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? Would one study have found that we spent $9 billion last year on unwanted gifts, because more than half of us report receiving at least one gift we disliked?
It’s true, we also populate these last-chance depots and “stuff” graveyards with items we purchased for ourselves for no longer valid reasons– self-gifting gone wrong is another story – but for the most part, the items we own and wish we didn’t came to us by way of someone else who meant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.
It turns out that there are ways to avoid this sorry outcome. I began to think about this when I started this 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 this later.) Are you communicating a message you think the receiver 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 anyway – 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 recipient – 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.
Check back here on Monday to read the second half of how to give a terrible gift. Sneak preview: if you're running to get a gift card or a cash envelope, you will want to wait until you read the rest of this story. If you're gifting to improve someone's life, do NOT make a purchase until next week. A couple of days can't hurt you and could really hurt someone else. And if you're giving your gift in a crowd, you will definitely want to see the rest of this story.
Success! Feel free to
or head to your