How do I become better at giving people gifts?
October 31, 2014 4:43 AM   Subscribe

I feel great gift givers are not always the ones who devote the most time or money to this art - so what are their secrets? I'm happy to consider wisdom derived from science, literature or anecdote. Likewise I am interested in advice centred on observation, triage, shopping, timing, wrapping and so on. What makes a ninja gift giver?
posted by rongorongo to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
My aunt is probably the best gift giver I have ever known. Her trick? She shops all year. All year long she keeps an eye out for perfect gifts for each person. One year for christmas she gave me this awesome bag for me to use for when I went to the market every saturday. She got it while she was on vacation in February and then gave it to me in DECEMBER. See what I'm saying? Rather than trying to find something for each person a month or two before christmas she spends all year just casually keeping an eye out for cool gift items. That opens up a ton more time and opportunity to find special meaningful things for each person.

My other aunt (another great gift fiver) pays attention all year to what people mention. One Christmas my sister teased my aunt about the weird ass outfits she used to wear that were always in the brightest clown-like colours. The following Christmas my sister got the most memorable of the outfits as a gift with the instructions that she had to wear said outfit to our big extended family christmas dinner.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 4:50 AM on October 31, 2014 [22 favorites]

Along those lines, I try to pay attention all year to what people wish for out loud. For example, if we're at a summer festival and you say "I wish I had one of those chairs" then I make a note (mental or actual.) Come the holidays, BAM - chair.
posted by lyssabee at 4:54 AM on October 31, 2014 [13 favorites]

Nthing the above advice. My own gift-giving has become better and less stressful for me once I started a Google drive list of gift ideas I maintain year-round and a secret Pinterest board. I also recommend shopping online, since you can compare many similar items rather than getting stressed out at the thought of traveling to yet another store in the middle of the Christmas rush and buying whatever is minimally acceptible.
posted by fermezporte at 5:23 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, getting gifts ahead is a great plan. I have a problem, though, that I'll get too excited to save the gift until the occasion, so the person gets the gift early and then I have to find another one.

Strangely, the people I'm close to who give me the best gifts don't really do it based on my particular likes and habits, but on theirs. My younger, hipper sister sends me younger, hipper stuff than I would buy myself, and it always reminds me of her. A lot of my favorite books and CDs are ones people have given me, that I hadn't heard of. Local and regional stuff is great too, if they live somewhere else. My other sister sends out packages of stuff from where she lives, that you can't get where I live, and it is great.

Similarly, I work part time in a bookstore and always suggest giving books based on their favorites, but not their favorites. The best gift is not exactly what they would get for themselves. How much of a departure you want to make depends on how well you know them and if they welcome gifts that are a surprise. My father hated surprise gifts and so I always gave him whatever books by his favorite authors had just come out, with gift receipts. I guess what I am saying is, you do have to know the recipient and not give them something inappropriate. But if the point of the gift is not primarily financial-- like getting them something expensive that they need, or just giving them money, which is often the best gift-- something that's different, rather than the same, is really nice.
posted by BibiRose at 5:25 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a decent gift giver, and I really enjoy the process. I shop for things year round, and pick up interesting stuff when I see it.

I also do unusual stuff with gifts. When we vacation with friends I make a little swag bag for each family with things they'll need (liquid hand soap for the hotel bathroom) along with fun stuff like a deck of cards, or troll dolls or glitter eye-shadow.

My friend Summer likes Maxwell House from a percolator (I KNOW!) I also know she wanted the Corning Wear Cornflower one my Mom had in the sixties (before she got her Chemex) only problem is that they're long gone new, and there was a problem with the handle and spout. So I got her a small, electric one from Cuisinart with a retro feel. Now she doesn't have to watch her stovetop percolator and the coffee stays warm as she drinks down the pot.

I was so excited I just sent it.

I don't give people gifts at Christmas or birthdays per se, but I will give you the perfect thing, out of the blue, because I'm so excited to have found something you'd love!

My mother thinks she's a good gift giver, but she isn't. She gives me stuff SHE likes. Then gets bent when I don't use it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:41 AM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was a crappy gift-giver who got stressed out around the holidays until I picked up on the above advice of listening all year long when my wife (or others) say they really like something. I've become a master of pretending I'm not listening at all when my wife looks in a shop window and says "that is such an aweseme shirt" or mentions an interview with an author on NPR she heard and observes that the book they were talking about sounded super-interesting. I just say, "oh, is that so?" in a bored voice. Then I quickly and stealthily write it down somewhere private, and come the holidays or birthday-time, I have a trove of ideas. A couple times my wife has totally forgotten that she mentioned something in my presence and believed that I picked it out, out of the blue, just for her. I've never bothered to disabuse her of that notion.
posted by GorgeousPorridge at 5:51 AM on October 31, 2014 [20 favorites]

Nthing listening all year long and the private Pinterest board . Whenever I hear someone mention what they like (or if I see something they'd like) I pin it. When the time for shopping came around, I shop right from my board. My sister-in-law's birthday was a few weeks ago, and I gave her something I pinned in March. This year even though I haven't started Christmas shopping yet, I have all of my ideas ready to go.
posted by kimberussell at 5:57 AM on October 31, 2014

If you're going to take on board the above (excellent) advice to buy gifts all year, the counterpart of that is budgeting for gifts the year round, too..
posted by mymbleth at 6:01 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Good gift giver here.

Listening all year long and keeping a file/notebook with things is a good idea. Sometimes my list is from the last few years so I get to pick and choose. When possible, I also like to give something with shared meaning/importance.

This also lets me shop deals and sales when appropriate.

I prefer to do a bunch of smaller gifts instead of one larger gift. Lets you hedge your bet a bit and opens up options by giving fun little quirky things as well as special items.

This year my girlfriend got 11 days of Birthday instead of just one. :)
posted by PlutoniumX at 6:03 AM on October 31, 2014

Should have previewed. @mymbleth is exactly right.

I need to budget better.

All year long shopping for smaller items adds up and I spend too much money.
posted by PlutoniumX at 6:05 AM on October 31, 2014

Not surprisingly, psychologists have studied this, and the answer is generally consistent with the advice above about listening to people. People seem to like getting what they want. "...people like a surprise gift less than cash or something they picked themselves through a gift registry like Amazon’s wish list ..... married couples...reported liking the ones from the registry more than the unsolicited ones .... recipients liked gifts of money even more than something of equivalent value from their wish list."

And don't worry about spending more money: "experiments have shown that the price of a gift matters more to the giver than to the recipient."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:09 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's all about listening. People who give gifts that people adore usually remember conversations or links shared on Facebook from months or years earlier.

That. Plus a sense of empathy for people's unique life circumstances - you don't give hiking equipment to someone who literally just got discharged from the hospital after major surgery on a shattered hip, for instance, and you don't give anything big, impractical, or cumbersome to someone who's living in a really tiny apartment.

Of course, even here having a sense of the individual is the primary thing - if your friend with that shattered hip is already an avid hiker, and you know they're already itching to recover and get back out on the trails, maybe you could give them something related to hiking after all as a sort of "something to look forward to!" kind of thing.

Really, it's about putting yourself in the other persons' shoes and looking at the world from their perspective a little bit, and then choosing a gift from that perspective.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:24 AM on October 31, 2014

Yeah, secret #1 is paying attention. I have two relatives who buy me crafting books -- of the two, I LOVE my Aunt Nancy's gifts, while Cousin Susan's gifts hurt my feelings. But they're both buying me craft books. The difference is that Aunt Nancy pays attention and always knows what I'm working on, while Cousin Susan gives me knitting books for five years after I've had to give up knitting due to tendonitis. (Cousin Susan also buys clothing that fits her, not me -- she is several inches shorter and a couple sizes down from me. She can buy me socks and they will STILL be the wrong size.)

Secret #2 is keeping notes. I keep a secret Amazon shopping list.

I'm not sure if I'm a master gift giver, but beyond THINKING ABOUT THE PERSON, here's what helps me.

-For small children in my family, I keep a log of what I have gotten them in the past. For me it's an actual paper journal, but any list or spreadsheet would work. That way I never buy the same thing twice, and if a parent says little Molly really liked the Sparkle Princess Pony playset for her birthday, I can buy the matching Twinkle Princess Pony playset for Christmas. Moreover, if Molly liked the Sparkle Princess, maybe her cousin June would like it too.

-If I find a book I like, at least one child in each family I gift to will get that book at an appropriate age.

-I shop year-round. I keep a box in a closet with potential gifts. This way, if I come across a serving platter in Cousin Susan's discontinued china pattern at a thrift store in June, I am READY for her birthday the following March (or whatever).

-Before any major gifting occasion, I drag out the box and make a list of who I still need to shop for. I tend to do this a couple weeks or a month in advance.

-I wrap everything for Giftmas all at once and only after I have all the gifts. That way I can't lose a tag or forget what I purchased.

-For clothing, I always, always include a gift receipt. It's also a good idea to keep receipts from gift cards -- I've given someone a gift card that wasn't properly activated, and they needed the receipt to fix it.

-I set a rough overall budget plus rough budget per person. I find it can be easy to go over budget and/or feel like you're not spending enough on someone. Setting a budget in advance can help prevent this.

-I enjoy crafting, but I gift handmade items very sparingly, and only if I know the person will appreciate that particular item. The work that goes into most handmade gifts isn't appreciated. (Not because the recipient is a bad person, either! It's just a thing.)

-If you find yourself thinking that someone SHOULD like an item -- not that they will or might like it, but that they actually SHOULD appreciate it -- step back. You're projecting your desires/values onto that person.
posted by pie ninja at 6:45 AM on October 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

One thing that the above advice implies is that you have to spend time on people. Some gift givers spend that time in little bits throughout the year. Others spend it all at once. Try sitting down with one name for 15 minutes twice a day and really think about that person. As with most successful creative endeavors, gift giving only seems effortless.
posted by joebakes at 6:47 AM on October 31, 2014

Lots of good advice above about paying attention throughout the year.

I like to think of gifts as little luxuries. Some of my favorite gifts to GET are practical, so I try to make my gifts for others practical luxuries.

I like to get people slightly nicer versions of things that they like, but wouldn't buy for themselves. For example, my friend cooks most of her meals and is very frugal, so I got her some nice kitchen towels, some fancy salt, and a couple handy kitchen tools from Crate and Barrel. If I'm giving consumables, I want them to be a really good quality.

It's fun to think of a broad theme for a gift (kitchen stuff, movie lovers, music fans, creative artists, fashionistas, outdoorsy people) and use the luxury guideline to create a theme gift of 3-5 small but useful items, based on the receiver's interests.

I also pay attention to gift guides in magazines and on blogs. Real Simple has a gift guide for $25 and $50, and stocking stuffer gift guides in their Christmas issue. Design Sponge and Not Martha are a couple blogs that have DIY gifts and cool products in lots of different styles that would make great gifts. Etsy is another place to browse to get ideas, too.

I also think of little things that I love and use that are favorites, and think of who might not know about them and would appreciate them. You just have to be sure you are thinking of the gift receiver, and that you are matching their tastes.

I've also consulted AskMe for some specific gifts if I know a person's interests but am absent for gift ideas, and it's always been helpful, too!
posted by shortyJBot at 6:48 AM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also keep a list and am glad other do to. When my mom mentions a book she liked in July, I literally make a note so I can look for similar books in December. Or if in surfing etsy I see something that reminds me of my sister-in-law, I save it. Some years I end up with 6 ideas for one person and none for another but they can't all be winners every year!

If I see the PERFECT thing, I buy it no matter what time of year it is. Otherwise if its just "pretty good" or "something like that" ot "wonder if she has one?" I add it to my list and go through the list for ideas in November and do my shopping.

If I see something PERFECT for someone but too expensive for me, I totally send it to their spouse. A number of my friends and relatives have gotten excellent, unique jewelry that they looooove from their spouses due to my surf-and-send habits.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:20 AM on October 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

Once I actually put something on hold at the physical jeweler and called my friend's husband, who I didn't know very well, and told him he had to come to the jeweler RIGHT. NOW. She was delighted with her Christmas gift and thought he had shockingly good taste in jewelry. It is our secret.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:22 AM on October 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

Pie Ninja makes an interesting point about gifts for kids.

Especially if it's a kid you're related to, it's sometimes tempting to fall into a trap of what you think the kid should like as a gift, or to try to "instruct" them through your choice of gift or something, because you fall into the trap of thinking that you should "mold" them or something.

To use myself as an example, I'm a fairly nerdy feminist, and my niece is a SUUUUUUUPER girly-girl. For a while, when I was shopping for gifts for her I was trying to do the whole thing about avoiding the "pink ghetto" with toys and trying to avoid sparkly princessy dressup things - but then I realized that you know what, that is who she is, and it is what she super-duper loves, and it would probably mean more to her to get presents that she actually did genuinely like rather than gifts that sort of carried this instructive subtext - the toy equivalent of vegetables. So, ever since, I roll my eyes as I buy it, but I buy the sparkly princess stuff.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:28 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Definitely listen, but also keep in mind the person's current time in life or the reason for the occasion. I'm a fan of a lot of little things, rather than one big thing, and presenting the gift in a neat way. My partner and I recently began the tradition of "birthday buckets" (and I'm telling all of you because I want this to become a thing!) where the birthday person receives a bucket filled with little things for their birthday, much like stockings on Christmas. You can still get the birthday person a big gift (like a watch or guitar) if you have the budget and the reasoning, but the birthday bucket is a nice batch of little, silly and/or useful gifts. This year my birthday bucket contained treats from all of my favorite local stores. I also gave a birthday bucket with NERF guns to an engaged couple with close birthdays-- they loved it and had a lot of fun. Not the most thoughtful gifts, but I know they're a couple who appreciates fun stuff.

At the very least, give something surprisingly useful or something very returnable.
posted by thefang at 7:59 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nthing listening and buying when you see the thing that has a loved one's name on it, but here are a few additional suggestions:

1. Beyond listening, observe closely. I inspected my husband's CD collection many years ago to find which Jimi Hendrix and Thelonious Monk albums he didn't have, for example. The better you understand your giftee's tastes and dislikes, and figure out what they have and don't have, the more accurately you can predict what gift will delight.

2. Aim to give the thing they are unlikely to get for themselves. E.g. a gift certificate to a store they think is too pricey for them, an accessible and fun electronic item for someone who is a bit afraid of gadgets, snazzy chocolates from an obscure or distant location to a chocoholic.

3. I personally think gift wrapping is important and fun. I like doing it myself and have a collection of wraps and ribbons and stickers and more, but there's plenty of pre-made items like stick on bows and nice gift bags out there that work fine. Put some thought into your card and what you say in it.

4. Always think about using the hive mind here as a resource for gift ideas. I totally hit it out of the park last year when I asked here about ideas for my husband's stocking stuffers.
posted by bearwife at 9:26 AM on October 31, 2014

To supplement all these great answers-I make heavy use of Evernote. I keep notes with measurements/sizes, relevant links, and notes to keep track of what people mention through the year ("I'd love to try homebrewing!" etc). I write down ideas through the year, and when I purchase items I also add how much was spent. As another sufferer from the 'I'll just get one more thing' affliction, this helps me budget. You can make new notes each year and save old ones if you are worried about duplicating gifts. Oh and you can use social media to your advantage here, too. Do a little stalking of things they're excited about to beef up your first list of ideas. Have fun!
posted by PaulaSchultz at 3:36 PM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

In addition to what's here:

The rule that has never led me astray is that whatever I buy something for someone, it has to be an *incredible* instance of that thing. It seems that people are happier to receive the best pencil or comb, rather than a crappy television (not the best examples, but the point holds). Buy less impressive categories of things, and buy higher quality, instead.
posted by Edna Million at 7:12 PM on November 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Many thanks for all the great answers. I notice that there are a few contradictions (Do you give somebody what they asked for or surprise them? - Do you give them something that matches your interests or find something that is wholly the recipient? Do you give one larger gift or a number of smaller ones?). Which, I guess, implies there is more than one route to success. Mr.Know-it-some's suggestion of the NYT article on gift giving psychology had an interesting insight for me: those who receive gifts are normally completely unaware of whether it took us 5 months or 5 minutes to find something for them. And they usually equally unaware that we passed up giving them diamonds to get them a re-gifted book of poetry. Nobody, to date, has mentioned anything about the nature of recipients: there seem to be some who are delighted with token gifts, those who love (or detest) surprises, some who care about perceived financial value and some who just want cash.
posted by rongorongo at 12:22 AM on November 2, 2014

Nobody, to date, has mentioned anything about the nature of recipients: there seem to be some who are delighted with token gifts, those who love (or detest) surprises, some who care about perceived financial value and some who just want cash.

Well, yeah - that's also the kind of thing you can figure out by paying attention to a person.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:43 AM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you give somebody what they asked for or surprise them? - Do you give them something that matches your interests or find something that is wholly the recipient?

I'm coming late to this discussion, but if you choose to surprise them versus give them what they ask for, PLEASE a) make sure that they weren't setting their heart on what they asked for and b) make darn sure that what you surprise them with is something they'll be overjoyed by.

Secondly, never, ever give something that matches your interests if it doesn't also match their known interests. Don't use a gift opportunity as a chance to educate someone or try to expand their horizons. It should be all about them.
posted by Amy NM at 10:23 AM on November 6, 2014

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