The Art of Gift Giving

Gift giving is a valuable skill. A good gift is the difference between unwrapping the feeling of love or pain. Gifts can make or break someone’s entire Christmas, they can fortify social bonds or unravel them, they can stir deep appreciation or residual entitlement.

As you can tell I take gift-giving very seriously. It is how I show and receive love. But gift giving is not everyone’s love language and so the gift I give to you this Holiday Season is a guide to gift giving.

I bet we all have a terrible gift story. The time that your significant other got you tickets to that band he loves for your birthday or a dustbuster for Valentine’s day. Or when your mom finally got you that jacket you pined for only two years too late and two sizes too big. What about that Christmas morning when all you found under the tree was a box of food storage?

I’m sure we also all have a perfect gift story. The time that you got exactly what you wanted and needed without ever realizing or articulating what it was. That L.L. Bean backpack you have coveted right before your big adventure, a pregnancy massage that you are too cheap to book yourself, a day out with friends sans kids to do whatever you want. A perfect gift communicates that someone really knows you, that they have thought about you and what would bring you joy, and that they care enough to go out of their way to figure all of that out in order to see you happy on the special occasion.

So what is the difference between a great gift and a terrible gift? Surprisingly, it is not money. It is usually an investment of time, thought, empathy, and awareness. Most perfect gifts are not things that can be bought at a store or purchased online. They are individually tailored to the person’s interests and appreciation.

One of the hardest things about gift giving is to look beyond our own perspectives. We determine the quality of a gift based on our own interests. Thus, how we purchase gifts is probably very different than how those gifts will be received. The first step in the art of gift giving is to step into the shoes of the other person. Most people send signals throughout the year of what they enjoy. A favorite tv show, celebrity, magazine, tool, band, restaurant, etc. It takes a lot of time, empathy, awareness, and thought, but if you listen closely you can create the perfect gift for the ones you love.

Pay attention to what your loved ones are interested in. What types of things do they enjoy doing in their free time and how do they relax? When they have a weekend completely free, what do they want to do? Who do they most talk to and divulge secrets? What do they talk about excitedly and without pausing? Where is their favorite place to go? What do they spend their money on? These are the types of areas that you need to focus on. Once you have determined the what (activity/relaxation), who (family/friend/celebrity), where (outdoors/shopping mall), when (mornings/nights, fall/summer), and why (to get away from it all/to feel connected to others) of your loved one’s interests, it is easier to figure out the how. Often just taking the time to realize these things about your loved ones is enough to pick a perfect gift.

The second step is to realize that there is a difference between needs and wants. Gifts are special occasions mainly because they are times that are set aside from the normal day-to-day interactions. It is okay to give a practical gift here and there, but this needs to be balanced with something they want. Even the most practical person deserves something extraordinary (outside of the ordinary).

The third step in art of gift giving is to communicate the thought process that went in to this gift. You can buy a million things or give someone a shopping spree at a department store and none of that will be remembered as much as a very thoughtful gift that communicates your love, time, and investment. Since we all communicate differently, it is important to be radically explicit in communicating those. Most gifts come with cards, but most cards are pointless. They say to and from and very little else. Instead, use the card to explain how you have noticed what they enjoy, all that they do, and that you wanted to give them something to express your deep love and appreciation for them.

The fourth step in the art of gift-giving is to be generous with praise and slow with criticism. If you know that your loved ones are not great gift givers and you are disappointed every holiday, you need to take matters into your own hands. It is more important to enjoy those special occasions rather than resent those around you. Create your own perfect gifts. Communicate directly what you would like or what would make you happy. If it bothers you to just create a list of what you want, write instead a list of 10 things that you enjoy doing and ask your loved ones to find gifts that relate to those things. This way you can still be surprised when you open your gift, but you were able to give some focus to the gift-giving inepts in your life. Also, remember that appreciating thoughtful gifts grows with time and that the younger the child the less it matters to them.

Most of all remember that while gift-giving is a great opportunity to show someone how much you love, appreciate, and think about them, most gifts are nothing more than something on sale at Safeway on December 24th. It is important not to read too much into the terrible gifts that other people give you, don’t wield them like a bat, and don’t assume they mean you are unloved. The best antidote to a bad gift is to become an excellent gift giver so that people realize what they are missing when they neglect to invest in the art of gift giving.

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3 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Whoa-man, this is so thoughtful! Thanks for setting all this out. It makes me realize how lame I am as a gift giver. It’s definitely not my love language. In fact I think it’s the last on the list for me. But reading your post reminds me that other people invest a lot more meaning in gifts than I do, so I should make a much better effort in the future. Thanks again!

  2. Miri says:

    I love that you wrote a post like this. Gift-giving can be really complicated. There are a couple people in my family who are really hard to shop for–they give absolutely no hints about what they want, they do not read (which is a serious obstacle for me!), and you can just never tell what they’ll like. I sometimes feel like you have to stalk people all year long to be able to give them gifts without specifically asking for a list; a couple weeks ago I decided that I’m going to try keeping my own list somewhere, in a notebook or in a file on my computer, of ideas I get throughout the year, whenever someone mentions something that I think would make a good gift.

  3. Kirsten says:

    I love to give gifts that come from the heart. As you mentioned in your post, we need to really think about the person receiving your gift and give them something that will be meaningful. It has been a struggle for me on the receiving end from my parents. They give me (and my children) money for each birthday and Christmas. Money is nice, but it makes me feel that they don’t really think about me. I know they love me, but it does hurt that they don’t take any time to consider what might delight me or make me laugh. I have tried to communicate this to them to no avail. So, I think we also need to remember that with some people we need to “let it go” and not dwell on the fact that their gifts are not what they could be.
    There are times when I contemplate giving my parents a check in a card… but it just isn’t me. So I will continue to search for the gifts that I know they’ll love, appreciate, find humor in, etc.

    I find more satisfaction in giving gifts than ever receiving them…

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