How do I tastefully accept/decline a very expensive gift?
June 13, 2012 3:08 AM   Subscribe

A good buddy of mine has offered to buy me an excessively generous gift. What do I say?

The head of my motorcycle club recently came into a large amount of money (converting from our local currency, the equivalent of around $1.8 million). We've been good buddies for a while, and we got closer during his convalescence after he had a near-fatal accident.

Now that he's technically a millionaire, he's offered to buy me a Harley-Davidson cruiser to replace my battered old sports bike. I've tried light-heartedly joking and laughing it off, but he's deadly serious and getting more insistent. It makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

Complication: I'm a high-functioning autistic, diagnosed as a child, but with therapy and medication most people find it hard to tell. Now I'm adrift in a knotty loom of social rules and obligations about accepting or declining expensive gifts. I've examined social etiquette advice, and previous AskMeFi questions, but really I've got no clue what to do. Having a new bike would be great, but I'm unfamiliar with the power-balance and social issues involved with this kind of unusual human interaction. Any advice would be extremely welcome.
posted by Difference Engine to Human Relations (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I know it's not quite the same, but a friend once offered to give me an expensive push-bike as they were getting a new one.

I felt uncomfortable about taking it without giving them any money (they were more well-off than me and didn't want or need the cash) so I suggested that I take it on "permanent loan" - ie with it not being my possession exactly, but with me having it to use and take care of as if it were. I felt much more comfortable with that. In the end, it was stolen, and I felt terrible about it! But my friend was very gracious and reminded me that they had not needed it any more, and they were more sorry for me being bike-less once again.

Boring anecdote over, I guess I'm suggesting the option that you tell your friend that if he were to purchase such a bike, you'd be extremely happy to look after it for him, and ride it when you go out together, for as long as he chose to lend it to you, with a smile on your face and a grateful handshake ;)
posted by greenish at 3:18 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This isn't an easy balancing act, even for someone who's neurotypical.

Recently I got a higher-paying job, after working a series of very low wage jobs. While when I didn't have much money to spare I'd try and make a point of at least buying my friends a coffee from time to time, I've started buying my friends nicer presents. Particularly those who were generous to me when I was poorer.

It's normal to want to share your good fortunes with your friends. It doesn't sound like your friend expects anything out of the gift aside from your increased happiness, and the scale of his windfall makes it seems like this is only a small fraction of it. If you don't feel it'd make you too uncomfortable, I'd graciously accept it.
posted by chmmr at 3:21 AM on June 13, 2012

I think the loan idea could founder on insurance.

My view would be that you can accept this as a gift and it will probably give your friend a lot of pleasure to be able to do something like this for you. However, if he's only recently come into the money he may still be slightly off-balance, can you maybe suggest you both wait a month or two, and then if he's still serious, you'd accept the bike graciously. If after that time he's decided he needs to prioritize something else then no harm done.

I'm not sure quite what script to use though - it could come across wrong if it sounds like "thanks, but let me think about whether I want to accept your gift and I'll get back to you".
posted by crocomancer at 3:29 AM on June 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

I assume that after his accident he had a lot of recovery time to think about what was important to him, and what came from that is that it is friendship and the people that were there for you when things are shit, and now he's looking to repay that kindness.

Agree with crocomancer though that it may be wise to wait for him to come to terms with the windfall first, and if by then it's still on offer then you should accept his offer
posted by MarvinJ at 3:37 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Complication: I'm a high-functioning autistic

It would be complicated for many people.

he's deadly serious and getting more insistent. It makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

Okay, so if I'm reading this right, he nearly killed himself and you supported him during his recovery. In return, he wants to do something for you that you cannot do for yourself; buy you an object of your shared desire.

There's a few levels operating here. From his side, he wants to reward you for your commitment to him during his time of need. As he has money, he is placing a substantial value on the companionship and your friendship. He may well feel that you gave him something he could not have given himself – real care – and in return he wants to do something similar for you.

The second level is that you gave your friendship and support because that is your character, not to later be rewarded with a motorcycle. Whilst it was a nice thing for you to do, you did not put a financial value on it.

The latter may well be part of your discomfort. That he is essentially valuing your time and care at the price of a new motorcycle. You may feel that your time is worth much more, or you may feel the gift far exceeds what you provided. Regardless your discomfort and mention of power indicates the locus of your issue.

The way exchange theory works is that you do something for me, and I owe you a favour. I repay the favour in another way.

If I repay the favour with something you equally value, we are even.

If I repay the favour with something of less value, by proxy I may value the relationship less, thus I have more power.

If I repay the favour with something of more value, by proxy, I may value the relationship more, thus you have more power.

It sounds as if you are concerned that by accepting the gift, he is exercising power over you. I would say first we must make a distinction between 'value' and 'price'. As he is a millionaire, the 'price' of the motorcycle is much less for him than it is for you. If you try to evaluate the relationship based on the 'price' of the motorcycle, you will make an error either way. For him, it's low. For you, it's high. Either anchor point makes the other point untenable.

Thus consider 'value', which is an internal measure. He values your commitment and wants to reward you with something you will value, which is a motorcycle. By a value basis, there may be no discrepancy at all, for you each receive something that is of substantial value.

And value is a tricky judgement. It's the reason that wealthy people tend to buy artwork, for there is unique value. They can buy houses, but anyone can buy a house. It's not as if they built the house themselves. Yet a unique piece of art can only have one owner, and that exclusivity changes everything.

Point being that if you compare your context (it is expensive) to his context (it is not expensive), you also must compare your gift to him (care and commitment). Can you buy care and commitment? In some ways you can, but you'll always know that you purchased them. When someone shows you authentic care and commitment based on their character, that is, in essence, priceless for a lot of people.

So back to your decision. If you are concerned that this gift unfairly prices your care and commitment, perhaps it will help to think from a value standpoint.

If you are concerned that there will be an associated power dynamic afterward – "I gave you the motorcycle, now agree with me about this..." – there well may be. That will be because you did a favour for him, he did a favour for you, now he'll expect another favour from you, and back and forth.

You can certainly accept the bike in fair trade for the favour that you have already done him. In the future, if another favour is asked of you, you can always refuse and keep the motorcycle. After all, the motorcycle was a reward for something already done. If you refuse to do the favour, he may be cross with you, however it does not make you a bad person, for you have made no further overt commitment to do anything specifically for him.

In the end, it comes down to understanding your gut instinct, which is not to take the gift. Why you do not want to take the gift is of the essence.

If you do not want to take the gift because you are juxtaposing price and value, you may well miss out on the opportunity to have someone bestow a very nice gift on you.

If you do not want to take the gift because the man has a history of manipulating people with material objects, you may well be protecting yourself from making a bargain you don't want to make.

And there may be heaps of other social dynamics present. He may want to show off. You may demure from being the fact it was given to you, rather than purchasing it yourself. Perhaps he is used to getting his way and is bristling that you refuse to take his offer. Perhaps it is that he really cares about you and thinks you are being silly for refusing something you would really enjoy.

In the end, it all has to do with your own values and the costs associated with this gift. One thing to remember is that it's not permanent. If you accept the gift and it turns out to be a terrible decision, you can always give it back to him, or sell it and give him the money for it. That may well be a massive insult and the end of your friendship, but it's not as if this decision is going to determine the course of the rest of your life. It can be undone if it is incorrect.

Finally, it is also a very new money thing to do. If this represents .01% of his net worth, that is different than 1% or 10%. There's a lot about class and sharing wrapped up in new money, but the short answer is that if the money is inconsequential to him, than don't worry about the new money side of it.

However, if he's obviously throwing around money and being capricious and may later regret it, you should take that into account – as a good friend would. If a billionaire wants to buy someone a Ferrari, that's very different than if a multimillionaire doing the same thing.

If you think he could be flagrantly tossing cash around and may regret it later, you can compromise on something of lesser cost that will indicate similar value. "Hey, you know, that bike is great, but I've actually been after this one... [that is 1/2 the cost]. You still get a new bike, he still gets to help you out, and you are helping him moderate his new-found fortune.
posted by nickrussell at 3:38 AM on June 13, 2012 [27 favorites]

This splits kind of 50/50 for everybody, and it's hard to know which side either participant falls on even when everybody involved is interaction-savvy.

I'm someone who tends to get extravagant gifts for people I like, if I can afford them and if the gift is something they obviously would enjoy. But I've absolutely made people uncomfortable with this behavior and have learned to preface gift giving like this with assurances that it's completely altruistic and I have no intention or desire for equal reciprocation. I often play it off with jokes like "Believe me, the chance to wrap a gift is thanks enough, I love sparkly ribbons." (This is true, actually.) I've also learned to never get offended when someone says they can't accept something. I might say something like "but accepting this gift will make my life easier!" (which once again, is often true) but another negative response and I'll drop it and make sure they know there's no hard feelings and I'm not trying to make them uncomfortable. That's just really honest to god how I am.

It's possible your friend is like that too, and only now has the means to do it to the extent he would like. Is he a normally generous person with his time and attention? Do you think he's pretty good with money normally and isn't being frivolous with a glut of new spending? If you think the answer to any of these is "no" then you would be a good friend to continue saying no thank you. You could offer instead that he do something less expensive for you, maybe a shared activity like tickets to a show or place you both enjoy? Since he is your friend and not your boss or anything, you have it a little easier, because you can be honest about why saying yes to that bike is making you uncomfortable.

I've been on the other end of this situation as well, with no money myself but some very well-off friends, and acutely understand that it's often down to an issue of pride. If I wanted whatever that expensive gift is enough, I should be able to budget for it myself! But it doesn't really work like that. Some people perceive giving gifts as completely unrelated to favors done and owed or any sort of transaction. It's really about "I can do this nice thing for them! That will make us both happy, awesome." Some people see gifts as inextricably tangled up in that whole web of who owes whom what and need everything to be reciprocal. It is entirely okay to be either type of person. The important part is being clear about this on both ends.
posted by Mizu at 3:50 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would hope that someone who feels that you took care of him like that also feels like he can have an open discussion with you. You two need to talk here.

Since you are more accustomed to riding a sport bike, the thought of having to operate and maintain a bike that weighs 3/4 ton could be your point of discussion. If he really wants to make you a gift, work with him to select something that suits you and your biking expectations more accurately. Walk with him around several bike shops, and see if anything really makes your eyes sparkle.

He probably wants you to be able to participate fully and comfortably in motorcycle club activities, and Harley-Davidson may be the de riguer brand in your club - but again, it doesn't have to be the Super Deluxe Ultra Cruiser for you to do that. They've got sport bikes that are comfortable on Ironbutt rides that don't weigh/cost 3/4 ton.

So, talk first and find out what he really has in mind, and then graciously accept what he offers.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:31 AM on June 13, 2012

Can your friend still ride after his accident? Is this his dream bike? Is he maybe trying to live vicariously through you? If so, you should take the bike and enjoy the shit out of it and let him know how much it means to you.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:36 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Say 'thank you' and accept. He can afford it, it'll make him happy, it'll make you happy. Sometimes things are simple.
posted by Segundus at 5:05 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're wondering about his motives for giving the bike (gratitude vs. obligation); is the bike he wants to buy you one that you have told him you would like, or one that he could reasonably know you specifically want? Or do you feel the gesture comes from obligation and he's simply picking an expensive example of something he knows you enjoy?
posted by Dipsomaniac at 5:19 AM on June 13, 2012

I would accept gracefully. He will get joy out of giving it to you. Also, it is not an expensive gift if you take it as a percentage of is actual windfall. It's kind of like someone with my income buying you a cup of coffee.
posted by Vaike at 5:31 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

It also sounds to me like he's just a generous guy. I like the "permanent loan" advice and the "wait a couple months" advice. What you say is something like "If you are totally serious, I would love to accept a gift like that. But I am not used to people being so generous with me, it makes me a little uncomfortable. Would you consider waiting a couple months before you buy it so I know you are sure you want to do it? Or we could call it a permanent loan, and you could have it back whenever you want? It would make me more comfortable accepting such a big gift if I knew you could back out if you wanted."

You could also (if this is something you know about) offer to help him manage his newfound wealth. Or, if he is going to buy a new one at the same time, offer to fly both of you to H-D headquarters to take delivery of the bike and then do some cross-country riding in the US.

When I don't know what the expected reaction should be, or the ettiquite in a situation is, I find that gracefully and humorously 'fessing up to it and asking what to do is the best way out.

Be warned however: if you make a cross proposal like the above, be prepared for him to take you up on it some time in the future. Especially if he is the kind of guy who would blow through all the money and end up back with nothing.
posted by gjc at 5:49 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If I were to come into a sizable chunk of money, I too would want to help out my friends with things like vehicles, vacations, and other things we could all enjoy together.

Your friend enjoys your company and I'm sure that he wants to buy you the motorcycle so that you can both ride together.

It's no fun being rich if your friends can't enjoy it too.

Now $1.8m is life-changing money, but it's not a HUGE amount of money in the scheme of things. Perhaps accompany him to his accountant (if he doesn't have one--RED FLAG) and get the accountant's 3rd party opinion. If the account agrees that it's not a big deal for your friend, then accept graciously and have a ball.

If things change in the future, and you feel that the bike is a burden in any way, you can always give it back to your friend, with thanks for the good times you had on it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:56 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Take the bike.

Ignore the social complexities.

It's a good bike, so take it.

If this giving is because of something you gave, without thought of recompense or reward, then accept this gift with the same spirit that you gave your gift. A complex way of saying; keep it simple.

I think your friend would be very touched by your confusion. If he is insistent then allow him to persuade you and allow him to enjoy your enjoyment.
posted by BadMiker at 5:58 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think there is a general cultural script (at least in the cultures that I am familiar with) that suddenly coming into a very large sum of money means all the social rules about gifts and money spending are ignored for a period of time (usually some months after the money is received). In fact, many people EXPECT that people who suddenly come into large sums of money will buy extravagant gifts for family and close friends.

Thus this might be the one time and circumstance when you can just smile, say thank you, and enjoy your new bike with no further obligations.
posted by lollusc at 6:10 AM on June 13, 2012

What an awesome guy...he comes into a significant chunk of money and want to share it.

Perhaps shift your thinking on this a little. Declining the gift would deprive him of the pleasure of being generous and acknowledging what your presence meant to him during his convalescence.

Take the bike, say thank you and enjoy the hell out of having such a lovely friendship.
posted by space_cookie at 6:11 AM on June 13, 2012

I wouldn't accept it. I would be afraid that this guy is going to give away too much of his windfall and end up with nothing. It happens all the time. I don't know how far $1.8 million goes where you live, but where I'm from if you go around buying motorcycles for your friends you'll burn through it pretty quickly.

If you do decide to accept the gift, make sure you know how much the bike will cost you in insurance and maintenance.
posted by mskyle at 6:31 AM on June 13, 2012

Best answer: It would be good if you could clarify whether you are dead set against accepting the gift. I fall into the set who feel it is at least potentially okay to accept the gift, but I'd like to know more about the reasons for your reluctance.

There's a scale issue that may explain some of the disparate perspective between you and your friend. From your perspective as a young man of presumably average means this is an excessively, inordinately extravagant gift. On the other hand, we're talking about a gift that is on the scale of 1-2% of your friend's windfall. Now if someone came in with a questions saying a friend had unexpectedly won $1000 in the lottery and was insisting on buying them a $20 meal everyone without exception would be saying, you know, don't be ridiculous, and by the way your friend is kind of a cheap ass.

Obviously a one-to-one comparison of these situations based on a simple percentage isn't fair but it might be fair to speculate that your friend - with this sudden access to this very large amount of money - might tend to view what he's offering from the latter perspective: a relatively small share of his good fortune.

It may honestly be more difficult to turn this down gracefully without straining the friendship, than to accept, honestly. No one enjoys having their generosity rebuffed. But if you are made genuinely uncomfortable in a way you can't get past by the gift then it becomes a kind of imposition even if there are no other issues (for example, you have concerns based on past experience with this individual that in one way or another there will be strings attached).

If you decide that refusing the gift is the right way to go I think the main thing is to be very direct, have the foundation of your refusal be a personal stand that can't be argued around, and have what you are going to say about it be well thought out before hand. Never been in a situation like this myself but I think something along the lines of -

- Express how much you appreciate the offer and your friend's friendship,
- But you cannot accept such a large gift. You just won't feel right, it's too important for you to pay your own way, something along that line. Something personal and intrinsic.
- You understand that it doesn't seem like such a lot to your friend but it is too much for you and you will feel a lot happier and better about things if your friend could just be okay with your not taking him up on the offer.

Some angles to consider in your refusal that might go down easier with your friend if that is the way you go - as you are in a club together and he is the head of it, you could point out that you don't want to be singled out in the club as receiving special favors and that you want it to be clear to everyone that your friendship with him is genuine and not based on gifts. The consideration of the cost of keeping the bike is a valid one too. Likewise what mskyle is pointing out is not out of line: this seems like a huge amount of money but from the perspective of not working for life (not knowing what your friend's means are) it is not such a big retirement nest egg. People do routinely burn through huge windfalls like this and lot of the how is buying real estate and vehicles for their friends and family (suggesting he is going to blow his fortune is probably not such a politic line to take though).

But the more you make it about external issue the more there is for your friend to argue around, and chances are if his heart is set on the idea, he will argue about it and may be genuinely hurt at a flat refusal.

One other angle that might help would be to suggest a much more modest "counter-offer", like that you will accept his help when you are ready to purchase a nice used bike that is more sensible for you to own given your means.
posted by nanojath at 7:05 AM on June 13, 2012

Response by poster: I'm deeply grateful for all the advice; to clarify, I don't feel social discomfort in the way that a neurotypical might, but I'm still acutely aware of the social rules surrounding this sort of thing; my partner and friends might express surprise and suspicion about this gift from someone they don't know.

I'll definitely consider everything that people have suggested; it would've been much harder to decide without the assistance. Especially thankful for the explanations that deconstruct things into terms an HFA can understand much more easily!
posted by Difference Engine at 8:49 AM on June 13, 2012

Just one more consideration: did your friend sustain a head injury? Because if he's been left foolhardy, and his 1.8 million is his (life-long) compensation, then you could be viewed -- by those in the know -- as taking advantage of your friend.

Is accepting this gift in your friend's best interests? Because you know what is said of a fool and his money.
posted by de at 9:19 AM on June 13, 2012

Accept it, unless you really believe he can't afford it.

Someone just paid for something for us to do which I would never do myself: I could probably afford it, but it would be "too frivolous." I waffled for a while and eventually agreed -- and I am glad I did because it gave both me & the giver a lot of enjoyment (the memories of which we will have forever) and they could afford it more easily than I could.

If you know your friend well enough you can judge whether can afford it (and it sounds like he can). If he sounds sincere, he probably is. :7) So take it, and let it make both of you happy.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:34 AM on June 13, 2012

I would not take the bike. Depending on which one, it's a gift valued between $15,000 - $35,000+. That's too much from a friend -- even a modestly wealthy one. If you feel uncomfortable (and I would!), there's nothing wrong with just being honest. "You are being so generous. And I really appreciate it! But it would make me feel very uncomfortable if you gave me such an expensive gift. Now, let's stop talking about this because your friendship has been equally rewarding for me."
posted by Houstonian at 4:21 PM on June 13, 2012

I think the fact that this gift is within the context of your shared love of motorcycles changes the dynamic a bit. It makes it less material and more of a "shared experience" kind of thing. That is, it's a more intimate and meaningful gesture than, say, handing you a check for the same amount. That bike is something you will be able to enjoy together when you ride together.

If he wanted to give you a check for the price of the bike I would think it odd and pretty inappropriate. But the bike itself, if you see yourself enjoying it with him (at least some of the time?) I think it would give him honest pleasure, and that you can feel ok about taking it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:31 PM on June 13, 2012

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