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!”.

  1. Teresa says:

    Hi,
    I was hoping you could give me some advice. Every year I spend a lot of money on presents for my little cousins. I m 22 and they re 3,8,10, and 12. My aunt in law refuses to get me anything or even appreciate it. I am not looking for anything expensive. Even a $5 gift would do or a thank you. But alas no. She acts like I am supposed to do it, like it s my job or something. I have to get my cousins something because I get my other little cousins gifts. My other aunts and uncles appreciate that I do this to encourage christmas spirit for my little cousins. They acknowledge with a thank you or a $5 coffee gift card or other small presents. It s not about how much money I spent. I willingly save for Christmas all year, but a little appreciation or thank you would be nice.

    it would be unfair to my cousins if I didn t get them anything because their mother doesn t know what appreciation is. I would like some advice on m y situation.

    Also, my aunt once asked her why she didn’t get me anything and told her that she should because I always give her kids presents. Her response was that they were poor. I know that they get checks from the government. Enough for her to spend it buying gold jewelry for herself and hundreds on Coach purses, not to mention her shopping sprees $80 dresses etc… All of which she shows off to us after. She never gets anything for her kids. She takes them to the women centre to ask for donated clothes for them. I know that money isn’t an issue for her. It’s her unwillingness to spend it on anyone not her.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Hi Teresa

      I’m sorry that’s happening. That’s definitely a frustrating situation if she doesn’t show any appreciation. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “It would be unfair to my cousins if I didn’t get them anything because their mother doesn’t know what appreciation is.”

      If you want to, and can afford to, give your cousins gifts, then I think you should continue out of love for them. But if they’re unappreciative as well, I don’t think there’s an obligation to continue. Gift giving doesn’t have to be tit-for-tat, but people do need to acknowledge and appreciate your gifts. Some of your cousins are too young for that yet perhaps, but as they grow up, if they display the same lack of care and appreciation as their mother, I think you shouldn’t feel pressure to continue.

      Grace

  2. Sue says:

    My daughter has been dating a man for 9 months now. She is a single mom with children 3 and 6. The mother of her boyfriend gave my daughter a Michael Kors purse and gave her daughters ugg boots. This does not sit well with me. I believe this in my opinion is “over the top” my daughter did take the boots back!! Can I please have some opinions?? Thanks!

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Sue

      I’m sorry if those gifts feel over the top for you. My two cents would be- how do the gifts feel for your daughter? It’s possible she found someone who just simply likes to gift generously. If she’s comfortable with it, it may be worth letting her enjoy the gifts and her happiness.

      Grace

  3. Giovanna Bochi says:

    I gave Christmas presents to my 13 and 9 year old nephews. Their mother returned the gifts to me saying that they don’t fit and for me to return them and get the correct size. I’m offended. This seems to be more than bad etiquette. What do you think?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Giovanna

      If she’s got a lot on her plate and doesn’t have the time to return them with her busy schedule, and she asked politely, it’s not totally out of left field. But if she didn’t make any mention of that and wasn’t polite, than I think it’s ok to just give her the gift receipt and ask her to return them at her convenience.

      Grace

      1. Giovanna Bochi says:

        Thank you! Good advice!

  4. Linda says:

    A few of us gave our knitting instructor an expensive yarn winder for Christmas. She told us she didn’t want to use it until she got into her new location…….which was earlier this week. Should we now get her yet another gift for her re-opening?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Linda

      I think some flowers or a nice card would be nice, but it’s definitely not required :) Showing up to support the opening sounds like the best idea.

      Grace

  5. Brett says:

    I gave my sister a framed print that, although I really liked it, she told me several times that she did not like it, including when she opened it in front of a group of people. I recently asked if she still had it because I wanted to give her a new print of her choosing for the existing frame. She told me she no longer had it. I am certain she threw it away. I am offended and sent her an email that if she was going to throw away a present I gave her, that I would prefer to have her return it to me.

    I would like to know your thoughts on this.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Brett

      I think you’re in the right. That sounds incredibly rude of her to say she doesn’t like it in front of other people. I’m sorry that happened. I think you spoke your mind, and there’s not much more to do after that. If she doesn’t respect your gift and your generosity, perhaps it’s time to ask her what she wants for a gift if she’s not open to your interpretation of what she’d like? If she’s still rude then, perhaps she doesn’t need a gift if she can’t be appreciative.

      Grace

  6. eB says:

    Dear Grace,
    You helped me with an earlier question. I have another question. I work in a very small office. There are just three of us. It was my second Christmas at this company, last year I was so new that I was not included in the bonuses that were given to us by the people we work for. Every year two of the people/families we work for send delicious and very expensive food gifts. Think gourmet meats, cheeses, etc. (The other people give monetary bonuses to us.) My boss is a vegetarian and my other coworker has several health issues like IBS that prevent him from enjoying the food. In my thank you note would it be alright for me to mention that I was able to enjoy the food exclusively since my coworkers are on health and diet restrictions? My family and I loved the bonus gourmet food – but I was thinking of a gracious and gentle way to let them know that my boss & coworker, who have worked the longest and the hardest for them, cannot enjoy their gift. It would be more equitable in the future for another type of bonus to be given that ALL three of us could enjoy, and perhaps this could explain the situation while thanking them at the same time. What do you think?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      eB

      How close of a relationship does this client have with you and your boss/co-worker? If it’s close and friendly it may be worth mentioning (along with a very kind thank you note). But if it’s not close, it may damage the client relationship so I would just let it be…

      Grace

      1. eB says:

        My boss & co-worker have run this office & program for 8 years and are very well acquainted and on friendly terms with the gourmet food givers, and they work very hard for them. I do want my thank you be kind and very grateful & appreciative. Yet… if there was a delicate way to mention the fact that the main intended recipients can’t enjoy their generous gifts for practical reasons. This is seriously hundreds of dollars worth of gourmet meats & cheeses to a lactose intolerant vegetarian and an IBS & Diviticulitis sufferer. Every year they have been passing the food on to other people. This is the first year it has been given to me rather than a combination of random people. It’s a shame, really.

  7. eB says:

    Sample::: Dear Mr. & Mrs. Jones,
    Thank you very much for the gourmet steaks, ham and bacon and the Chicago style deep dish pizzas. They are incredibly delicious and our family is positively spoiled by your generosity – having received the lion’s share since Kenny’s intestinal condition has worsened this year and Betty is more fully committed than ever to her healthy vegetarian lifestyle. I am savoring the goodies and appreciate your thoughtfulness! ::::

    I appreciate your honest opinion. And also your time. -eB

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      eB

      I think this sounds like a nice way to let them know.

      Grace

  8. Joe says:

    Hi, I’m not sure if this is the correct forum for this question, but here goes:
    My mother asked me specifically what my three year old son wanted for Christmas, and I told her, a scooter, cost $30. I told her which store sells it, which is located within walking distance of her house. What does she get him? A bunch of other junky stuff from schlock stores. I didn’t voice my displeasure, just accepted her gifts to him, eventually buying the scooter myself. I don’t want to sound ungrateful or unappreciative, in fact, I would rather she simply spend more time with her grandson and save her money, but why ask what to get my son if you have no intention in getting it?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Joe

      I’m sorry that happened, especially when she asked specifically. I think an honest course of action would have been to ask for gift receipts for the other gifts and then use that money to get the scooter. I would sit down with your mother, politely thank her for the gifts, but ask about why she asked about the scooter if she didn’t get it? It may have been an issue of money or perhaps something happened at that store when she went to get it? I would give her a chance to explain, listen with an open heart and go from there. If it truly is that she didn’t care, then I would just refrain from telling her specific gifts so you’re not counting on her to bring that one item to your child.

      Grace

  9. Chloe says:

    Hi Grace,

    I have a question regarding gift etiquette and you love your advice.
    In my groups of friends we usually pool money to get a cake and gift when people have a birthday and have a meal together to celebrate.

    It was recently my birthday and my friends didn’t get me a gift, just some mini cupcakes. It made me feel really unliked since in comparison, only a month before, we had 2 birthdays and those friends received really thoughtful gifts. I don’t understand why I was the exception to the trend, should I bring it up with them or just let it go?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Chloe

      I’m sorry that happened, that is indeed odd if you have a precedent of including gifts. I would bring it up with them thoughtfully and ask if everything is ok or if perhaps financially it was better for everyone if gifts were left out going forward?

      Grace

  10. Nina says:

    Hi Grace,

    This is not holiday-related, but my boyfriend of a few months has invited me to his close friend’s surprise birthday party – a friend whom I have never met before.
    While helping him shop for his own gift to him, I was debating on whether it would be strange to get him a gift as well or if it would be frowned upon to come empty handed.
    Should I get a small, generic gift for his friend? Or would some nice balloons and snacks be more appropriate?

    Many thanks,
    Nina

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Nina

      I think some balloons and snacks would be appropriate- helping out is a nice gesture for someone you haven’t met who is connected by a relatively new significant other.

      Grace :)

  11. Anna says:

    Awesome article to read and Great tips.I Love it….Thank you so much…

  12. Dayna says:

    Nice article and Great tips…Thank you..I Love it…

  13. Alina says:

    Great article to read and very Nice tips…….

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