Help me unpack some of my weirdness around giving gifts.
July 11, 2014 2:11 PM   Subscribe

So I love giving gifts and, if I've committed to 'Giving Someone A Gift' instead of just 'Checking off the Box' I tend to put a lot of time and energy into them. However I've noticed that my pleasure in giving gifts is directly tied to how the recipient responds. MeFis, teach me to give unconditionally.

I take a lot of joy in being creative and finding something that someone would like that they hadn't known about before, and/or had wanted but hadn't thought possible (i.e. a special kind of beer only available certain types of the year).

If the recipient looks pleased, says thank you and mentions it later, I feel really happy and warm about the gift for long, long afterward -- win! But if the recipient doesn't take a moment to acknowledge the gift, and/or say they appreciate it, I can feel regret for giving the gift at all and feel stupid for putting so much time/energy into it. For example, a while ago I shopped extensively for a young family member and sent her a gift for his birthday that was specifically suited to her. I never heard a thank you either from her or her parents - and when I asked to talk with her on the phone about it I was told that she was busy and didn't want to talk. This made me regret having spent the time and money on the gift and I still feel embarrassed for having spent so much effort on the gift.

And another example is a church group I'm part of - I put time and effort into ordering a custom decoration to be used during the group meetings that other members had expressed a need for, but when I brought it to the group, it was put in a corner, unused - it turned out that the group members had been complaining just to make conversation and it wasn't really something that was wanted. Now I wish I had never taken the initiative to find and give the gift - I was happier in the group before I'd felt unappreciated.

My parents were polar opposites about giving gifts -- my dad, who grew up poor, was a penny-pincher who thought any sort of non-essential gift was a waste of money and didn't give Christmas or birthday gifts to anyone. My mom [who also grew up poor] compensated by showering us with an embarrassment of gifts throughout the year. So I think I'm pulled in two opposite ways around gifts -- if the person responds with delight, I feel justified in having given it. But if I don't get a happy response, my dad's worldview of "gifts are wasteful and stupid, why waste your time on something someone won't use or need" kicks in.

As we move into Gift Giving Season (Christmas/Hanukkah/holiday parties) I'd like some advice on how to give gifts in a healthy, happy way. How can I keep the joy of being creative/making a happy experience for the recipient, while avoiding dashed hopes if I hear nothing or a 'meh' back?

[And yes, if you look at my question history I definitely asked about DIY gifts last week...]
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto to Human Relations (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Give gifts during the off season. If you come across something you think a friend might like, just get it and give it to them for no reason. Even if it's a dumb, silly thing, it's always delightful to give and receive no reason gifts, because the real gift is that you were thinking about them.

It's pretty hard to be put out by the knowledge that someone cares about you.
posted by phunniemee at 2:25 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This might be obvious, but in every case, you both 'checked the box' and practiced empathy for the recipient too, so there's usually a benefit to you, if you care about being good at modeling other people. And for anything you're actively practicing, there are going to be misses--it's the price of getting better at something. I think you should be proud that you tried.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:26 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your gift giving approach is very transactional even though what you want in exchange isn't of material value. This isn't really gift giving in the purest sense. It's an exchange where someone gets a lovely gift and then they perform the desired thankfulness and effusiveness you need to feel good. Granted, who doesn't like to be thanked effusively and told how clever and sensitive they are after having spent a lot of time finding the perfect thing? But, the fact remains that not everyone likes being demonstrative and some people honestly don't like gifts and the whole thing makes them feel awkward and obligated. And, some people are just kind of rude.

As for the example with your young family member, the lack of response is 99% inattentive parenting. It's rude to not acknowledge a gift and it's the parents' job to teach their child manners. It's not an uncommon problem and some people choose to bring attention to it by asking if the package arrived ok in hopes that it will trigger an apology and thank-you. Or, you could just send a card next time.

Regardless, maybe try to figure out why you need the spotlight so much when you're giving a gift and maybe try to be less invested in finding the perfect thing so that you're not quite as invested in getting the perfect thank you.
posted by quince at 2:42 PM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hear you! I do the same when buying gifts and I also have had experiences when I've spent a long time assembling the "perfect" gift, looking forward to the reaction and then being disappointed.

I'm not saying "therapy!", but for me it helped to come to a realisation that it was about a deeper rooted need for validation that I felt was lacking growing up. It wasn't necessarily about hearing "wow that's just what I wanted, thanks!", but rather a need to hear on some level "you are a good/nice/thoughtful person". Realising that this was Childhood Stuff helped me accept that the recipient was free to respond (or not) to my gift in whatever way they wanted, because I'm the person who needs to know these things for myself and it's kind of unfair to expect other people to meet that need for me. So I still enjoy the process of looking for and giving the gift but I'm better at allowing that to be enjoyable in its own right. If people want to shower me with thanks it's just a bonus and not the goal.
posted by billiebee at 2:43 PM on July 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Even Jesus, the epitome of selflessness and self-sacrifice, was a bit put out when He healed 10 people and only one of them turned back to thank Him.

I mean, the actual purpose of His being here was to further His relationship with humanity. That's why people give gifts - to further their relationship with the recipient. Of course it's gonna hurt your feelings if you don't even get a minimal "thank you", which is a social nicety we expect of a five-year-old.

Of course, you should be reading people's responses to your gifts to tell how much they were appreciated, and it's really disappointing to give somebody something they didn't want, but you do get more information about their tastes. This is a somewhat separate issue from whether a recipient is just rude or unappreciative.

Supposing somebody really didn't like a thing you gave them, as in actively disliked it, then maybe they would just say "thanks!" and not mention it again. If they loved it, they would rave about it. But if they just didn't say anything, that communicates that what they don't appreciate about the gift is the person who gave it. They may not MEAN that but they're saying it. And unfortunately you have to pay attention to that message too. What I do in those cases is I just don't give them any more gifts, and I don't dwell on it. I don't conclude that they don't like me until I get other information that suggests it; I have friends who have a pattern about being rude about this stuff but who otherwise are incredibly generous and giving and who leave me in no doubt whatsoever about how much they value the friendship. Other friends were ignoring my gifts because they didn't respect me and this was indeed one of their ways of showing it; they are now ex-friends so it's not a problem any more.

I get where you're coming from but I don't think the answer is to just tune out social signals and assume there's something wrong with you. I really don't think there is.
posted by tel3path at 2:58 PM on July 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Identifying the emotions you're experiencing with your relationships to your parents sounds to me like you're on the right track to figuring out a personal solution to this issue, and I think that perhaps some therapy would help you down that path.

On the other hand, if you just want some anecdotal advice on how random internet person deals with this sort of problem: I look at giving gifts as setting aloft balloons of happiness. I spend time and effort and thoughtfulness on what it's made from, how it'll get airborne, and which direction I'll be sending it but once I've let go it's literally in the wind. It's also sort of like crafting FPPs for the front page of MetaFilter; you build this beautiful thing and publish it as a gift to the community, but once you've published it (even thought it's got your username attached) it's no longer yours. It belongs to the community.

Giving gifts is excellent because ostensibly joy is increased on both ends of the transaction. But it's easy to forget the joy you derive for yourself by giving gifts when you concern yourself (past the giving) of the other's. Take your pleasure in the giving and be done with it knowing you've increased some joy somewhere, even if it's just your own.
posted by carsonb at 3:03 PM on July 11, 2014

Best answer: By any chance did your father, in addition to not giving gifts to others, react impassively or almost as though he was offended when other people gave him birthday or Christmas or Father's Day gifts, to emphasize what ridiculous pointless claptrap gift-giving is?

One of my parents behaved this way and it definitely fed into the classic "nothing is ever good enough" attitude that I got from them. And consequently made gift-giving in general an emotional thing for me, always with the tension and echoes of fervently hoping that just this fucking once an attempt to please said parent would be worthy of something more positive than barely-concealed disdain.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 3:07 PM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: First of all, thank you for being so thoughtful and generous. These are some of the most wonderful human qualities, and you are a wonderful human for having them.

Second, it is only human to hope for a warm and happy response when you have invested time and energy into trying to make someone feel happy. The fact that you haven't gotten such a response tells me that 1) some of your recipients need to work on their courtesy skills and 2) you might want to be more selective about who choose for your really effortful gifts. For example, I wouldn't spend a lot of time/effort in the future on your young family member's gifts or that particular church member's expressed wants. There is nothing wrong with saving your energy and efforts for the people who respond to getting them.

I see no reason to beat yourself up for feeling disappointed when people don't appreciate your thoughtfulness, but would suggest that in the future, for your own peace of mind, just cross them off your mental effortful giftee list and then let the matter go. There are a lot of people who for one reason or another don't act as they should -- don't engage by worrying overmuch about that, and know that 99.9% of the time it has nothing whatever to do with you.
posted by bearwife at 3:52 PM on July 11, 2014

Best answer: Maybe you feel a little embarrassed because you showed how much you care & how much the person means to you by investing time & thought in this gift but didn't feel like the caring was reciprocated by equally thoughtful acceptance of the gift? In that case don't make the gift a "do you love me too?" gesture. Give gifts you feel like giving, to those you feel like putting the effort into. If people don't appreciate it then you have permission not to try as hard the next time. In those "5 love languages" you really value gift-giving but not all people think that way.

A friend I adore gave me the most cringeworthy gift last year. I wanted to bury it. It now occupies a hall of shame spot in my house. I won't ever mention it because I don't want to get another. And I still adore this friend.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:32 PM on July 11, 2014

Don't forget that the people you're giving gifts to will also have their own attitudes and back story surrounding gift giving and receiving. Take me for example - I'm not keen on gifts. I'll accept them and be grateful and enthusiastic (and touched when someone has obviously taken the time to come up with something wonderful), but I'll also be (hopefully less obviously) embarrassed at the attention and slightly panicky, wondering how the heck I'm going to come up with something as excellent in return.
posted by eloeth-starr at 5:03 PM on July 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

You have an interest. Like any other interest, I'd think you'd be better off sharing it with those that have a common interest.
posted by jpe at 5:11 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But that doesn't mean it's not supposed to feel bad when a gift is unacknowledged.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:16 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

So in my family there was always a good daughter role and a bad daughter role. Whoever was GD got the thoughtful effusive gifts and whoever was BD got the bad ones. The roles flipped according to the whim of the narcissistic parent. But one way to try to flip the roles would be to produce the Best Gift, except that also depended in parental whim.

Recent example: last year I got a used book and a set of crockpot liners for my birthday and my sister got a set of diamond earrings for hers.

I am not kidding.

I give you this example so that the next time someone responds to your generosity in a lame way, you can remember they may come from a family like mine. Generally I have gotten better at thank yous and chilling out but in the past I've had times I know I have blown it. Gifts give me panic. But I still appreciate then after calming down.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:32 PM on July 11, 2014

Best answer: I second eloeth-starr - I always try to be verbally grateful and thankful for gifts, the experience is excruciating for me and I somewhat resent gifts and gift-giving occasions. I still go out of my way to thank gift-givers (regardless of how much I actually like said gift) and mention it when appropriate (thanking a relative for the clothing gift that I still wear years later when I wear it again in a photo), but I would much rather the effusive gift-givers find each other and shower each other with gifts.

It isn't helped by gifts being inappropriate (with kids for example, what one person can assume is amazing and appropriate and perfect can cause huge amounts of family consternation and not get used, which results in a curt sort of a thank you and that's it), or just annoying sometimes. I have a very small house and there is very little a person can give me that isn't irritating and unnecessary, no matter the thought they put in. And it is hard to muster anything but a 'thank you' when I'm simultaneously wondering what I need to get rid of (from my existing and usually liked stuff) in order to make space for what I've been given.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:53 PM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

By giving a gift you are offering somebody the opportunity to be delighted, but you cannot force them. It doesn't mean that it's not worth trying.

I like to give gifts, too (except -- I am not good at giving gifts for pre-defined occasions when they are socially required; I like giving unexpected gifts when I find something, even something very insignificant, that I think will genuinely please another person.) What I've found is pretty much what you're describing -- that people have unpredictable reactions. I've learned to just move on and focus on the ones who seem thrilled, because life's to short already and there are some people who are actually made uncomfortable by being given a gift -- either because it implies a level of relationship they don't feel or because they somehow feel it obligates them to reciprocate.

Don't sweat it -- usually a lackluster response says far more about the recipient than it does about the giver. And don't give up trying to make people's lives around you better and more filled with good surprises.
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:54 PM on July 11, 2014

Best answer: Just wanted to second geek anachronism and eloeth-starr re: gift-receiving being by no means a universally pleasant experience for everyone, regardless of how thoughtful the gift is. Not everybody likes surprises, not everybody needs more Stuff (even lovely, carefully-chosen Stuff). As an introvert blessed with lots of exuberantly gifty relatives, I've definitely had uncharitable moments when the receipt of yet another unasked-for, unexpected object (especially with X hours of "thoughtful" energy and time behind it) just seemed like a painful, involuntary drain on my limited emotional resources, like those CD club CDs that used to come in the mail (with a bill!) even when you didn't order them. Because now, as you point out, I owe those people-- effusive thank-yous, subsequent mentions, the burden of guilty gratitude that comes with knowing someone spent a lot of time and/or money on you, and how are you going to pay it back? In stressful periods, there are very few material items that'd feel worth incurring that kind of emotional debt, to me.

All of which is NOT to say that you're not great for being a thoughtful gifter, or that you don't deserve a warm response when you give people nice things. But do keep in mind that while gifts are some people's love language, they're not everybody's love language. If you have other people in your social circle that similarly love gifting, I suspect those same people might be just the ones to respond with appropriate enthusiasm and joy when you get them thoughtful gifts. Maybe, instead of casting your generosity far and wide, you could try sussing out which of your friends really like presents, and then focus your energies on those few individuals for whom it'll bring the most happiness.
posted by Bardolph at 6:27 PM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

My late MIL was a genius at gift giving because she asked what we all wanted and then got us exactly those things. Not what she thought we should have, not what she would have
liked, not what came close, not what struck her fancy in the store. Exactly the items on the wishlist. The first Christmas I spent with her, I nearly cried because I had not known people actually did this.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:55 PM on July 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, these answers are all incredibly helpful. And, Sockpuppet Liberation Front, did we have the same dad? Thanks all, lots to mull over and incorporate.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 10:01 PM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As we move into Gift Giving Season (Christmas/Hanukkah/holiday parties) I'd like some advice on how to give gifts in a healthy, happy way. How can I keep the joy of being creative/making a happy experience for the recipient, while avoiding dashed hopes if I hear nothing or a 'meh' back?

When I give a gift, I try to put all of my love into it before it is ever received. Maybe that sounds weird, but I spend a bit of time focusing my affection, care, and best wishes on [whatever: gift certificate, physical object, charitable donation] at the point of creation or purchase. I meditate on how much I care about the recipient, how I hope their life is going well, how I hope they will continue to thrive, how grateful I am to know them, how they make the world a better place. And then I send the [whatever] off into the world with that love and gratitude attached, like the tail on a kite.

Once you've taken time out of your day to truly feel why you are giving the gift, you might feel less bummed out by what might seem like an inadequately enthusiastic response. I mean, if they hate the gift, is that really so terrible? Nah. You wish them well and they wish you well because you're friends/family and that's what counts. They might re-gift your gift to someone else who could really love it, or it could become an in-joke just between the two of you, or they could donate it to Goodwill and get a tax write-off. If they love the gift, bonus! Icing on the cake. You've already put your love and care and good energy out there and now it's amplified by theirs.

This probably sounds like total hippie bullshit, but that's what works for me.

And like phunniemee says, give gifts for no reason. Listen closely to your would-be recipients: Someone raves about a particular scent, give them a scented candle or some soap that with that scent. Someone really likes a particular beer, bring along a six-pack when you're heading over to their place to watch movies. If you ever hear them utter the words, "I really want [x] but I'd never get it for myself," you already know you've got a winner. And if you see anything at all that instantly reminds you of someone, pick it up and save it to give to them on a random day. Don't feel pressured to pick out or create The Absolute Perfect Gift in time for someone's birthday or Christmas or whatever. It's nice to let people know that you're thinking fondly of them whenever it comes up.
posted by divined by radio at 6:31 AM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Gifts are difficult, because as others have pointed out, they force a sort of intimate conversation and even reciprocal obligations. It's easy to offend! So, I have largely given up on gifts-as-expressions of love or caring, and switched to action. If you take the time you spent crafting or finding a Perfect Gift and instead, came over to visit, or helped with a dreaded chore, you create more closeness, and generally it is more appreciated. Presence counts for more than presents.

In the US at least, we are awash in Stuff, but deprived of time, and closeness.

Our famillies have downsized our birthdays and holidays to be more about activities, and for Christmas, do Yankee Gift Swaps that can be pretty fun and are inexpensive. It really has worked out better for us.
posted by emjaybee at 8:39 AM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Giving gifts to truly needy people is a good thing. Giving Christmas gifts of clothing or toys to kids in need is great. I'd rather get a card stating that a young needy child got something that they really needed in my name.
posted by BillyAnne at 11:31 AM on July 12, 2014

Hmm. I had a radical idea which may help you to kind of forcibly sever the "gift-giving" impulse from the "feedback-seeking" one:

See if there's some kind of a "secret santa" thing at your post office or another similar local charity, where the poor and needy send their letters of things they want to some kind of central address and anyone can come along and fulfill their wishes. I've only been able to do this exactly once - I picked up a couple letters, and the way it works is you shop for, wrap, and ship the gift to the recipient. You can give them your identity, or leave it secret.

What I would do is - see if there's something like that and pick up a letter or two to fulfill their requests, but NOT give them your name; keep it secret. The people you give that to, whoever they are, are strangers to you, and will forever remain strangers to you - you will never see their reaction. But you still had the joy of putting in the effort to get them a gift.

It's a weird and radical hunch, but I wonder if it may kind of help you to disconnect "gift-giving is a fun thing" from "I want to be appreciated" as two separate impulses and needs.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:55 AM on December 1, 2014

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