How to Give Gifts
A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. This essay is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And I know, I know, I’m a couple of weeks late on this one… but still, everyone should know how to give gifts.
There are two parts to this, in my humble opinion. Part 1 is why you give a gift. And Part 2 is how to give a good gift.
You remember when you were young, and (if you were lucky) at Christmas everyone in your family got gifts for everyone else? That was awesome, right? You’d get a bunch of presents each year, it was great, and it was a lovely bonding moment. And then what happened? You all got older, and as you started actually buying the gifts you started to realize that you were all just… trading money.
This is a big realization and frankly a sign of adulthood — when you finally come to the conclusion that you buying a $20 gift and your friend/family member buying a $20 gift, then exchanging them, is really just kind of an exercise in gambling $20.
Then everyone stops giving gifts and just gets cards instead. The magic is gone.
But you still get gifts for some people. The very close people, your immediate family and good friends, your spouse or significant other, the people who make a difference in your life. And your gift preferences change over time. When you’re a kid, socks are a punishment. When you’re an adult, nice socks are a luxury. Gifts never really go out of style, it’s just that what you want and the people to whom you give gifts both change over the years.
But getting gifts for people is always a headache, isn’t it? It’s always an exercise in trying to figure out the other person, trying to put yourself in their head and decipher what they want. It’s hard. Because if you’re not getting what they want, let’s be honest, the gift loses a lot of value. I know it’s supposed to be the thought that counts, but that ain’t the reality. The reality is that if someone gives me an ugly sweater, it’s getting returned.
If we take all of this together, it’s easy to see why we give gifts: it’s to show appreciation and connection by providing someone with an item of value. If the gift doesn’t show appreciation, doesn’t reinforce connection, or doesn’t provide value, it’s not a good gift.
With that in mind, there are a few things about gifts that should be understood before we move on:
- Gifts should be things that people are unlikely to buy for themselves. Novelty makes it fun.
- Gifts should be personalized whenever possible.
- Gifts should be things that people want, not necessarily things that they need.
We give gifts to show appreciation. It’s a tangible expression that we value someone else enough to pay attention to them, figure them out, and put some of our hard-earned resources into making them happier. You don’t get gifts for people you hate. You get gifts for people you love — or at least people you need.
We give gifts to show connection. We don’t give them to everyone, it’s just the people who are close to us, who make a difference, who are part of our tribe who get a gift from us. Gifts used in this way are a kind of social glue; if you don’t believe that, watch what happens when you cut someone off from the gift list. You start to drift apart.
So why gifts? We give gifts to people we value, who value us, and to whom we wish to remain connected in life. Every single culture on Earth has some sort of gift-giving tradition, and it’s always centered around these concepts.
How to Give a Good Gift
Let’s go back to the concept of “wanted, not needed.” It’s important to keep this central in mind when choosing a gift, because people can get kind of weird if they receive gifts that they need more than they want. It may not be immediately obvious, but it’s very easy to give offense when giving gifts.
For example, let’s say that your gift is that you pay someone’s rent for a month rather than getting them a laptop or similar high-dollar item. You’re playing with fire here because the implication that the receiver might take away is that you don’t think they can make rent. Unwelcome charity is like skipping down a high wire between the spiky pits of wounded pride and unwanted reciprocity.
Gifts can get us all wrapped up in pride and perceived obligations or debts. It’s just part of the game. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to simply avoid gifting necessities unless that’s what the receiver asks for. Focus instead on what a person wants, not needs. It’s called a gift, not charity, for a reason.
This puts us back in the position of trying to figure out what a person wants. There are two ways to do this: observation and request.
On the one hand, we can try to figure out what someone wants through observation. This means you have to be close enough, or in regular enough contact with them, to be able to pay attention to their life. A rule of thumb when trying to figure out a gift for someone you see often is to guide conversations to things they like to do, get them to open up about their hobbies, then match like to like when buying gifts.
For things like clothing and jewelry, the general rule is to stick to a person’s style when giving them gifts. You don’t really want to get them something that you think looks good. You want to get them something that they think looks good. This is the one that female relatives all over the world routinely forget (ugly sweater). So pay attention to what the receiver wears on a regular basis, go to the store, and try to find something that looks similar. You may not get it exactly right, but you’ll probably be very close — and at least you’ll be going to stores that have similar styles, so if they need to return the gift they’ll be in the right place.
For entertainment items like sports equipment or video games, the same rule applies. If someone is a console gamer, for example, getting them an Xbox game when their console is a Nintendo system is simply not going to work. If they like strategy games, don’t get them an RPG. If you don’t know what kind of games they like, or what any of those words I just said mean, don’t buy them games.
For consumables like food or drink, again, stick to things the person likes. If you know your friend loves cheese, by all means, get them a nice cheese. If they like red wine, get them red wine. Do not give booze to alcoholics, or meat to vegans. In food as with other gift ideas, respect is central to the process. It’s very easy to go wrong with food gifts, but the nice part is that when you get it right, you’ll get it really right.
The point is that ideally you’ll have spent enough time with the person, and know enough about their life, likes, and dislikes, that choosing a gift will actually be relatively simple.
When in doubt, send money. Everyone likes money, all the time — as long as it’s a simple money gift. Paying someone’s rent is a charity move. Giving someone a thousand dollars is just an amazing gift.
On the other hand, if you don’t know what someone wants, asking them for a list is an option. My family has a tradition where every Thanksgiving we sit down and make lists of what everyone wants for Christmas. Then we distribute the lists out to the family, and as a result it’s easy enough to be sure that you’re getting gifts that people want. It’s been a very successful method for us for years.
This strategy has a few points in its favor. For one thing, it takes the guesswork out of the whole process — you don’t have to wonder if you’re getting the right thing, which really reduces stress in the holidays. For another, getting a list gives you options — you don’t have to feel compelled to buy something super expensive, for example, if the person has listed socks in their top requests next to a shiny new laptop. And lastly this method is a good way to re-establish connections with people you value, but don’t see often.
There are a few final points to keep in mind when giving gifts:
- It’s a gift, not a loan — Never ask for a gift back. Once it leaves your hand, it belongs to other person. Period, full stop. If a thing is so special to you that you can’t bear to let it go for good, don’t give it as a gift.
- Especially for money, it’s a gift, not a loan — I’m repeating myself because this is important. Especially for money, never expect to see it again. In fact, if you ever consider giving a friend a loan, think about just making it a gift. It’ll probably work out better for everyone’s peace of mind.
- Only give what you can afford — This should go without saying, but only give within your means. Do not run up major credit card debt just to give gifts. Your friends and family would almost certainly prefer that you not bankrupt yourself. If they do want gifts at the expense of your personal finances, you need to consider whether it’s worth keeping them as friends and family in the first place!¹
- It’s not a competition — Do not try to one-up, match gift values, or give more gifts than the people with whom you are exchanging gifts. It’s not worth it, and it’s very easy to give offense by doing this.
- Honor intentions — When giving and receiving gifts, I know I said it’s not really true that it’s the thought that counts, but it is the thought that counts. Give gifts with the intention of making someone happy, receive gifts in the knowledge that someone else wants you to be happy.
Hopefully this will help you approach the next holiday season with a more relaxed and confident attitude toward giving gifts! And if not, again, money is always welcome, don’t overthink it. Happy New Year!
¹The single most unrealistic commercials I’ve ever seen are car commercials around Christmas. You know the ones — where the guy gives his wife a new car for the holidays. The wives are always so happy and never once say things like “You did WHAT with the children’s college fund???!”