The Awkward Act of Gift-Giving

The Awkward Act of Gift-Giving

Gifts are like people. They come in all shapes and sizes. You like some more than others. You need some even though you may like others more and find cooler and more hip. Gifts, however, are just … gifts. And you can toss, exchange, return, refund, re-gift, shelf, or love and use until you can’t anymore and it finds a trash can or Goodwill / Salvation Army depot (to my knowledge, you are unable to do those things with humans; Looking into it for you though…).

The awkward culture of gift-giving deserves a bit of an examination after the tsunami of gift opportunities from December to now (Christmas, Hanukkah, Valentine’s Day, Easter – not to mention birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries scattered throughout the year), just in time for you to ponder Mother’s Day gifts for dear ole mum.

This isn’t a suggestion for WHAT to gift others (that’s subjective, sillygoose), but to show how crazy, effed up, bullsh*tty, and strange the giving gifts really can be – not to mention awkward. Maybe we should rethink our approach.

Oh no … I forgot a gift …

Everyone else has a gift but you. They even have theirs in flawless wrapping paper, or a GORGEOUS bag from Crate & Barrel with accented tissue paper. “Smug sons of a…” You show up at a dinner party at a friend, coworker, or neighbor’s house and find yourself accidentally empty-handed. Is there anything worse? A bottle of wine, charcuterie board, candle … anything to say “Thanks for the invite. Here is a thing you most likely won’t want or need. But I’m thankful!”

Suddenly you push DEFCON 1 on your embarrassment alert mechanism and drive your entire nervous system into a sweaty panic mode. Before you throw your coat on a bed or in the closet on a hanger, you’ve thought “Well, I shouldn’t have come. This was stupid. Why am I even here? I’m not even that close to this person. He was just my best man at the wedding. Bad speech anyway. I should just sneak out in 10 minutes.” Praying no one notices you enter with empty hands seems fruitless.


(no one noticed)

It’s okay to not bring something. Should you? Of course. We aren’t barbarians (even they brought gifts in the form of hooves and pelts). That bottle of wine is a kind gesture for appreciating your host. BUT, pressure from social mores shouldn’t ruin a guest’s time, or cause a great deal of stress. Conversely, hosts should go out of their way to ease guests, and liberate guests from an emotional prison they certainly tucked themselves away into unnecessarily for lapses on a gift.

Battle for Best Gift

Huddled around the Christmas tree, pile of baby/wedding shower gifts, or birthday cake is meant to be a joyous episode of life. A gift recipient has the envious responsibility of ripping open wrapping paper and receiving lovely gifts from friends and family members. And the gift-giver smiles in accomplishment … “Yeah, I am thoughtful!” What a lovely self-serving measure, wouldn’t you say?

All that is fine and good until you are outdone in your gift-giving pursuits by better, more expensive, larger, cooler, more extravagant gifts you wish you had thought of. You start to resent the entire process and wished you had thought a little harder on exactly what item would send the recipient into a tizzy of happiness.

Okay, I’ll do better next year!

(you don’t)

The Reaction

“I needed this!” Oh, that’s the worst. You needed it? If you needed it, why did you rely on gifts for a birthday or Christmas or Hanukkah to receive it? I didn’t wrap up prescription heart medication that keeps you alive. You need that.

The dreaded I needed this is code for rationalizing such a bogus gift given by someone you wish not to offend or avoid. A nicety for sure, but we can read between the lines NEEDED gift receiver…

And as stated above, we gather around and measure reactions of the recipient and judge, “Ok, who gave the best gift? I did, right? He shouted joyfully and screamed with pleasure. Yeah. It was me. Or… was it mom’s gift? I mean, that was pretty cool. But, a new car isn’t better than the gift card I gave, right?”

“Oh, no…he hates it.” When a gift faces a blank or panned reaction (obvious disappointment) you simply want to die. What’s worse: Redemption can’t happen for another year. A gift misfire sucks the life out of you, and you hope they forget about it as soon as possible – even though for 364 days you’ll think about which gift will make up for this year’s drag.

When you give the perfect gift, just what he or she wanted, or something thoughtful and unexpected but adored, you sit back with this bizarre self-satisfaction and congratulate your generous efforts. That is what gift-giving has evolved to.

“A gift for that? Really?”

#AnythingDay in which gifts are arbitrarily given makes zero sense – National Siblings Day (recent); Sweetest Day (when did that and how did that become a thing? Valentine’s Day seemed just fine); Boss’s Day – no; National Pancake Day – IHOP gives away free pancakes, but we aren’t complaining; National Orange Juice Day – what? (Yes it exists)

“But it’s Boss’s Day. Didn’t you get something for our boss?” Nope. That’s ridiculous, and such a “dumb” American move.

All we are doing is perpetuating the Worldwide Gift-Giving Competition and superficiality. More and more STUFF.

Idea: Live every day with purpose instead of creating these 3rd tier “holidays” as a way to populate social media pages to project this oh-so-perfect life. Punctuate days seldomly as to inject greater meaning into birthdays and special holidays (any pertinent to your life) that actually matter.

Parting Thoughts

Enough of the pressure of gifts. This may seem self-serving as 80% of the gifts I buy are pointless, and the act of acquiring a gift is usually trouble and throws a kink into my day. Not to mention the “is this good enough?” debate in my head during purchase.

Now with kids we’re simply accumulating crap. These are more and more trinkets and goodies of zero value, or fleeting value given a 3 year-old’s attention span. Let’s cool it on toys. How about you give him a savings bond or money or something special like an experience with you to help the relationship (tickets to a sporting event or Disney on Ice perhaps)? More toys means more cleaning up for mommy and daddy. Considering most toys are ignored after the first day (not based on empirical data), your efforts become ultimately frivolous. That $50 could be in the savings account generating interest.

Stop and think why you are giving a gift. Just because? For the reaction? To feel better? A gift is meant as a gesture of love, kindness, and recognition. Not a contest of superficial goods. Think long and hard what will mean the most to a child, a parent, a friend, a host of a party. No one gift fits all, of course. And the gift-giver must think what is best – so, don’t screw it up. Let’s have our motives and intents on the right path.

Let’s give better gifts and get better at the entire act of gift-giving. It has become one awkward SOB of an activity. Or after reading you think I’ve become a cranky curmudgeon who doesn’t like giving people anything but grief. We both might be right!


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  • I have a safety valve here: Many of my friends and relations have favorite interests in things that aren't easy to find when it's coming up to their birthdays or Christmas. Also, I've been known to catch my near-death of cold before Christmas, which cuts down shopping. For those reasons, and to ease pressure on my bank account, I have a drawer in my desk that's the gift drawer. When someones' hobby is all over the stores and something appears that (a) they like and (b) I can afford at the moment, off it goes to the gift drawer. Then, when it comes time to send a present, I can at least hope that the only place I need to "shop" is in the gift drawer. This has saved me lots of stress for years, even apart from being able to buy good things when they're on sale tables, not when they're needing to get in the mail.

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