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. Fucsia says:

    I appreciated the article, thank you for the info. However it would also be interesting to read a piece about what are the no-no’s AFTER a gift is given. I will give an example: my MIL got me a low quality, very cheap winter jacket that she was aware was shitty. I sincerely thanked her for that, I wore the jacket (and she saw me with the jacket many times), but the zipper broke and, in the country I live, fixing it would cost almost as much as the jacket and, besides, I really needed another, better jacket. So I decided to send the broken jacket to my sister who lives in another country where fixing it would be much cheaper, because I am environmentally conscious and would not just throw it – and my MIL should know this by now. Then I bought a really good quality jacket and she saw me wearing that and did a whole interrogation section about the jacket, what happened to the other one, why I did not fix it, blablabla. She always notices when I am wearing something new and it makes me uncomfortable that she pays so much attention to that. Now, question: if you give a gift, do you have any right whatsoever to ask anything about its fate? How are we suppose to react to this kind of situation?

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Fucsia

      Have you spoken with your partner about their mother? This may be something that your partner needs to address, as making the owner of a gift feel guilty is definitely unkind.

      Grace

  2. Deb says:

    Wondering how to handle situation: I started a collection of Willow Tree figurines for my daughter many years ago. I add to the collection and mark certain times such as graduation, special accomplishments, etc. I also give her a Willow Tree angel every Christmas. My daughter is currently in a relationship with a very nice young man who’s Mom married a very wealthy man. Long story short, I just found out that the other Mom purchased the entire Willow Tree Nativity Set for my daughter at a cost of $400. I realize that the price is out of my range but now something special between Mother & daughter has changed. Not sure how to accept this situation. My first thought is to end the tradition now that the dynamics have changed. This collection was something special between us and the move that the other Mom has made has taken the joy out of our tradition. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Deb

      I understand this must be frustrating. I think you should have a deep think about this one. If these are figurines that mean something to your daughter, it would be a shame to end something she values because another person gave her some, too. The other mother may have no idea how much this hurt you- your daughter probably doesn’t either. To stop the tradition would be hurting you both without the chance to understand each other.

      I would honestly sit down and have a talk with this other mother and explain that you greatly appreciate the gift, but that this was a special gift between the two of you and that it hurt your feelings to have someone else join that club, so to speak. Perhaps if you give her a chance to understand what this means to you, she can find a new gift area.

      Alternately, I would consider a conversation with your daughter about the collections and what they mean to you- and her. It’s possible these figurines don’t represent the same thing to her as they do to you- and perhaps this is a moment to find a new tradition to start together at this more adult stage of her life. I know moments like this are difficult, but the connection between the two of you is what’s most important, so I would push through the awkwardness and have the talk with your daughter to see how she feels. The goal shouldn’t be to guilt her into continuing or telling the other mom to back off, but instead to communicate how special this tradition was to you and to see what it meant to her. It’s possible this could open a new door entirely for your relationship to start something new.

      Grace

  3. Fucsia says:

    Thanks for your answer, Grace. It has always been like this in nearly ten years of relationship. She always tries to make me feel guilty for not being as perfect as she is and making me feel indebted to her by doing things for me that I by no means asked for nor needed in first place. This time my partner told her off by sms and she apologized, but she never learns…so the solution I found is to keep our interaction to the bare minimum.

  4. Ellie says:

    I had a couple of things I wanted for Christmas, and my dad and my mum’s boyfriend asked, so I told them both the same thing along with a couple of other things. My mum knew what they both got me, and just said that they got me the same gift! I don’t know what to do, as Dad hates Mum’s boyfriend! Ellie

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Ellie

      I think it’s best to just say thank you and make due with the double gift. In the future, tell them each different things to avoid any overlap ;)

      Grace

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