this color instead. Thank you again, I love wearing it!”.

Margaret

How would you handle a situation with siblings where everyone is at different income levels, and there is “competition” over gifting for parents? This is a weird situation in my life. Thanks in advance for any advice!

Grace Bonney

margaret

i’m sorry to hear about that- competition to “win” a parental gift is no fun :(

i think this is a 2-tactic situation:

1. talk to your siblings- if you can have an effective heart-to-heart about how this competition isn’t helpful for anyone, that would be best. if not, skip to the next idea…

2. talk to you parents- first, ask yourself if your parents seem to mind or even notice that the gift cost is different. if they don’t mind, just drop it. it may not be worth opening the can of worms that is a sibling battle. but if they DO seem to mind, you should have a heart-to-heart with them about how you’re concern about their reception of your gifts. i’m pretty sure that most parents would appreciate any gift that comes from the heart, regardless of price.

this is primarily a siblings issue and hopefully a tactful conversation can stop some of the competition. i’m pretty sure parents can tell the different between a gift that is all about the price tag and showing off and one that is all about picking something thoughtful and appropriate.

grace

Sarah

What a great timely reminder of what gift-giving is really about – celebrating the ones you love. Thank you!

Sidra

What do you think about returning gifts when you haven’t received a gift receipt? I always get items from a certain family member that are quite nice, but are never something I want, can use, or can even re-gift. I would really like to just return them and get store credit or whatnot to get something I’ll actually use, but I’m thinking I might just have to throw away/donate these expensive gifts :(

I’ve already hinted to this person multiple times that I really prefer no gift at all, or a small, practical gift if they MUST give me something… but they just keep giving me random, useless, needlessly expensive stuff. Oh well.

Karen

Don’t get caught up in this “competition”. There is no competition. Your parents have known you, all of you, all your lives and they know what you do for a living. They don’t care about the gifts, they care about the person you have become. Give from your heart. Give them the gift of time spent with you, they will love it. My two cents as the Mother of three daughters.

Shannon

Especially like the return/exchange tips. Reminds me of the time I put a gift from my mother-in-law into a yard sale and she stopped by the sale…bad me!

Monica

I only buy gifts for my children, their spouses, my grandchild and granddoggie. I also give gifts to people who help me a lot during the year as I am disabled. I don’t expect anything in return from my helpers. I buy gifts throughout the year as I see them and think “That would be perfect for ____!” I couldn’t care less if anyone gives me anything for Christmas. They give me their time and energy during the year and that is more than enough for me.

DNA

Great article! I would also love to have some information on giving gifts to teachers… it always stresses me out.

Kristen

Thank you for this post. I’m guilty of many of the above points. It was such a great reminder of this season!

maddie

Gifts are very personal, and I approach each one for each person differently. When giving a present, price isn’t important to me, I will spend as little or as much if the gift is right. My main goal is that 20 years from now, the person will still have what you gave them and they remember the moment they opened it – like it’s an inside joke between you two. My brother just turned 24-years-old and he’s still in the college mentality. His gift from me to him was a white hankerchief with the words “Dapper Dud” written on it. It was the perfect thing for a young man transitioning for college to the real world.

Great post, Grace!

Letty

Thank you so much for mentioning December birthdays! It’s always a drag to get a double gift when all I wanted was a great birthday card and a slice of cake.

Angela

I really enjoyed this post and have just devoured several links to your other gifting and etiquette posts. I’d love to see more of those! Very thought provoking and a great read for me on a Wednesday morning. Thanks, from someone who likes to do it “the right way”.

Louisa

Point V. – do you mean ‘within reason’?

Point VI my mother and husband are both mid December, and both hate it. Everybody else gets two presents a year so why not them?! They understand if it’s a really big expensive item, but otherwise it’s a definite no-no!

As for thank you notes – I much prefer to thank somebody in person, and we usually have a rule of opening gifts with the giver (if possible) so we can thank them properly.

Aidel.K

I really like these etiquette posts. Several years ago our parents asked my husband and me to send only “consumable” gifts. They are in the downsizing years. It has been challenging to meet that request (though I completely understand it), but I’m really happy they were able to tell us. It’s much more rewarding to send something that’s wanted. It helped me to see that it’s okay to have a conversation about gifts without looking demanding and critical.

Jacqueline

Excellent post! To respond to DNA’s comment regarding teacher gifts: In my six years of teaching art to elementary school students, my favorite gift is a handmade card or artwork. I don’t expect gifts, so I’m always amazed and grateful, but certainly not anticipating anything. I know my classroom teacher colleagues feel the same. Public school teachers also have to adhere to state etiquette standards, and can’t receive gifts over a certain amount. So gifts that a teacher can use for her/his classroom (like a book for the classroom library) are always a great idea. That way the gift becomes special for both the teacher and the students.

Hope this helps!

Veronica

This is great. More people need to realize: “If you’ve received a gift from someone, a thank you note is a given.”
I rarely, if ever, get thank you notes. Was always taught to give them growing up. I’m lucky if I get an email or a text. I’m not even in a very young age group: I’m 32. Makes me rethink giving gifts :(

Also, what do you do if someone gives you an obviously regifted gift? One year, a friend that I never had a habit of exchanging gifts with went out of her way to give me a really horrible gift: an ugly, nonfunctioning, broken electronic tree ornament. I don’t even buy Christmas trees! The second she left, it went straight in the trash. Should I have called it out?

Grace Bonney

Veronica

If you truly feel the friend knew it wasn’t working (and that it wasn’t an appropriate gift) I would consider saying, “(Friend name), Thanks so much for the sweet gift. Unfortunately it looks like the ornament isn’t working. Do you by any chance have the receipt so I could return it for a functioning version?” I have a feeling that would lead to a conversation that will let you talk about how it wasn’t perhaps the best gift for you…

Grace

Veronica

That seems like a good idea! It would really be an interesting discussion. Yeah, she didn’t seem to have an idea of how the object worked to begin with. She seemed pretty confounded by it. It wasn’t complex technologically speaking. It just seemed like a complete handoff, especially because we never exchanged gifts. I found it kind of insulting.

Grace Bonney

Veronica

It may have been, but in the interest of keeping the friendship, I’d perhaps open the conversation door so she can possibly apologize or explain…

Grace :)

Lindsy

As an English professor, I love the idea of teacher “gifts” being books for the classroom library. My students occasionally give me gifts, usually coffee based off my well documented caffeine addiction. The best gift, however, one I still have in my office, is the parody Christmas jingle some students wrote in a theory class our majors take. It’s a hard class by design, and these students were celebrating both being done for the term and thanking me for having fun while also making them work for it. This whole list is just smart etiquette.

Meemsles

Hey Margaret! I’m not sure you’ll ever see this, but just in case: my brother and I always think through gifts for my mother together. Sometimes we give the gift together (so one year we bought her a beautiful amber ring with an inscription on the inside) and sometime we just gift in a coordinated way (so I gave her a laptop that I’d used for a couple of years and was not longer fast enough for me to do my job, but was much better than her computer, while my brother gave her a brand new wireless keyboard and trackpad to make it feel a bit more exciting than just hand me down computer). We have vastly different incomes but we always figure out a way to make it work. There’s no competition, my brother and I enjoy figuring out what to do, and I think my mum really loves that her kids work together on getting her a thoughtful gift. We don’t coordinate on everything, of course, but the general spirit of being in the same team is there. Maybe you could actually turn this into a thing that helps to build your sibling relationship rather than damaging it? :)

Heather P.

Last year, I saw a post online of a “wish-list” an elementary school teacher sent home with her students on what to get her for Christmas. It included gift card requests for high-end shopping and dinners, which kinds of candy she refused to eat, and what kinds of scarves she let grace her presence. The tactless-ness made me sick to my stomach. But for the rest of us teachers who aren’t such greedy bastards…

To respond to DNA’s question:

If your child is in elementary school, or even middle school, consider having your child make something for the teacher (a card, picture, ornament, etc.). It will be inexpensive, thoughtful, and teachers often appreciate homemade gifts from students more than a mug (of which I guarantee you they have dozens). If you want to take things further than that, consider a small-token gift card to Starbucks, or better yet, a craft store or office store so they can buy supplies for the classroom. Many teachers pay out of their own pocket for extra school supplies, so any help with that is usually greatly appreciated on their tiny class budgets, and even tinier incomes!

If your child is in high school, consider the gift card to an office supply store, or some other useful small gift, but make sure your child signs the card. Most high school teachers don’t expect gifts (mostly because, unlike elementary school, your child has several teachers now), but if a teacher has made an impact on your child, a small gift is usually fine. Also consider people like coaches, tutors, or other staff that help your child out throughout the year – anyone you and your child feel deserve a heart-felt thank you. If your child hates their History teacher, don’t feel obligated to get them anything. They’ll never know.

If you’re in college, make VERY sure to check with your professor about giving gifts. Many colleges do not allow faculty to accept gifts of ANY kind from students, and they can even get fired for it. I didn’t know that until I started teaching at a university myself! If you want to give a gift, and it’s okay with your school, then keep it small and something they can use (I’m a big fan of gift cards to bookstores, office supply stores, or local coffee shops…but alas, I’m not allowed to ever get them…them’s the rules!).

Hope that helps!

Julia A

I have a question about thank you notes. I’ve typically written a thank you note if I wasn’t able to properly thank them, in person, at the time I opened the gift (i.e. it was mailed, it was opened after a party, etc.) and/or if they are unreachable by phone. My great-Aunt Bernice always gets a thank you card, but I typically call my grandmother on the phone (she appreciates hearing our voices – and seeing our faces if we use facetime; she also has a tendency to misplace mail).

Grace Bonney

julia

is your question whether or not the thank you call is ok in place of a written thank you? i think it’s totally fine. the point is to follow up with a thank you after the moment you receive something, so whether it’s a call, an in-person visit or a note that’s a-ok :)

grace

Dawn

So, this just happened! Merry Christmas! I have been asking for a kindle paper white 3g for a couple years. Last year I got the kindle fire. I don’t know why, I think my husband thought that getting me the most expensive one out at the time would be better. So I felt guilty about not being pleased with the gift and tried to like it. It eventually wound up in a drawer. You see, I really wanted to be able to read outside, download books without being “connected”, and to read at night without a light on. I have explained this. Ok, so I just opened my gifts and I got the paper white but the Wi-Fi one. So I said I would be exchanging it for the 3g. And on top of that, I got a much needed coat that was in purple. I looked up what colors it came in and black was an option, so I told my husband I would like to exchange the coat for the black one. The whole time, I am feeling guilty, because it seems we go through this every year. He got very angry, and told me that he would never get me anything again. So my question is how should I have handled this? And how do I fix this where we are both happy? I thought that exchanging colors was OK.

Amy Azzarito

Hi Dawn – I’m so sorry to hear that this happened to you. It sounds like it was stressful. I think sometimes the timeline of events can play a lot in how people feel – so be sure to immediately thank and then later or the next day tell the gift giver that you thought about it and maybe another another color or another model and would they mind if you exchanged it.

In this case, I think you should just reassure your husband that you appreciated the gesture – maybe telling him that you appreciate that he noticed (or remembered that you needed a new coat) and that you loved the style he picked out so much that you wanted to get the chance to wear it a lot. I think mentioning the things you like about the gift – the style, the fact that he got you a Kindle and you enjoy reading on it – could go a long way into making it feel better. But once you’ve tried to assure him that you appreciate the gesture, just let it go. Then perhaps, when you’re both in front of other people, you could comment on his thoughtfulness – I think praising our partners in front of others is extremely important. So say something like – “Jim, was amazing this year. He got me a coat I needed and I love my new Kindle…”

AND THEN… let yourself off the hook. :) It sounds like you did appreciate his gifts and all you can do is do your best to communicate that feeling and then the ball is in his court. Good luck! xoAmy

Cathy

I was offered a gift of an evening at the theatre by a girl I used to go to School with and with whom I had rekindled after 20 years apart. And then, she texted me tonight saying: Oh! Mind if I take that back, it’s my friend’s 30th and I’d like to gift it to her!! – I was pretty gobsmacked, but I gave it back to her, and told her to have fun! She said she’ll treat me to a drink, but needless to say I’LL BE BUSY that night! Right?

karen jackson

to Dawn…. you have my empathy. I have a TomTom downstairs in the office my husband gave me 2 years ago. Since all our gifts to each other at one time clashed like the TomTom GPS disaster, we agreed several years ago to give each other a list with photos from catalogs if possible, stores where they could be purchased or phone numbers to order the item (even from Wal Mart). The photo is the key even if it is a photograph! We put more on the list than we expect to receive. Altho, most years there is a TomTom here or there, the energy has been defused. We both are happier.

Susie

My husband bought me a very expensive diamond ring which I made clear I didn’t want or need. Now he’s made it even worse by letting me know he doesn’t think he’s getting his money’s worth! He gives the impression I need to “earn” this gift. I hAve no interest in ever wearing it again. Should I just tell him to return it ?

mark

My ex wqas buying me gifts then taking them back, just recently i was brought an expensive birthday present, we have a row a few weeks later and she requests it bk obviousley i gave it bk, but also i was paying for an item i purchased from her catalouge the item is nearly paid off but she says it still belongs to her??? can someone claryfy for me do we give to take back or is it her being spiteful?

Grace Bonney

Hi Mark

Unless they’re family heirlooms, I don’t think gifts should be returned just because a relationship ends. Gifts are given as an expression of appreciation or love and shouldn’t be held as ransom.

Grace

wisata bromo

The gifts are very personal, and I approached each one is different for each person. When giving a gift, the price is not important to me, I would spend a little ‘or a lot if the right gift. My main goal is that 20 years from now, people will still have what you give them and their memories when they opened – as if it was a joke between the two of you. My sister just turned 24 years of age and is still in college mentality. His gift from me to him was a white handkerchief with the words “Dapper Dud” written on it. It ‘was the perfect thing for a young man to study the transition to the real world.

Pam

What is proper etiquette for employees sharing a gift basket received from another company. Say a small company of 16 employees receives a basket full of packed food and snacks and 4-5 of those employees take unopened packages and keep them to take home leaving the other employees with nothing?

Grace Bonney

Pam

I think that should be the job of the HR manager or boss to decide distribution. If it’s too late, perhaps it’s a good time to discuss it with the boss or HR manager. It’s an issue than can cause tension among staff so it’s definitely worth bringing up.

Grace

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