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