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  • How to Give a Terrible Gift, or Seven Ways to Screw up This Season, Part 2

    How to Give a Terrible Gift, or Seven Ways to Screw up This Season, Part 2

    Last week, we learned how to suck less at gift giving, by understanding what a gift is, thinking about whether we know as much as we think we do about our intended recipients. Read part 1 here.

    Today, we'll look at some common workarounds that people attempt in gift giving season, as well as some true pitfalls to avoid. Get these wrong and you could literally end up with a sobbing mess on your hands. 


    Here we go:

    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 aren’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 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. (This is why we give it to people we don't know, like building staff.)   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 subgenre 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, and learn from your mistakes.

    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 standard for everyone else.

     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 equipollence 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.


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