Dec 18, 2014

Gift-Giving and the Holiday Spirit

With the Christmas season approaching (who am I kidding - it's here), now is a perfect time for this post.  I was reading a discussion on AskReddit about the following question: Have you ever given someone a gift you really thought they would love but, when you gave it to them, they were not very impressed?

I definitely have these stories!  And since I'm too chicken to participate in the Reddit community, I'm writing about it here.  Here's some gift mistakes I've made on Christmas's past.

Buying an Experience for a Materialist

So the word "materialistic" has taken on a really negative cast, but I don't necessarily think it has to be that way.  Some people prefer to go places and experience things.  Other people would rather have objects that will stick around for a while.  They don't enjoy the fleeting or temporary things as much.

This was a huge disparity in one of my past relationships.  I was all about life experiences and he was all about acquiring nice things.  But I hadn't yet figured that out.  He had mentioned a couple times that he'd like to drive a race car one day.  He had never bothered to make a bucket list, but if he ever did, that would be on there.

So I thought, "What a perfect gift!  He'll love it!" and spent an amount that was uncomfortable for my finances at that time to acquire the racecar driving experience for him.  As a bonus, I bought it at a racetrack a few states away so we could make a trip out of it.

Come Christmas day, I was so excited for him to open the gift and see the vouchers.  So I was completely flustered when his face fell and his thanks seemed a bit lackluster.  Later he said the thing that would really hit it home, "I wish you had just bought me something."  Meaning a material object, of course.

At the time it really hurt, but now it's very easy to see why it happened.  We had completely different values, and even though the experience was one he had expressed a desire to obtain, I was still essentially purchasing him the type of gift I would appreciate.

Buying a Gadget for a Technophobe

Here's another mistake.  I know my father is the type to appreciate material things more than experiences, so I wouldn't repeat the previous error.  He's also the type of person who doesn't do anything unless it's his own idea.

So when I say technophobe - he's not actually afraid of new technology.  He's random.  Sometimes he resists and refuses to use it and sometimes he wants the newest and the best.  It's almost more of a competition type thing than any desire to learn about new technology.

But anyway, he'd commented on GPSs a few times and how awesome it would be for long car trips and/or to travel on family vacations.  So, again, I thought I was being absolutely amazing by remembering something a person had said they wanted and buying it before they thought to buy it for themselves.

My father never unwraps Christmas gifts.  He's one of those people who is uncomfortable with faking excitement and hates the pressure of having people watch you and having to pretend you like everything you open.  I understand, because I feel that way when we have Christmas with more distant relatives.

So I waited for a couple days for him to finally get around to it.  I think there was a brief spark of initial interest, but that thing never got used.  Finally, a few years later, I asked to borrow it (this was before we had smartphones, so it was really handy when I moved down to the DC area to live with Ryan), just temporarily.  I never bothered to give it back.  There was just no point.

Not that I begrudge my father the gift.  If he ever remembers that he owns one and wants it back, I'll be happy to hand it over.  But now that we do have smartphones, it's pretty redundant.

An Almost Mistake

Generally, I'm starting to mistrust the whole concept of "Listen to what people say and take notes when they point out things they like."  Because, as adults, if they like it enough to want to own it, they'll have purchased it long before the next Christmas.

But anyway, here's the 3rd example of something someone said they wanted.  Before moving into our current place, Ryan was talking a lot about cider and wanting to try his hand at brewing his own.  So I thought, "Ah ha!  I can encourage him to follow up with his new interest and buy him a starter kit."

The enthusiasm was there when he received it.  But the months went by and the interest waned.  I was just starting to think he would never actually use it when I came home and there were bottles everywhere, and equipment being sanitized.  Hopefully we'll get to sample his first batch in the next couple of weeks!

The Moral of the Story

So, while I'm excited that he did actually like and end up utilizing his gift, I think I'm going to approach gift-giving a little differently in the future.  For one thing, it's important to consider the other person's values.  Would they rather own a material object, or experience something new?

If the answer is things, then it's important to consider how much research they put into new purchases, and how likely you are to buy "the right brand."  With tech guys, that's a particular risk and one that I am not willing to take.

I, personally, am a big fan of gifting experiences (when it's applicable), because it's something that I also value, something we can enjoy together, it doesn't clutter up the house, and it really can't be the wrong one.  And I'm lucky enough to finally be dating someone who also appreciates experiences, so I know that approach won't be wasted.

But even if it were... even if I spent a lot of time and thought on something and I gave a gift and the recipient hated it, I have no right to resent them.  I feel like people have forgotten what a gift is.  It should be something you give with no expectation of return and with no obligations owed.  If you get angry because the person didn't buy you a gift, or didn't properly thank you, then it's not really a "gift" is it?

And once you give it, you can't dictate how it's used or what's done with it.  I knew a couple people who struggled with this.  They were very focused on acquiring things and, while willing to be generous, they absolutely hated seeing things used "incorrectly."  They'd ask for things to be returned to them.  That's not a gift anymore.  That's a loan.  "This is yours as long as you use it the way I want you to."  (I realize I'm somewhat guilty of this with the GPS.  But I didn't demand it back because it wasn't getting used.  I asked to borrow it, and after a certain amount of time we all forgot about it/it was a redundant piece of equipment.)

I think receiving gifts is difficult for a lot of people, for various reasons.  Not liking to be the focus of attention.  Not being good at faking enjoyment or appreciation.  Even just anxiety at all the expectation that comes along with receiving a gift these days.  "What if it's bad and I have to pretend to like it?  What if it's awesome and the gift I gave isn't good enough?"

And I think the most important thing is to let people handle it whichever way is best and easiest for them.  If they need to Grinch out and open their gifts in secret 3 or 4 days later, so be it!  If they don't like gift exchanges at all, then find other people who have similar gifting values and exchange with them instead.

My father only gets token gifts these days.  And I think that makes us all feel better, because it's low pressure and none of us get upset that he didn't appreciate it.  I think the gifts he has appreciated the very most have all been ridiculous photoshopped pictures: our family as the Star Wars characters, him and my mom as Arnold Schwarzenegger and some model (I can't remember who), him and my sister as body builder champs.  Goofy stuff.

So anyway, here's wishing everyone an awesome holiday season, with great gifts, a huge dose of tolerance for each other's preferences, and most importantly, some great family time and memories together.  Only 1 week 'til Christmas!

Oh, and here's that picture I was talking about.  The Star Wars Wells Family Portrait!  (And also the first real thing I ever Photoshopped)

What's your gift-giving philosophy?  Do you have any gift fail stories?

Jenn signature graphic | Business, Life & Design


  1. I have a post for next week or tomorrow if I get it finished. Its about how I shop for presents now. I like to think I have gotten a lot better at gift giving over the years. I would have LOVED getting a race car driving experience.

  2. There are certainly people in my family that are super hard to buy for, and others that are so easy to please that it is almost hard to narrow down what to get them. I try to stick with what I know for each of them, but it can be overwhelming sometimes!

  3. There are also different styles of opening. When I was a kid, we took turns, so that everyone was watching every time one of us opened a gift. I didn't think about it at the time, but now I think that is way more high-pressure than the random, hand out several at a time around the room method our family uses now.

  4. Also, I think as you get older, you stress less over whether or not the recipient will appreciate the gift. I'm to the point now where I buy gifts primarily because it is something I enjoy planning/selecting/purchasing, rather than something the person wants or needs. Somewhat selfish, I suppose, but trying to select the perfect gift for everyone you know is an impossible task that will drive you crazy trying.

    1. You know, I think I'm experiencing this also. I did try to get things that people would actually like (or use), but as long as I had some sort of half-baked reason for buying it, that was good enough, without feeling anxious about whether they'd like it as much as I wanted them to.

      I think your gifts have always been very good! Especially for someone who doesn't put much value on "stuff."

  5. What, that was a great gift! I get really, really turned off when people complain about their (free, voluntarily given) gifts. I feel like it's just good manners to never admit you didn't like a gift.


Talk to me! I'm friendly. I won't bite.

P.S. If you use Blogger and you want to get email replies to your comments, use your blogger profile instead of Google+ and make sure the box is checked next to "show my email address."