The Etiquette of Giving and Receiving Gifts.

The holidays are fast approaching. For some of us it’s already here or has come and gone (Lookin’ at you, my Jewish friends– Happy Hanukkah!), bringing joy and comfort and yes, a whole metric fuckton of stress. Because while the day of Christmas and the week of Hanukkah are fairly stress-free (unless, of course, you’re entertaining a boatload of in-laws, in which case I’m sorry), the weeks leading up to it can be a big ball of hardship. You’ve got to spend heaps of money, you’ve got to go into millions of stores or browse websites for hours just to find the right gifts for the right people, and sometimes this turns into a whirlwind of panic and despair. Usually it ends up just fine. But the act of giving gifts — and sometimes receiving them — can often feel like a burden rather than a pleasant experience.

I happen to like giving gifts. I like finding them, browsing around to find the perfect present for friends and family members. Other people find it a lot more difficult — and I get it. I really do. But for me, it’s the first step of gift-giving that always causes me the most anxiety. That’s the part when you decide who exactly you ought to be getting things for in the first place. On the surface, it’s pretty obvious: sister, check. parents, check. But then you get outside of the immediate family, and that’s where you get stuck. Should you get something for all of your friends? Or just the ones you’ve known for ages? Should you get little things for some friends, and big things for others? But how do you decide who gets what? Is there some sort of rating scale, or a Quizilla quiz you can take to tell you which friends deserve better, bigger gifts than others? Or do you not get anything for anybody — make it even?

This is a question that plagues me practically every Christmas. With some friends it’s easy. If you’ve been exchanging presents every Christmas for the past four years, chances are you’re probably going to continue the tradition. Conversely if you’ve got a friend who you’ve never exchanged gifts with, it’s a good bet that things aren’t changing. But what about new friends? Or friends who between this Christmas and last Christmas upgraded from “friendly acquaintance” to “person I hang out with constantly?” That’s when things get a little tricky. If you don’t have a large group of friends and instead tend to chill with many people from a variety of different groups, you can’t do the secret santa cop-out, and if you do have a large group, it’s difficult to get a gift for one person and not for another. How can you justify spending twenty bucks on one girl and zero on another? It’s just not in good taste. Plus with a big group it’s always hard. What if you weren’t planning on getting gifts for anyone and then you see the perfect thing for one of your friends? Can you justify buying it for that person and then have nothing for your other friends? Not really. But then it’s hard to pass up such an awesome opportunity, so that means you’ve either got to suck it up and get something for everyone, or you’ve got to let the best present ever slip through your fingers.

And then, probably worst of all, you’ve got to deal with the obvious conundrum. If you get your friend a present, and she gets you nothing, you’ll feel bad because you got nothing, and she’ll feel guilty for not getting you anything — which is not the kind of warm, fuzzy feeling that you’re lead to believe gift-giving will induce. If this friend gets you something and you don’t know about it and therefore haven’t returned the favour, same thing. But then do you get little somethings just in the event that she might get you something? Or do you just cross your fingers, get nothing, and hope she’s on the same page? It’s stressful and pretty much there’s no right answer except flat-out asking if you’re exchanging gifts, which a lot of people don’t really prefer to do since gift-giving has this shocking implication that it’s supposed to be about the spirit of generosity blah blah blah and if you make it sound like you’re only going to buy shit for someone who also buys you shit, that is selfish and makes you a bad person.

But once you overcome that first obstacle, you’ve got to actually find gifts for these people. For some it’s easier than others. I happen to have a knack for finding good gifts. Sometimes it’ll take me a lot of time to find the right gift, and for some people it’s not always perfect, but I like to think that my gifts are thoughtful and at least show that I care about the person and that I pay attention to what they like and what they want. People who say gift-giving is hard — well, yeah, sure it is. But it’s not that hard. I mean it’d be difficult if you were buying for your great aunt who you’ve only met once and you’re pretty sure she hates everything and is allergic to twenty thousand things, but how hard is it to get something for your girlfriend or your best mate or your brother? All you need to do is examine the kinds of stuff they have in their room, think about all the stuff they’ve told you they liked over the past year or so, maybe even stalk ’em a little on Facebook if you’re not a hundred percent sure. All it takes to give a good — if not amazing — gift is a little dedication, a little perseverance, and a bit of creativity, which as human beings we should all have in spades. If you know your brother’s three favourite things are coffee, Star Wars, and board games, you could get him a mug shaped like Darth Vader’s helmet, or Star Wars Monopoly, or playing cards with Star Wars characters on them. You could get him any merchandise relating to the films. It might not be the craziest present in the world, but at least it’s something that shows you know him a little bit, and although it sounds really cliché, it really is the thought that counts when it comes to giving presents.

So this is why it blows my mind when people end up just giving cash or gift cards or other generic gifts for people for Christmas. Like, dude. You can come up with something more imaginative for your girlfriend than a gift certificate to iTunes. I’m okay with gift cards if they’re for something specific, or cash if it’s for a good reason (for example, this year I expect more money than actual gifts because I’m far from home and everyone wants to contribute to the “Let’s Help Kendra Travel” fund). If you know your sister is totally obsessed with AllSaints Spitalfield, and you know it’s a pricey place to shop, then yeah, a gift card is great. Especially because buying actual clothes for people is a tricky, tricky business. But to me, a gift card to a generic place like Amazon or iTunes or Barnes & Noble says one of the following: you don’t know them well, or you do and you just didn’t put much thought into what you were going to give them.

I don’t think gift cards are a bad addition to gifts. Like sure, slap a Starbucks gift card onto a gift of a travel mug. But as a whole gift? Nuh-uh. The only people who can get away with that are older relatives who have no idea what young people like these days, let alone what their grandchildren like these days.  And come on — you’ve got to know something about the person you’re getting the gift for. Although I could be wrong. The other day at work a guy came in looking for something for his girlfriend and our conversation went a little bit like this:

Me: Hi there! Looking for gifts?

Customer: Yes, for my girlfriend.

Me: Neat! Has she shopped here before? If so, what does she like to use?

Customer: I don’t know.

Me: What kind of scents is she into? Maybe that’ll help.

Customer: I don’t know.

Me: Okay … what colours does she like a lot?

Customer: I don’t know.

Me: Let’s try something else. Can you describe her to me in a few words? What’s she like?

You can guess what his response was. Do you want to be like this dude? A dude who can’t describe anything his girlfriend likes or does not like, or even what she looks like? DO YOU WANT TO BE THIS GUY? Because if you give your girlfriend an Amazon gift certificate for fifty bucks, I am pretty sure you will be this guy.

But there’s another side to the gift exchange that people rarely think about, and that’s the etiquette of receiving gifts. I’m not talking about writing thank you notes or any of that shit. Because, yeah, thank you notes (or phone calls or emails) are important, especially if you’re thanking someone who sent you a gift and therefore wasn’t around to see your reaction in person.  But the kind of etiquette I mean is the kind where you have just been given a gift and you are supposed to react politely and enthusiastically. I do understand that not every present is one that you’ve been dying for all your life — but the thing is that the person you’re getting a gift from has thought long and hard about what to get you, and even if it wasn’t the exactly perfect gift — remember, it really is the thought that counts.

If it’s not the present you were expecting or hoping for, it’s okay not to jump up and down with joy, give the giver a great big bear hug and parade your gift around for the world to see. But you should at least show some appreciation rather than making the giver feel like complete and utter crap. Because chances are that person spent a lot of time and effort trying to get you something they thought you’d truly enjoy, and they didn’t have to. They weren’t obligated to get you much of anything, frankly, because nobody is really obligated to give anyone gifts for Christmas except their immediate family members.  And yet some people think they’re not only entitled to receiving gifts, but they’re entitled to be selective about what gifts they actually get. And hey, if you wanted exactly what you asked for, maybe you should stop relying on gifts and go the fuck out and buy shit yourself.

Let me tell you a story of The Worst Gift Exchange Ever. I decided to get a gift for a friend one Christmas, and thought long and hard about what I would get. I considered a variety of different options — books, knickknacks, clothes, DVDs — but eventually decided that I wasn’t comfortable getting her things like that because she had so many and I knew that there were a few things she desperately needed, but that someone else was getting them for her. So I decided to give her a fake gift card, allowing me to take her to her favourite place and buying anything she wanted from there. Carte blanche. No limit.  Now, if someone took me to my favourite restaurant or store and allowed me to get anything I wanted, I’d be totally stoked. And I thought my friend would be too, considering how much she always complained about not having any money and never being able to afford what she wanted to get. “Well,” I thought. “I am a genius.”

But when I gave my friend the gift, the reaction I got was not “WOAH HOW EXCITING!” or even “Oh, nice, thank you.” It was, “I don’t want this — get me something else.”

I DON’T WANT THIS. GET ME SOMETHING ELSE. Are you for fucking real? I was so taken aback that I could barely speak or even process the information I’d been given. Not only had this person not liked the gift that I thought I’d done a fantastic job of choosing, but she’d said it right to my face without any thought as to how much I’d actually thought about it, and how much I really thought she’d love it. She didn’t thank me for the thought, and she certainly didn’t pretend to be happy. Instead she told me to get her something else, which made my gift giving spirit evaporate more quickly than a droplet of water in Death Valley. Newsflash, people: nobody likes to be told that they aren’t good enough, and nobody — not now, not ever — should be made to feel like complete and utter shit about giving someone a gift. Ever.

If you do get a gift that you’re not thrilled about, just go with the old adage of “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Thank the person, smile, and move on. It’s that easy. And if it’s a really disappointing gift — say you’ve been dating someone for five years and they just give you a brick for the holidays — then you can maybe ask about it. But when it’s something that clearly showed effort and thought, why make your friend feel terrible? Is it worth the potential strain on your friendship? Probably not. You can, however, bitch about really shitty gift giving and receiving experiences on your blog many months later.

If you’ve got a horror story relating to gift giving/receiving (Christmas or otherwise) please feel free to share in the comments, because let’s face it: you as readers should get a chance to bitch about shit, too.