I am the Grinch of office Christmas. How do I recover?
December 18, 2019 1:51 PM   Subscribe

I've accidentally committed a faux pas of under paying for a Christmas exchange and I feel awful. How do I make it up to this person?

At our office Christmas party there was a gift exchange of the minimum of $10. We played a version of white elephant and I realized that my gift was not favored. I should have reached for my gift when I had the chance. Stupidly I reached for a gift that was three times the minimum.
I spent only a little bit more than the minimum and it was apparent by my gift. I have co workers that know that it was me that spent it on such a cheap gift. The person that received my gift actually organized the event and I feel super guilty about all of it. Should I give another gift to the person that received the gift? I didn't realize that people would spend so much more than the minimum and honestly my gift was very thoughtless. I just started my job very recently and I don't want to be known as the cheap, thoughtless gift giver. What do I do?
posted by sheepishchiffon to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, if I was in an office where people even noticed something like this, let alone let it reflect on how they thought about me or interacted with me, I would consider that to be a toxic environment that I wouldn't want to work in. You got a gift per the stated expectations; you're good.
posted by quiet coyote at 1:54 PM on December 18, 2019 [41 favorites]

Thinking about this more- if I was in an office where I knew that everyone spent $40 for a gift exchange, and I saw someone new to the office buy a $10 gift, here are the reactions I'd have, in order of likelihood:
*Not notice (96% likely)
*Notice and assume the person didn't know the norm, and think that I should let them know gently (2% likely)
*Notice and assume the person couldn't afford a more expensive gift (1% likely)
*Notice but assume I was wrong about the gift being less than $40 (1% likely)
posted by quiet coyote at 1:59 PM on December 18, 2019 [14 favorites]

Get something better next year? I can't imagine any other thing you might try (e.g. getting something more expensive for the person who ended up with your gift) not coming off as awkward. You were given poor instructions, and have never participated in this particular tradition before and therefore didn't know the norms, and honestly I feel like you're beating yourself up over it too much.
posted by Aleyn at 2:01 PM on December 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

I might, if I thought it would play/be believed, go to the organizer with a gift card that matched the gift you bought and say "I'm so embarrassed! I realized too late that this didn't make it in with my gift for the exchange. Merry Christmas!" and walk away.
posted by ApathyGirl at 2:02 PM on December 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

This may or may not work for your office and the people in it.

What about sending a nice holiday card to the organizer/giver of your gift?

"Hey (Colleague), thank you for the time and effort you spent organizing the Christmas gift exchange on our behalf. Your gift was so generous! Since this was my first year, I'll know for next year that I'll need to step up my game. I appreciate your generousity. Hope you find some moments of peacefulness amidst the busy holiday season."

(Maybe include a consumable baked good/Christmasy food/nice box of chocolates or something if you are feeling especially guilty?)

I truly believe the acknowledgement is the most important part.
posted by nathaole at 2:06 PM on December 18, 2019 [39 favorites]

Alternatively, you could go to the organizer/recipient of your gift with an additional item/gift card and say/with a card "I'm so embarrassed! Everyone's gifts were so nice and at my last job they really put the white elephant in the office white elephant gift exchange. Please, let me upgrade my contribution with the warmest wishes from the new guy/gal."
posted by ApathyGirl at 2:09 PM on December 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

It's not a faux pas to follow the explicit instructions of the organizer. These sorts of gift exchanges are really touchy in professional contexts because it gives little instruction to the participants on what to do. In addition, not all participants can afford a high value gift. Ideally, the organizer should have specified a maximum in order to avoid embarrassment like this.

Do nothing. Next year, consider whether you want to participate, and if you do, to follow the de facto spending as guidance for next year.

Anyone who is going to work gift exchanges to "get the loot" and who views coworkers negatively for not providing sufficiently expensive gifts is not worth your consideration. If you ever hear about this from any coworker, feel free to ignore them.
posted by saeculorum at 2:12 PM on December 18, 2019 [48 favorites]

I say the faux pas was having a minimum set for a gift exchange. I've never encountered that -- it's always a maximum. This has been my experience with friends, coworkers, family, and other social groups. That said: there was a minimum set and you met it. You're fine! It's just an office gift exchange!

Don't do anything additional this year; it would just make things weird.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:19 PM on December 18, 2019 [87 favorites]

Yep, ideally there’s a max value and min comes secondary, giving eg a $10-15 range.

The organizer rigged this to be a shit show, perhaps unintentionally, but you are fine and if they don’t like what happened, they may come to reflect on the wisdom of their shitty instructions.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:22 PM on December 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I've only ever been at offices with a maximum (usually $15) for white elephant gift exchanges, so seeing a minimum rather than a maximum immediately made me raise my eyebrows. It also reminds me of Michael Scott putting an iPod in the white elephant exchange in one of the U.S. Christmas episodes of The Office, tbh.

+1 that you don't have to do anything additional for this situation. I can understand if the work culture makes you feel pressured into feeling like you need to, but I agree with the corpse in the library that it'd just make things weirder. You followed the rules and the rules were at fault here, not you!
posted by rather be jorting at 2:31 PM on December 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

I didn't realize that people would spend so much more than the minimum and honestly my gift was very thoughtless. I just started my job very recently and I don't want to be known as the cheap, thoughtless gift giver. What do I do?

I think if you want to do something nice for the organizer, the script offered by nathaole is nice or just bring in a snack to share this week. That said, I am the lifetime every-office Grinch and my counterpoint would be what other people are saying: It was a set-up to not have a maximum $$ amount. Other people knew how these things usually go and you did not. You did something appropriate given the outline you were given. Office gift exchanges are a weird blending of work/life, and as such are fraught minefields for people who are new, bad at reading signals, don't have a lot of money (or don't want to spend it on that) or a variety of other reasons. I appreciate that you don't want to be seen as bad-gift-sheepishchiffon but I think I would just leave this one alone and make a mental note for next year.
posted by jessamyn at 2:32 PM on December 18, 2019 [9 favorites]

I agree with everyone else that it is really strange to have a minimum, and kind of goes against the spirit of the whole thing? We had one at my work and the maximum was $20. From what I saw everyone had a fun (but a little anxious) time trying to think of a cheap gift within the price range, and it was really fun to open your small gift on the day. The whole point is having something to unwrap really, not how expensive the actual gift is?!
posted by thereader at 2:57 PM on December 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

My office sets a maximum but also a minimum ever since someone wrapped a framed photo of himself in a dollar store frame (leaving the $1 price sticker on it) and put it in a larger box so it would seem more substantial. There is always a person who is the reason why rules exist but YOU are not that person, because you adhered to the minimum.

As one of the people who plans these events for the office every year, trust me... you're fine. Do nothing. Feel no guilt.

The picture-giver's boss ended up stealing the photo from the person who chose it because he knew it was wasn't cool.
posted by kimberussell at 3:23 PM on December 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you like and are on good terms with the person yeah I'd say maybe mention you didn't realize the norm for this office, or send a nice card like mentioned above. But I agree with the others who say having a minimum is weird and kind of gross. The normal expectation is a maximum, in part to avoid exactly the situation you found yourself in.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:07 PM on December 18, 2019

Get a bowl, fill it with candy (or whatever you feel is appropriate), place it on your desk where visitors can easily reach it, and let people know it's there for everyone. Once you've spent enough money refilling it to assuage your private guilt, either:
- get rid of it with some sort of excuse ("I dropped the bowl and broke it; I keep forgetting to buy a replacement, you know how hectic life is!") until people forget it was ever there and stop asking, or
- keep filling it periodically and not make a big deal out of it.

In my experience that generates a lot of goodwill and appreciation among co-workers. Who doesn't love free yummies?
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:44 PM on December 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

You are new, it’s ok that you didn’t know the unwritten office customs like this one. If I were the organizer I would feel relieved I got your gift so I could thank you nicely and you didn’t feel you did something wrong.
posted by sallybrown at 5:45 PM on December 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

The suggestion to bring in some treats is a good one. The person doing a nice thing gets to decide what they want to spend and there is no implicit exchange of value. But don't do something because you want to recover from your faux pas--you did nothing wrong--do it because you want to do something nice. Or do nothing--I doubt anyone thought anything of it.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:53 PM on December 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

You didn’t do anything wrong. White elephant gift exchanges are shifting - they used to be about zany/awkward “terrible gifts” but now are shifting to being actual nice gifts but still with the white elephant routine. Everyone knows this is in flux, no one blames people. Now you know your office takes it seriously as nice gifts, you can adjust for next year.
posted by corb at 5:56 AM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

The whole point of the thing is that some gifts are more desirable, it's inherently a kind of mean tradition. As long as you aren't gloating about your nice haul and how you came out ahead, it's fine. Now you know to check in with coworkers about how office social stuff *actually* works.

+1 bringing in snacks is the gold standard for smoothing over low-key coworker tensions.
posted by momus_window at 8:22 AM on December 19, 2019

The faux pas was having a gift exchange with a no maximum. Tacky.
posted by zennie at 9:24 AM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Once you've spent enough money refilling it to assuage your private guilt

In retrospect I realize this was over-glib and may have sounded mean and snarky, which I regret and apologize for. What I should have said was that if your conscience continues to bother you, providing treats would be a pleasant understated way of demonstrating to your office-mates (if that's even necessary) that you are not "cheap". How long you choose to keep up that practice would be entirely up to you - as Gilgamesh's Chauffeur pointed out, doing something like that should be considered as a voluntary choice, not as an obligation.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:47 AM on December 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

my office does a 'green' elephant which means upcycled/regifts or handmade stuff/baked goods. no buying of new items allowed. it's great. and everyone was really excited when i brought in an almost brand new juicer my parents didn't want anymore.

i really feel like it's hard to win when you have to buy a new item and folks do it up by going over the minimum...it doesn't seem fair tbh.
posted by duvatney at 3:55 PM on December 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I bet you’re not the first person to be caught out like this. You’re just the new person this year, I can guarantee you if it’s been worded like that previously others have also thought it was an instruction to only spend $10. It’s really just a communication misunderstanding. Given that it was the organiser who actually had to wear the consequences of being unclear, hopefully next year they’ll specify a range instead. I wouldn’t feel bad, if anything, they should feel embarrassed for putting you in that position. Next year you’ll know better and maybe so will they.
posted by Jubey at 1:41 PM on December 20, 2019

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