Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On Graciousness and Gift Receipts

Food writer Monica Bhide wrote a post on the Renegade Writer Blog this week about the art of being gracious.

I love this post because it highlights the process of gift-giving and receiving, not the gift itself. It echoes what we've said in previous posts here about being a courteous recipient, note writing, and the way in which goods gifts demonstrate to recipients that they are truly known.

If I disagree with one thing in Monica's post, it's her position on gift receipts. She feels that including a receipt introduces a level of practicality that does damage to graciousness. While I see her point, I actually believe including a gift receipt can take graciousness to a whole different level. It communicates an acknowledgment that, although your intention is to give something that is truly valued and needed, the recipient may have a more pressing need that could be addressed. Especially in these economic times, I think it's great to communicate to your recipient that you care about her needs and wants enough that your feelings won't be hurt if the gift is returned.

The inclusion of the gift receipt does not, however, absolve you of the need to be thoughtful and well-intentioned in your choice of a gift. It is not acceptable to say, oh well, I can give any old thing, and if he doesn't like it, he'll return it.

What are your thoughts? Do you include gift receipts? Why or why not?

Friday, December 12, 2008

When Gift Certificates Are a Good Idea

In a previous post, we suggested the Target gift card as a good gift for a third tier person (i.e., someone you don't know particularly well but are obligated to give a gift to). But this is not the only gift exchange situation for which a gift card is a good option.

Given the state of our economy at present, people are cutting back on all kinds of discretionary spending. Consider the fact that giving a gift card to someone under financial stress means giving him the ability to buy something he needs or wants for himself. 

The freedom of being able to shop for oneself can be a real shot in the arm.  This may be the perfect year for gift card giving.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

I am stating the obvious when I say that we are in difficult economic times... and how we manage Christmas giving this year will inevitably be affected.

This does not need to be a bad thing; in fact, we should greet this as an excuse to throw old patterns of pointless excess and boredom in our gift-giving out, and start new traditions. When you have less money to work with, it forces you to become more inventive and adaptive in where you spend your money and time. For anyone who's ever watched Top Chef or Project Runway, you know what I'm talking about - inevitably, when given the challenge to create a dish/garment with severe limitations on time, ingredients/materials and expense, contestants have come up with some of their most artistic and ground-breaking ideas. On the opposite side of that, when they are given free rein on their commodities, time, and range of scope, they all too often are hamstrung by the excess of choice and produce weak or simply bad results.

When I lost my job three years ago, it resulted in a specific theme: Re-gifting and Recycling Roulette. Almost everything I gave was either regifted, recycled, or free. It ended up being one of the most enjoyable and satisfying gift-giving seasons I have ever had. This year, it has thematically become a Homemade Holiday. Almost everything I am giving is homemade - crocheted amigurumi critters for children and girlfriends who enjoy cute things, homemade vanilla extract, which is an expensive commodity when purchased at a grocery store, but cheap to make in bulk, and eminently useful.
  • Take a mental inventory of your skills - are you good at making something useful or artistic? Consider how you can translate that into gifts.
  • Try to learn a new skill to make something useful or in demand. I found the recipe for vanilla online quite by accident, and decided to learn how to make amigurumi so I could always make a little something if I couldn't afford to buy a present for baby showers.
  • Think of what your family and friends can genuinely use or appreciate - don't just present them with a wooden doghouse if they live in a heavily populated downtown high-rise! Make them something they can easily make room for.
I'm not saying to make wooden toys for your grandkids who have no appreciation for anything that isn't a Wii; be smart and realistic in how you translate your talents into presents. You'll enjoy it a lot more, you'll receive more compliments (!) and respect for being Green and more personally involved.

I learned how to make really good cookies years ago so I could take them to events to please and impress people so they would like me. It usually works, which is why I am still making things to this day. ;)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

How to Write a Note

There is one incredibly simple, inexpensive way to make any gift much more meaningful: include a note. 

A well-written, heartfelt note is the difference between a so-so gift and a touching, memorable one. There are a number of approaches you can take. 

1. Tell the recipient why you chose the gift.

There's a scene in the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life where Mary stands on the steps of a new house, hands the new owners a loaf of bread, and says, "Bread, that this house may never know hunger." 

A simple note of explanation turns an ordinary gift into a meaningfully symbolic one. Even if your gift isn't symbolic, a note can go a long way. Start your note with:

I wanted you to have this because..., or
This reminded me of you because....

2. Tell a story.

Everyone has a different perspective on even the most well-remembered events. Write a note that tells a story involving the recipient from your point of view. This is the perfect type of note to include with a photo gift, especially when the photo depicts an important family event or rite of passage like a wedding or graduation. 

2. Use an Oprah writing prompt.

Recently Oprah Winfrey did an entire show on thrifty holiday practices, with note-writing was a central feature. Oprah suggests starting notes with:

What I love about you is...
Thank you for..., or, 
My holiday wish for you is....

Notes like these can accompany a gift, or they can be the gift. 

Image by Zsuzsanna Kili├ín

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Aerin's Cranberry Blog has a great post on the subject of obligation.

Aerin raises good questions: Are you obligated to give a gift to someone who gives a gift to you? Are you obligated to give them a gift that is as expensive as the one you received?

I really like Aerin's take on this subject (and not just because she gives this blog a shout out).

I'd like to hear readers' thoughts on this. How do you deal with the question of obligation in gift exchanges?

Monday, December 1, 2008

An Object Lesson

I have begun to crochet what are known as amigurumi, which is Japanese for "knitted stuffed toy." Most amigurumi nowadays are crocheted instead of knitted. I wanted to develop a skill that would allow me to make little home-made presents that would be unusual and fun.

One of my first amigurumi gifts was a little pair of fishes to my friend Jen for her cats. She was delighted with them, and sent me the following thank-you note:

Dear Aunt Susan,

Thank you very much for our new kitty toys. We especially appreciate them because you made them by hand.
We have tried to kill the toys by batting them, biting them, kicking them, and scratching them. We have not succeeded in destroying them. Today, while Jennifer is at work, we plan to dunk the goldfish in our water bowl. Maybe we can drown them!
Thanks again,

Jesco and Ellie the Kitties

A simple handmade toy, and a delightful thank-you note. All gift exchanges should end so well!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

When Greed Prevails

Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death

Please read the article, and consider if this is the way you want to remember Christmas; as a race for bargains.  When shopping for gifts becomes a greedy mob activity, then it's time to stop.

On "Just" Giving a Gift

I have a bone to pick with holiday retail advertising, and the retailer that's been especially bugging me the last couple of years is Sears, with the slogan, "Don't just give a gift. Grant a wish." Last year's TV commercials, for instance, had a Dad receiving not just a tool or a tool set, but a whole garage full of tools. 

The idea, of course, is that the prices are so low, you can afford more. But that's only part of the message that comes across. At a time when unemployment is incredibly high, and lots of people are struggling, advertisers are also letting us know that it is no longer acceptable to "just" give a gift. We must now also grant wishes.

Let me be clear: This is ridiculous. 

There is no "just" about gift-giving. Picking out a meaningful gift for someone you care about, making a sincere effort to bring them him joy, is a big deal. The act of remembering the one tool he needed and making a special effort to find it will time and time again outpace any amount of money spent on a garage full of tools. 

This holiday season, "just" give a meaningful, heartfelt gift. It will go a long, long way.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Group Gifts

I am turning 40 next month. This is a time of potential trauma for anyone, but a close circle of friends have already set me off on the best foot possible by making a Pre-emptive Birthday Strike.

I have been celebrating birthdays with these "Sisters" of mine for about a decade now, and these celebrations have followed a predictable pattern; dinner, cards, and little presents. But this year they decided to do something different to commemorate this landmark birthday. They all chipped in and got me a beautiful necklace, set with my birthstone.

This was, in every way, ideal for me; I am trying to scale back on the amount of stuff I have in my house and I love blue topazes/aquamarines. It was literally the smallest present they could have gotten me, but was so much more special than an array of tokens like notecards, books, and candles (useful as they are!)

This is a gift that has the weight of 5 people behind it - their combined affection, and wish to commemorate this significant birthday. It's not the money spent that makes it more valuable, but the fact that they combined to give it. There's an old proverb that individual strands of a robe can be easily broken, but when combined together, are almost impossible to break. In that sense, this necklace will always have an added dimension of strength and love for me.

I suspect that most of us find it easier to go ahead and get a present on our own; but how much more valued and memorable a present can be when it is the result of several people's time and money!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hierarchy of Needs: Part Three

In part three of our series on gift-giving and the hierarchy of needs, we'll talk about giving gifts as a way of fulfilling the need to both give and receive love, affection and a sense of belonging. 

All occasions are appropriate times to let the people in your life know they are loved. Even a poor choice lets the recipient know that someone cared enough to try. Gifts of belonging communicate to a person that she has a supportive community of people around them. One of the biggest ways we communicate belonging is by our presence. Showing up at a wedding, bar mitzvah or graduation lets a loved one know that they belong to a community who will show up to witness important life events. 

There are more tangible, symbolic ways communicate belonging as well. In my family, my Mom is the guru of "belonging gifts." When my two sisters-in-law joined the family, she gave them recipe boxes with cards containing family recipes and included some blank cards so they could add to the collection. For the first Christmas my brother and his wife spent in their new home, far away from the rest of our family, my sister-in-law mentioned that she had ben looking for some glass ornaments for their tree, something that would reflect the colored lights. Mom remembered an old chandelier that used to hang over the dining room table when we were kids. She pulled it out of the attic and took apart the dangling prisms, sending a box of them to each of us as Christmas ornaments. 

Gifts like these remind us that we belong, that we are loved, and that the old bonds are still intact even when we move on in our lives.  

Friday, November 7, 2008

Opting Out

We've discussed the fact that gift giving is an essential social skill, and that it is unacceptable to opt out of the practice altogether. But there are some circumstances in which opting out of the gift exchange process is the best thing you can do. 

Since we started writing this blog, for instance, Susan and I have mutually agreed never to give each other gifts. Why, you ask? We considered the possibilities:

"Hmm... a Target gift card. Great. Apparently you think of me as a third tier person."

It is not necessary to give gifts for every occasion, in every relationship. The important thing is that, if you opt out in the context of a particular relationship or situation, all involved should agree on the arrangement, and no one should be pressured into agreeing with the no-gifts rule.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

December Birthdays

Having been born in early December, I have become accustomed to a certain lack of attention regarding my birthday. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving onward, has become such a morass of Christmas parties, special year-end events and office lunches/dinners, that to try and celebrate a birthday as well seems excessive. The holiday flood washes over the Birthday-ees as well as those friends and family who want to pay proper attention; both are overwhelmed with all of the required activities of the month - shopping, travel, parties, etc. All too often, it results in a combination Birthday/Christmas gift, which is supposed to be a bigger gift than either one alone, but all too often is just what you would have given for Christmas anyway. After all, "they'll never know!"

So, what to do? We're all too busy, and picking a birthday gift with the kind of thought and attention we're advocating is hardly going to be convenient or enjoyable. Well, for starters:
  • you can count on significantly lowered expectations from the Sagittari and Capricorns in question. They've become accustomed to being stiffed or forgotten. Heck, we scraped the bottom of the barrel when it comes to birthstones - I mean, turquoise or zircon... really?
  • you can Hunter-Gather ahead of time, and have something gift-wrapped and ready.
  • failing that, you can make even the smallest effort to give them a birthday gift separate from Christmas, and it will be appreciated. Even if you haven't had time to plan ahead or get a great gift, you can still get them a gift card to a nice restaurant, or some sort of treat that says "I thought about it... I didn't forget you."
  • propose a date in January to celebrate properly with your group of friends/family.
I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that Kathryn and I have decided NOT to give each other gifts from this point onward; having set ourselves up as knowledgable and thoughtful about gift-giving, we should probably fail miserably!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hierarchy of Needs: Part Two

Earlier this month, we raised the question, how do you give a gift that is truly needed, and we presented the hierarchy of needs.

In this post, we'll address the first two layers: physiological and safety needs.

Gifts that address physiological needs

At the bottom of the pyramid lie the most basic needs, the necessities without which we cannot survive for long: food, water, shelter, clothing. Someone who is deprived of these things will typically spend all available energy seeking to secure them. This is the level at which the survival instinct functions, and the other needs in the hierarchy have virtually no chance, so long as the physiological needs are pressing.

While most of our readers are unlikely to find themselves in these circumstances on a regular basis, gifts that address basic physiological needs are important. Charitable gifts often fall into this category.

Gifts that address safety needs

Think of the last time you experienced a serious shakeup and were reminded just how unpredictable life is. Perhaps you had a car wreck, you lost your job, or developed a serious illness, and suddenly you felt anything but safe. The world seemed like a dark and unstable place in which anything could (and probably would) happen.

There are any number of occasions when gifts that speak to this need may be the way to go. When a loved one is in the midst of a major life transition, you can give gifts that help them to feel safer, or reminds them that help is available when the unexpected occurs. "Safety" gifts are also appropriate for someone who has experienced an unexpected setback, such as divorce, death of a loved one, or loss of a job.

When I was 22 and moving to a sketchy (but cheap) neighborhood in a new city, my brother gave me a pepper spray keychain. Thankfully, I never had to use it, but it did remind me that I was not helpless in the face of danger. A nurse I know makes up first aid kits to give to kids in her family who go off to college. She includes a thermometer, cold medicine, band-aids, and most importantly, her phone number for medical questions. Car safety kits and prepaid calling cards for emergencies are other possibilities.

Notice that in these first two levels of need, we aren't necessarily talking about gifts for occasions, like birthdays (though graduations are perfect opportunities for safety gifts). Sometimes the best opportunity for a gift is when it's not expected, but definitely needed.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Non-Materialistic Gifting: 3 Strategies

In last month's post on the Essential Rules of Modern Gift Giving, asserted that gift giving is not a materialistic enterprise. 

Of course, anyone who watches TV within 2 months of the holidays might find it hard to remember this rule. Retail stores have done a wonderful job of convincing us to spend more and more with subtle tactics. Notice, for instance, if you shop online, that many sites have a gifts section, and that some divide them into categories by price. It used to be common to find an "Under $10," but increasingly, it's more like "Under $50." When Under $50 is the lowest category, the implication is that surely no one would be looking for a cheaper gift than that... right?

Well, we disagree. As we also said in last month's post, the value of the gift is according to its worth to the recipient, not its price.  To keep that in focus, we suggest 3 strategies for non-materialistic gift giving.

1. Set a Price Limit

If you're doing a gift exchange with friends, try setting a price limit ahead of time. While this can help keep gift giving budget-friendly, that's not the real benefit. When you're forced to stay under a particular limit (and this works especially well if the limit is pretty low), you have to get creative. You will automatically begin thinking of ways to pick something that will be of more value to the recipient than what you actually pay for it. 

Example: I have a price limit arrangement with one good friend around birthday gifts. Last year she gave me a set of "secret message pens" from a toy store. My brother and sister-in-law were visiting me for my birthday, and we had a lot of fun writing secret messages like we were little kids. It was a great gift for under $10.

2. Give Symbolic Gifts

As we've said before, gifts mirror to the recipient something about the kind of person you think they are. Be conscious of that. Find something of symbolic importance, rather than monetary value. Often it's the symbolic gifts that wind up being lifelong favorites. 

Example: In the movie Pan's Labyrinth, there's a scene in which the main character draws a door on the wall with chalk and goes through it to another reality. After a conversation about the movie, a friend and mentor gave me a gift of a piece of chalk. It was one of the best gifts I've ever gotten.

3. Focus on Meaning

We spend the most on gifts when time is pressing, when we realize, at the last minute, that Mom's birthday is tomorrow, and we haven't even started looking yet. Sometimes we spend more out of guilt, or just to get a social obligation out of the way. Even when time is not an issue, we tend to think of the price question first: Is this a $20 occasion? Or a $50 one? Focusing on meaning instead of price can lead us to make better choices. That's not to say that the price question has no place in the discussion, but perhaps it should not be the first question. Ask yourself instead, what can I give this person that would convey my love and support? Where is he in his life right now, and what can I offer to let him know he is cared for? 

Example: I had a roommate during a rough and transitional year of college who I've kept in touch with ever since. A few years ago, when I found myself in a rough spot again, she sent me a care package and included an old, chipped mug from the apartment we shared that year, along with a note that read, "I just thought you could use a reminder that you can get through anything." 

We'd love to have readers ad to this list: Let us know what your strategies are for de-materializing gift-giving. 

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hierarchy of Needs: Part One

We all want to give a gift that is useful, something that is needed. But what is it that we really need? In general, Western civilization enjoys affluence and privilege that was unheard of a generation ago. While we may have fleeting thoughts that perhaps we need a bigger house, a better car, or a new cell phone, we instinctively know these are not “real” needs. So what are real needs? In 1943, Abraham Maslow attempted to answer this question with a theory commonly known as “Maslow’s hierarchy,” which helps breakdown what fundamental human needs are, and how we go about getting those needs met. Maslow’s hierarchy looks something like this:

This concept of needs poses a few ideas that differ from how we normally think when it comes to gifts, but it's a really useful tool to bear in mind when coming up with gift ideas:

1) It considers more than literal, physical needs.

Most of the time, when we ask ourselves, "what do I really need," we are looking for the bare necessities: food on the table, a place to live, or a source of income. But if we embrace Maslow's ideas, we admit that we also have an actual need for community, meaning, and self-development. We have a need to grow as human beings, not just to survive, but to prosper.

2) It shows us that needs are relative.

Not all needs carry the same weight. A person may not think so much about social needs if their basic physiological need for food is not fulfilled. And it's very hard to think about self-development when you're worried about actual physical safety! On the flipside, the hierarchy suggests that when a person has a measure of security as, thankfully, many of us in Western society do, other needs become pressing: love, belonging, etc.

3) It includes self actualization.

The hierarchy suggests that we have an actual need to self-actualize; to become everything we are capable of being.

This has a number of implications for gift giving. What do you get for the person who has everything? You might take a look at the hierarchy and ask yourself, what does this person actually need? Know that when you give a gift that helps a person fulfill a need, you are actually helping them move towards self-actualization. It's hard to think of a better motivation or reason for gift giving.

In an upcoming series of posts, we'll discuss the different layers of the hierarchy and the types of gifts that speak to each level of need.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Word of Advice

Do not give a gift when you're feeling bitter against the recipient. Nothing good ever comes of that. Wait til later, if necessary.

Don't write blog entries when you're feeling bitter either. ;)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Gift Story: The Dirt Track Race

Not long ago, we advocated the giving of selfless gifts. We suggested you consider spending time with the recipient doing something she likes and you hate, something you might never do otherwise.

Well, I decided to take my own advice: I went with my boyfriend to a dirt track race.

He was on cloud nine. Dirt track racing is one of his favorite things in the world, whereas my only experience with racing was watching the occasional 15 minutes of NASCAR before getting bored and retreating to the next room with a book. (I mean, seriously, all they do is turn left...) While I found dirt track racing slightly more interesting, alas, I'm unlikely ever to be much of a racing fan. But the experience did teach me something about how to approach to giving selfless event-going gifts.

Put Down Your Persona

This type of gift works best when the event in question is something that you would never otherwise do. The problem is, there's most likely a good reason you would never do said activity: It just isn't you. It's likely to take you out of comfortable, familiar territory. You may even feel a bit embarrassed to be wherever you are.

So it's important to begin with the right attitude: Put down your persona.

Your persona is the mask you wear in day to day life, the character you want everyone to see. But since whatever it is you're about to do likely doesn't fit with that, it's important to set the image aside before you even get started. If you don't, you're likely to have a miserable time, and if you have a miserable time, your gift recipient will as well.

Find Something to Enjoy

Even if it's not your thing, chances are you can find something to become interested in and possibly even enjoy.

For instance, during one of the races, the announcer read the names of each driver on the track. He pointed out one car that was painted blue with pink wheels. It was a female driver, and she was making her racing debut that evening. The announcer joked about the pink wheels, but I was immediately intrigued. Racing is still pretty male-dominated, and here was a woman about to race for the first time. I rooted for her the whole night. She didn't win anything, but she held her own, and I had found some aspect of the evening that held my interest.

Be an Anthropologist

Get curious about the event or activity you're attending. Notice the details and figure out the rules. What kinds of people enjoy this type of thing? What about it seems to appeal to them? For that matter, what is it that your gift recipient likes about it? Ask some good questions to keep yourself entertained and to show your recipient you are present and engaging with the experience. Bring a camera and take some pictures.

I found out that my boyfriend likes dirt track better than NASCAR because dirt is much slicker, and it takes more skill to race a car on dirt. He also likes that the drivers are local people who have a passion for cars and racing and typically put their own money into fixing up cars to race. That told me something about dirt track racing, but more importantly, it told me something about him.

Don't Fake Enthusiasm

The recipient most likely knows you're not discovering a new passion; you're there for him or her. Make every effort to have a good time, and by all means, don't sulk, but don't fake enthusiasm either.

Did I clap and cheer for the winning drivers? Absolutely. Did I let my boyfriend buy me a Dale Earnhardt Jr. tank top with the number "88" in rhinestones on the front? Uh.... NO.

Photo by Mike Swope

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rules for Recipients

The rudeness of gift recipients can be astonishing, sometimes. We both know someone who gets angry at the flowers her boyfriend brings her... because she doesn't like the ones he picks. He brings her flowers every other week, Just Because, and she raises her voice and complains that he doesn't listen to what she keeps telling him; that she can't stand daisies! Now, there are two issues at play here; 1) he doesn't listen, and 2) she's being rude.

You cannot fix the Giver. It's just not going to happen unless they are remarkably self-aware people who recognize their faults and work to change them. The only thing you can change is your own attitude. We're not saying to have a knee-jerk polite response to everything; there is a time and a place for gentle remonstrance. But that is remarkably rare - the majority of people have the best intention in the world when they give a gift, and you do not get to blame them if they make poor choices.

Susan has a friend who is a perfectly friendly, outgoing, and charming young woman... but who receives gifts as though they are a chore and she could care less about what she has just opened. She displays no enthusiasm and does not even say "Thanks." On the other hand, she has another friend who is prickly, easily riled up, and who openly hates getting presents because she doesn't feel like she did anything to deserve it... but is grateful and enthusiastic after she's opened them!

It is Courtesy, plain and simple, that we're advocating here. If someone has given you a gift, thank them cheerfully, and if possible, enthusiastically. If you know the minute that you open the gift that you will be taking it back for store credit the very next day, that's fine... but bear in mind that you must still be polite to the giver, and show appreciation for effort if humanly possible.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rules of Regifting

Several sources have it that the word "regifting" entered popular culture in a 1995 Seinfeld episode involving a label maker. For whatever reason, regifting seems to have emerged as an actual CONCEPT in the last decade or so. So how has it become such a recognizable and increasingly accepted idea in our society? Perhaps the accumulation of stuff in our society has reached a tipping point; perhaps the continual call to recycle has made people more conscious of the advantages of passing things on. Because we all think in words, giving a name to something brings it into focus for us, allows it to exist in a new and more conscious way.

So thanks to the writers of Seinfeld, regifting is now an accepted part of modern society. Whether anyone admits it or not, we almost all do it. And regifted items can be perfect gifts, and not at all inconsiderate when done carefully... but there are some guidelines to follow.

First I want to justify WHY regifting is a good idea:
  1. It gets rid of STUFF. If you have a cabinet or closet full of items that have no useful place in your home, they can be made useful by giving them to someone who can use them. We live in a society that has more unnecessary junk than any time in history; regifting is recycling in its highest form.
  2. It saves money. If you need to buy a $10-20 gift for someone, don't have a good idea of what to give them, and there's a lovely tchotchke in your closet that you know they would like, where's the virtue in going and spending money on a (presumably) FRESH tchotchke to give them?
  3. For close friends and family who get upset when you spend money on a present for them, regifting becomes a sort of fun cadeau challenge - finding something truly appropriate for someone, yet letting them know it was inexpensive or a freebie so they won't get upset that you spent money. Regifting works exceptionally well in this context.
Now, let's talk about the perceived drawbacks:
  1. You could hurt the feelings of the original giver. We agree, this must not happen. If there is a chance that they might find out that you are regifting their gift, you cannot proceed.
  2. It's cheap. Well, neither of us consider that a real drawback. The value of a gift should always be calculated by how appropriate and desirable it is to the recipient, not on how much you spent.
  3. It's bad manners. Well, if you are able to maintain that high degree of gifting perfection in our modern society, then yes, I suppose it would be. But no one seems to hesitate to sell unwanted gifts on eBay; no one complains about the manners attached to that action. What is done with a gift once received should be up to the recipient. Do we insist that they use our gift for the purpose for which it was intended, whether they like it or not? Of course not. The sweater that is too small... the perfume that makes them sneeze... what are they to do with it? Respectfully keep it in a drawer? No one expects that, if we really think about it. So the options are giving it to charity, selling it, throwing it away, or regifting it. In this context, regifting is no more inappropriate that donating or selling, and more respectful than just throwing it away!

Now that we've cleverly persuaded you of the validity of regifting, here are some rules to follow, since there is risk involved:

  1. If you don't remember where a gift came from, then be VERY CAREFUL where you regift it. Nothing is ruder or more appalling than giving it to the original Giver, or to someone who was around when you initially received it. This should be obvious!
  2. Personalized gifts are ineligible for regifting - books with notes written on the endpapers, notecards with your name embossed, monogrammed pieces.
  3. Rewrap the item, or re-giftbag it. Overly-crumpled tissue paper is a dead giveaway that this gift has been "around the block." I used to get regifted items all the time from a co-worker, and they were perfectly nice... but for some of them, it was pretty obvious that they'd been sitting in reserve for a while, in the same gift bags in which she'd received them!
  4. Be particularly watchful for pricetags and aging stickers - if the pricetag has been on the bottom of an item for so long that the glue has started to deteriorate, or it was poorly removed and the remaining glue has gotten grimy, it's a good giveaway that the item's been in re-gifting rotation.
  5. If you suspect that a gift you have received has been regifted more than once, it needs to stop with you. Gifts that are continually passed on begin to acquire an Aura of Failure. It needs to be taken out of the rotation, lest it arrive back in the hands of the initial giver by mistake! Give it to Goodwill or AmVets. Stop the cycle.
Recommended regifting ideas:
  1. Candles. Always useful, neutral, and safe.
  2. Picture Frames. Ditto.
  3. Books - duplicates of books already on your shelves in particular, or ones that are humorous or seasonal.
  4. Christmas ornaments.
  5. Scented soaps, fancy lotions, "gourmet" toiletries. However, don't regift perfume unless you do so fairly soon; it tends to evaporate, and you could wind up giving someone a half empty bottle.
  6. Gourmet foods, such as biscotti, olive oil, fancy coffee, European jams & jellies (unopened, of course).
  7. Blank books and journals.
  8. Anything from the HomeGoods section of TJ Maxx.
  9. You might also consider partial regifting. This works particularly well if you are assembling a gift basket or kit of some kind. A regifted candle that might be rather boring on its own can be a great filler item for a gift basket. Regifted picture frames can be wrapped with a picture inside, a wedding or graduation invitation, or an interesting print.
  10. Items that can be "used up", such as the food and toiletries listed above. That way, they won't linger and potentially be revealed as regifts.

Gifts to avoid regifting:

  1. Mugs. These need to be taken out of the gift-giving business altogether. They are acceptable in rare occasions when filled with, say, diamonds. Or Krugerrands.
  2. Clothes. Unless you're very sure of the gift recipient's size and/or taste in clothes, regifting apparel is generally a bad idea. If it's been sitting around for awhile, it's probably not returnable, and you don't want to risk sticking someone with a sweater that's 2 sizes too small.
  3. Items not appropriate to the occasion or gift recipient. Don't regift just to get rid of things. The goal is still to let your gift recipient know that you put some real thought an effort into your selection.
Ultimately, it's important to be sensitive to the personality of the recipient. Some people would be hurt if they suspected you were regifting to them, despite the manifold perfections of the gift itself; so be wary. The best regifting should be as if the gift were to go into an alternate universe, never to be seen again by any of the original parties.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How to Give a Service Gift

Service gifts are gifts of your time and energy.

They often cost little to nothing, and there is no shopping required. There is, however, a time investment required. So the trick with service gifts is to make sure that the service you're offering is something you won't mind spending some time doing; volunteering to do something you hate makes for a resentful gift, and the recipient won't thank you for making them feel guilty.

Service gifts are great choices for housewarming in particular. You can volunteer to help with home improvement projects. For other occasions, offer your time for landscaping, financial advice, tax help, car maintenance, babysitting, guitar lessons or any other skill you are willing to offer.

Write up a gift certificate and include it with a card if you'd like to give your recipient something to unwrap.
In fact, definitely give a card or something concrete to indicate that this is a deliberate gift. You do want them to know that your time is an intentional gift and not just a buddy helping out.

One potential drawback to service gifts is that you could wind up getting sucked into more than you bargained for. On home improvement projects, for instance, volunteer an afternoon or some other specific amount of time. Make your offer clear up front, and don't offer a service gift to someone who has a reputation for taking advantage of friends.

Let us know about your experience with service gifts, giving or receiving.

Monday, September 8, 2008

6 Essential Rules of Modern Gift-Giving

Since the purpose of this blog is promote good gift-giving practices, this post outlines some core principles for modern gifting. Some are obvious. Some are things we seem to have lost sight of as a culture. In the spirit of cultivating gift-giving genius, we'd like your help in building this list. Got something to add? Drop us a comment.

1. Gift-giving is not a materialistic enterprise.

You wouldn't know it by watching television commercials around Christmas, but gift-giving is not actually about spending money, or assigning value to each person in your life based on how much you're willing to spend on them. So many of the things in our lives have become overly expensive and commercialized - holidays, weddings, etc. - that we're taking a stand with this rule. Gift-giving is about offering something to someone else, not about spending money.

2. Gift-giving is a universal social skill.

We've said it before (see point #5): Gift-giving is a part of being a considerate, well-mannered, caring person. It's an essential social skill that can be learned and cultivated like any other.

3. Give gifts for THEM, not for YOU.

We've all given self-centered gifts at one time or another, usually when we were kids. I remember giving my Mom a waffle iron one year for Christmas. (I really liked waffles.) Sometimes it's kind of cute when kids do this. It's not cute when adults do it.

When picking out a gift for someone else, we often try to put ourselves in his shoes: What would I like if I were just starting a new job, about to become a parent, or turning 40? Inevitably sometimes this leads us to a gift selection WE would like but HE would hate. It will happen from time to time. The important thing is the your gift communicates to the recipient that you really put some thought into it. You considered what he might like.

4. The value of the gift is determined by worth to the recipient, not price.

This goes along with rule #1. Modern day advertising creates the impression that for a gift to have a big impact, you have to spend big money. Not so. Gifts can be valuable in practical terms, but they can also be valuable in personal or symbolic terms. A gift mirrors something about the type of person you think your recipient is, and gifts are a way to communicate caring. When someone gives you a gift that's dead on, it makes you feel a little more seen, known and appreciated for who you are. A gift you spent $100 on may be only marginally appreciated if it isn't useful or meaningful. A gift you spent $5 on can have immense value.

5. Once you've given a gift, truly let it go.

Noticing whether or not someone seems to genuinely like what you gave them can give you valuable information about what to give them in the future. But once you give a gift, you resign all claim on what happens to it. If they throw it away, re-gift it, or stick it in a drawer, never to be seen again, you don't get to be mad about it. If you're going to keep track of what you've given, and what is done with it, you've consigned the recipient to a perpetual obligation. I.e.: "Why don't you wear the earrings I gave you?" Giving gifts to make yourself look or feel good violates rule #3.

6. Accept gifts from others graciously.

It is courtesy, plain and simple, that we're advocating here. If someone has given you a gift, thank them cheerfully, and if possible, enthusiastically. If you know the minute that you open the gift that you will be taking it back for store credit the very next day, that's fine. But bear in mind that you must still be polite to the giver, and show appreciation for the effort.

Coming soon: The Rules of Re-Gifting.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How to Give Selfless Gifts

A good principle to follow when selecting a gift for anyone, any occasion: Make it about the recipient.

With that in mind, I will suggest a nearly foolproof strategy for ensuring gift satisfaction, especially when it comes to giving a gift to your significant other.

Think of something he or she loves to and you can't stand. Then set aside your distaste and do whatever it is anyway. Go to that restaurant he likes and you hate. Go to the ballet or the dirt track race or the exhibit on antique doorknobs, whatever it is you would never otherwise agree to.

If you really can't bring yourself to do that, give your recipient permission to go with someone else at your expense. We sometimes forget that even in the best of relationships, no one person can be everything to the other. Part of honoring the uniqueness of friends, family and partners is appreciating the aspects of the person that are outside the domain of the relationship, even the things you may never understand.

A selfless gift gives your recipient space and freedom and can make her feel accepted for who she is.

Monday, September 1, 2008

You Shouldn't Have

written September 30, 2003

There is a party this week for a girlfriend of mine who just got married. I cannot attend due to a previous engagement, so I brought her gift to the office for someone to take in my place. And I realized, as I waited for the elevator to arrive, that I really hoped that I wouldn't see this friend before I could unload the gift. Because I knew what she would say: "Oh, you shouldn't have!" And you know what? That phrase sickens me.

Think about it - you've gone to the trouble of picking out a gift; you've taken the time and money to put something together, only to hear the recipient say "you shouldn't have?!" What that really is, is someone protesting that you have made a MISTAKE in getting them a gift, and that on some subconscious level they don't want to be burdened by it; either because:

1) they feel like they don't deserve the loving gesture of a gift
2) they feel guilty that they didn't get anything for you, and resent feeling guilty
3) they feel like they have to pretend they didn't want anything from you for fear of appearing greedy
4) they really don't care for what you've chosen

Passing years have brought clarity to a great many things in my life, and I finally realized why I always hated to hear someone say I shouldn't have gotten them a gift. It takes a great deal of my enjoyment out of giving the gift in the first place, because it implies that I have made a mistake, and I hate making mistakes. Oh, they always say it in a cheerful tone, or with a rueful smile, but as one of my acting teachers observed over and over, "Many a truth is spoken in jest."

I wonder how many other people get that sinking feeling when they hear this phrase. Now that I've finally recognized how this makes me feel, I'm inclined to start saying in response, "well then, I'll take it back!" I used to LIVE for the chance to see people open presents I'd given them, but the response is often so disappointing. To their credit, I think most people feel like "you shouldn't have" is a self-deprecating expression. But all it does for me is make me feel somewhat rejected.

So I have some suggestions for a more appropriate response to gifts:

1) If you find yourself saying "You shouldn't have…," immediately follow it up with "…but I'm so glad you did!" That will soften the blow.
2) Come right out with a full-blown "Oh my gosh, you are so sweet/amazing/ thoughtful/inventive/wonderful" instead. Because they are, and your immediate happy response is better than any thank-you note (which you STILL have to send, people!)
3) Be honest. Say "I LOVE presents!" because, really, who doesn't love presents? (excepting one of my friends who feels she doesn't deserve them, and whom I have to trick into accepting them...)
4) If you absolutely hate a gift or don't need it, and know immediately that you want to exchange it, try this: "Oh my gosh, this is perfect! WHEREVER DID YOU FIND THIS?" The information will be happily and enthusiastically given.

Honesty is always the best policy, but take the next step and think about the feelings of the gift-giver and the time, love and money they have expended on your behalf.

Photo: Vincent Jannink

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hunter-Gathering in Practice

I (Susan) have not done the preparation I should for this day's post; but today I have actually been hunter-gathering, and I offer it up as an example of how it works, and how painless it can be.

I had 45 minutes to kill before an appointment, and so I went to one of my favorite stores, TJ Maxx. I hate the name (sounds like an 80s hair band) but I love poking around there. As a place to go to find a specific item (ie: shoes to match an outfit, matching sheets or towels) it is worthless, but as a place to find surprises and unexpected treasures, it can be an absolute boon for hunter-gathering. And it can be very cheap!

Today, I came across a real find - children's board books by Sandra Boynton. For anyone who has ever read books to small children, anything by Sandra Boynton is a godsend. She writes such funny and most importantly, re-re-re-READABLE books, that they are a marvelous gift for baby showers or birthday presents for kids under 3. They retail for $7.99, but they had a half-dozen titles for sale at $3.99 each. So I stockpiled - I bought 6, which I will tuck away in my gift drawer for future baby gifts. 3 friends are having babies this year, so I'll probably give each 2, at only $8 a pop. These are a favorite gift of mine, and I have had to buy them at full retail too many times before when I needed a gift for a shower the next day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Manly Gift-Giving

Sadly, many consider the task of selecting, buying and wrapping gifts to belong exclusively to women. After all, women are naturally caring and sentimental, enjoy things like gift-wrap and ribbon, and they like to shop... right?

Neither of us like shopping, unless we know precisely what we want, where it can be found, and where we don't have to spend hours meandering about. Just as it's unfair to paint all women with a single brush, we object to the notion that men are sentiment-challenged thugs who can't pick out decent gifts to save their lives.

If you are a man who finds gift giving challenging, who perhaps feels intimidated (and possibly somewhat resentful) when it comes to the gift exchange process, read on.

Common Objections:

1. I don't know what people want.

It isn't a question of what women, or kids, or fathers, or best friends want, so don't get hung up on this question. It's a matter of what the woman, or kid, or father, or best friend in your life wants. If you don't know, ask. Ask the recipient, a mutual friend, or another family member. Chances are someone will be excited to share a great idea with you, and the recipient is likely to be touched that you were thoughtful enough to ask around.

2. Gift-giving isn't a "guy thing."

Not true. Even in the most stereotypically masculine social circles, men are exchanging gifts all the time. Someone invites you over to watch the Super Bowl on a big screen TV, and you bring beer and chips. A friend is doing some work on his house, so you give up a Saturday afternoon to help out. While they may not come wrapped with bows, these thoughtful gestures are gifts nonetheless. It's just a matter of finding a gift-giving style that doesn't clash with your idea of what it is to be a guy. Men, you need to give this one up as a ridiculous stereotype - you will be called on to give just as many gifts as women do in a lifetime, and like any activity, you will improve with practice.

3. I hate shopping.

Fair enough. As I mentioned before, I'm not a fan of it either. But there are ways to streamline your efforts and, in some cases, eliminate the shopping altogether. Come back next week for a discussion of gift-giving strategies for those who hate shopping.

4. What if they don't like it?

Gift anxiety abounds. It may be particularly prevalent when it comes to new girlfriends. There's a lot of guess work involved, and you're risking the disappointment or disapproval of said girlfriend if you guess wrong. And yet, if you choose not to participate, you're going to look like a jerk. The pressure can leave you feeling resentful.

But there are simple ways to deal with this. First, talk to her about gifts. Does she like surprises, or would she rather tell you what she wants? What have her favorite gifts been in the past, and why? The answer to that question can tell you a lot: Does she like sentimental or romantic gestures? Practical choices? Second, talk to her friends and get their thoughts on the matter. Run some ideas by them and see what they think. Finally, realize you don't have to be perfect. Take a stab at it.* When she opens it, tell her how you thought of it, and why you felt it was a good gift for her (or write it on a note to be included with the package). Even if it's not the greatest, she should appreciate your thoughtfulness.

5. I don't see why I should have to give gifts at all.

We do live in an overly commercial, materialistic society, and you are justified in being wary of the increasing pressure, particularly around the holidays, to spend, spend, spend. We do not necessarily advocate giving gifts for every possible occasion. By all means, adopt a gift-minimalist and thrifty stance. Opting out altogether, though, will probably have a negative impact on at least some of your relationships. Assuming you would like to be a considerate, well-mannered, caring person, you are bound to have to do some gift-giving at some point, so you may as well learn to be good at it. Who knows, you may even learn to enjoy it. Anyway, chances are, this objection is just one or more of the previous objections in disguise. It's easier to opt-out of something you find difficult, but don't give into the temptation.

Mirroring and Gift-Giving

The truth is, men have much to offer when it comes to gift giving. When you give someone a gift, you reflect something back to them. A gift mirrors something about the type of person you think your gift recipient is. Think about it; when someone gives you a gift that isn't you, you're a little horrified that someone sees you as the kind of person who would like such a thing. When someone gives you a gift that's dead on, it makes you feel a little more seen, known and appreciated for who you are. It feels good to know that person really gets you. We all help define each other this way. We reinforce aspects of personality in those around us by recognizing and affirming them.

We all need to be known, appreciated and affirmed by the men in our lives, not just the women. If the women in your family are the only ones doing the gift-giving, your unique energy and presence is being missed, and that is very unfortunate. Start participating. Consider what you might like to mirror back to the people in your family and circle of friends and how you might do that.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Surprises are Bad Idea

When we think about giving the perfect gift, we usually consider surprise a key component. We imagine the surprise on our friend's face when he opens it, how he might marvel at our ingenuity, how we thought of something absolutely perfect he would never have expected. 

But the truth is, not everyone enjoys being surprised. My friend Joe explained his discomfort to me prior to an office gift exchange. "The worst part," he said, "is having to open it in front of everyone, the pressure of having people watching me for a reaction." Joe would much rather know what's in the box ahead of time because, for him, the joy associated with a gift is quickly eclipsed by the social pressure of having to react with appropriate surprise and appreciation. 

Joe is not alone in this respect; it's entirely possible there may be a surprise-hater on your list of gift recipients as well. For these people, remember that a key rule of gift giving applies: Give gifts for THEM, not for YOU. Never put your need to get a great reaction above your recipient's preferences. If you have a friend like Joe, keep it simple. Get him something on his list. 

Monday, August 18, 2008

Being a Gift Hunter-Gatherer all year round

We all know at least one or two people who have done all of their Christmas shopping before Halloween. We really hate them sometimes. But it's not their fault that they have managed to achieve that enviable state of composure during the holiday season; their smug attitude, however, IS their fault. You can despise them for that all you want, but it's worth considering how they have achieved that state of gift-giving peace.

It does not require being a Martha Stewart. It's all about regaining a long-lost skill: Hunter-Gathering.

Think about primitive humans for a moment: Their existence was pretty much about food, because food was the main thing they needed to survive. So our ancestors were always on the lookout for food. Hunter-gatherers might carry small weapons at all times in order to shoot whatever hapless animal crossed their path. It wasn't always about going out specifically on a hunt; sometimes it was about recognizing a potential kill when one appeared, no matter what the circumstances. When there was no animal around to hunt, the ability to gather many smaller items that could feed one's family was also an important skill.

What does this have to do with gift-giving, you may ask? Simple: Keep your eyes peeled, and your brain alert for potential gifts. Watch out for great ideas, and actually BUY it when you see it, instead of waiting three months and returning to find it long gone.

When you go into a store looking for a gift, or even to find something for yourself, you can, of course, focus in on the one item you are trying to find. Or, you can consciously prepare yourself to scan across the spectrum. I (Susan) have a mental list of best friends and family that I am always on a subconscious search for. For example, I have a friend who adores vintage Cowgirl memorabilia. So whenever I spot something in that category, I usually pick it up for her. My friends Teresa and Anne hit it right on the money once; sharing my near-obsession with the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who, they got me a USB hub in the shape of the TARDIS. I absolutely squealed and danced around when I opened it - I had been wanting one for 2 years.

We don't advocate applying a label to each one of your First-Tier people and automatically buying anything that fits that label; buying a trivet that says "Dance as if no-one is watching" for a professional dancer is simplistic and slightly insulting, and you don't want to be one of those people who gives a ceramic frog to the person who made the mistake of mentioning that she liked frog figurines years ago, and now has over 500. But keeping in mind a few of your friends and family's favorite hobbies and interests when in a store can mean the difference between finding an absolutely perfect gift 6 months before your sister's birthday, and searching through generic knick-knacks 2 hours before the party.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gift Lexicon: Third-Tier Person

Third-Tier Person/Third Tier Gift: Someone whom you don't know very well, or are even particularly fond of, but are required to give a gift to. (First-Tier gifts are for best friends, spouses, significant others and close family members. Second-Tier are more of the same, except you don't like them QUITE as much.)

It's inevitable. Periodically, we are required to give presents to people we scarcely know, or even like. It might be a baby shower for a co-worker... a wedding present for your husband's second cousin, whom you have never met... a birthday present for a person in a group of friends that you don't actually like or get along with, but tolerate for the sake of the group. These are what I like to call "Third-Tier" Gifts; necessary for social obligations, but not gifts given from any real affection or knowledge of the person.

The criteria for gifts such as these should be as simple as possible: Usefulness. If it is a Shower/Wedding Gift, for example, there is always a Gift Registry to pick from; make use of this. Most of their friends and family will want to dazzle and delight; you can provide a real service by picking the most mundane, but genuinely useful item on the list and giving them that. If there is no Registry available, go for the practical. A Gift Card to a store of wide-ranging products (Target, Wal-Mart, will be more useful to them than many of the gifts they receive, and they will appreciate that you went for substance. Save your real ingenuity and effort for your First and Second-Tier Gifts.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Blog on Gift-Giving?

The Inspiration: Sisters Birthday Dinner

The inspiration for this blog was a birthday celebration Susan attended some years ago for a member of her women's group (hereafter referred to as Sisters; names changed to protect the innocent!). They have been celebrating birthdays with cards and presents for years now, and it has, for many of them, become the one guarantee of proper birthday recognition and appreciation.

This particular evening, everyone had really gone all-out on thoughtful gifts. Inevitably, though, the Sisters began to speak of gift disappointments. Saltine told of the time her husband had bought her an appalling blood-red dress 3 sizes too big, and of the Mother's Day where, with ill-concealed delight in his gift-giving genius, he gave her 3 ordinary, unrelated and boring coffee mugs in a paper bag.

Pauline's tale of decades with no birthday cakes, EVER, still trumps everyone, although the Sisters made up for that a few years back. They showed up with their regular gifts and cards, and with a birthday cake each. She about fell out of her chair, and had cakes in the freezer for months to come.

The Sisters also shared stories of reactions to appalling gifts. Pauline always conceals her disappointment, because of how crushed her husband becomes when she responds instinctively, while Saltine is fortunate in a husband who can take a "What on earth were you thinking?!" with humor and grace. Nadine has the opposite problem - her husband is never happy with anything she gives him, despite her best efforts and the fact that she really is trying to make thoughtful, clever choices. Celine... well, apparently she and her husband are both blessed with Nifty Giftiness, and have no impressive tales of woe.

Gift Conundrums

It does seem like we rarely get what we might wish for when it comes to gifts. It's an almost impossible balance between surprise / effort / ingenuity / delight. If you tell someone exactly what to get, you lose the surprise and effort. If you don't tell them and they get something wrong, you lose the ingenuity and delight. And the burden of how to respond can make it even worse; in the case of a disappointing gift you can be honest and hurt the Giver, or lie and give the Giver a false contentment.

The Perfect Gift

Often we find ourselves longing for the perfect gift:

  • something we really long for
  • something we do not expect, and
  • something we didn't have to suggest to anyone

A perfect gift is more than a tangible Thing; it's also the implication that the Giver truly knows your heart and made a real effort to bring you joy.

We all have a couple of these rare, precious situations where we were given the perfect gift, but as we get older, decades stretch between, and we falsely say to ourselves and others that "Gifts don't matter that much when you get older," or "I can buy it for myself!" or "A gift certificate would be the smartest thing."

But we are disappointed. We don't want to seem childish so we pretend it makes no difference, but in our heart we long for Real Gifts. And yet there is absolutely nothing we can do to make them happen. So we might pray for a gracious attitude, or persuade ourselves that as adults, we are beyond feeling hurt by such small and unimportant things.

Even when we have been given the best gifts of all, family, life, good health, we have this human desire for something tangible in these gift-giving rituals, to remind us we are known and loved.

Cultivating Gift-Giving Genius

What can be done about this, you may ask. There is not much we can do to improve our chances of receiving such ideal gifts, beyond sharing information about ourselves, and revealing our personalities to those around us. But we can learn to improve the gifts we give. While some seem to have an innate talent for gift-giving, for most of us it is a skill like any other. It takes an open mind, a willingness to learn, and of course, practice.

If you are not among those naturally gifted at gift-giving, this is the blog for you.