One of the best gifts I’ve received was a birthday present from the Boyfriend in 2020; a pair of sturdy (and expensive) mountain biking shoes. They didn’t come wrapped — in fact, I picked them myself, a week after my birthday. There was no surprise, no big reveal, but they were perfect. Exactly what I wanted.
Gift-giving is a goddamn sport. For some (ie, the strange few who have it as a love language, aka, the Leslie Knopes of the world) it comes as easy as breathing. For others, it’s a struggle of birthdays and Christmases spent in a desperate attempt to find the perfect expression of love or admiration, mixed with the societal pressure and consumer culture that not-so-subtly implies that not giving gifts, or not giving good gifts means you don’t care enough about the future recipient of said gift.
Just think of the classic Christmas ads, showing a husband surprising his wife with a shiny new Ford, bow and all, as if financing a new vehicle without discussion is a) the perfect way to show your love and b) not a way to financial cripple your family in the new year. But look! the ad exclaims. It’s a pretty charcoal grey/burnt orange/ olive green/ trendy colour and has leather seats, and it’s a big gesture with a bigger payoff of surprise so the gift giver feels good about themselves. That’s right. The gift-giver.
Gift-giving pay off is a studied phenomenon. Niche researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Indiana University found that the moment of exchange is often the focus of gift-givers; the anticipation, and ability to surprise the recipient was the measure with which the gift giver measured their success. But that moment is fleeting.
A good gift is not one that shocks the recipient in the moment (either for its price, its significance, or its purpose), but rather one that is cherished long after its initial exchange of hands. A good gift may also (surprise) not be the one that makes the giver feel as if they’ve given the lottery winner of all gifts. The best gift is the one that the recipient actually wants.
The exchanging of gifts has been happening for thousands of years as a way to offer appreciation and enhance relationships. However, in the modern era of too much stuff, and far too many potential occasions for gift giving, the items we receive are either things we don’t need or already ordered for ourselves off of Amazon. This hasn’t stopped us though.
We buy souvenirs as social obligations, we purchase last-minute plastic trinkets for collogues or acquaintances out of politeness, or to show status, or perhaps because we want a gift to be given in return (either because we truly want it — unlikely — or because we want the exchange to create a closer bond between giver and recipient — much more likely).
The truth is, we don’t want gifts out of social obligation. We don’t want gifts given to appease some sore of interpersonal contract, and above all, we don’t want gifts that we don’t want (Hell, some of us don’t want gifts at all).
If you’re still set on giving a gift, regardless of the occasion, regardless of whether it’s for a vague coworker or the love of your life, follow these few steps:
1. Make the recipient feel seen and acknowledged
See above: the Boyfriend’s gift to me.
Many people wouldn’t be happy choosing their own birthday gift, let alone a full week after the day had passed. But to me, the gift itself didn’t really matter. The actual birthday had been spent with beer, mountain biking, and a homecooked dinner. That was all I wanted. His acknowledgment of this proves how much he knows me. And proves that my specific and picky taste in gifts is something that really only I can be an expert on (again, something he knows).
Being aware of your recipient’s desire and personality is the fastest way to choose the correct gift. It’s the greatest desire in the world to feel seen, to feel accepted. If your gift, no matter how small, can do that, then it will be worth more than anything else they receive.
If you find yourself falling back on gift cards or dollar store generic gifts, take a moment to think about how the recipient would feel. If they’re the type to simply appreciate the effort, then go forth. If you know they derive a lot of meaning from gifts, either take more time or forgo the gift altogether. Sometimes a card and a promise to grab a drink are enough.
In fact, this phenomenon can apply to everyday actions — not just gifts. In our office the other day, the new trainee made us a chai drink as an afternoon treat. Our manager doesn’t like hot drinks, so she snuck out to the store to grab a small bag of ice so she could make his drink chilled. This small action of understanding and acknowledgment made us all appreciate her gift that much more,
2. Understand how the recipient perceives value
Gary Chapman’s five love languages are the world’s greatest jumping-off point for understanding what makes another person tick. For those who have been living under a rock, Chapman has distinguished the five primary ways in which people like to show, and be shown, love: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, physical touch.
This framework can be applied to any aspect of a relationship, but gift-giving in particular. If their language is gift-giving, you can rest assured that your effort in choosing a gift alone is a step in the right direction. However, if quality time is more their jam, find something that you can do together: a hike, a concert, picking out mountain biking shoes for your next adventure … whatever it is, focus it on what will have the largest impact on how the recipient perceives love from others.
Perception of value varies greatly but keeping note of how others feel love and affection is the best way to find something that they’ll appreciate.
3. Focus on them, not you
Self-explanatory, perhaps, but we are a selfish people. It’s a common phenomenon to feel more joy giving than it is getting gifts.
Any gift should have the recipient in mind as the highest priority, whether it’s a new car or a hand-drawn card. The element of surprise is not the focus (unless they love surprises), and the moment of exchange is not the end-all-be-all.
If they love music, giving a year of Spotify may be the perfect thing, albeit not as exciting to watch someone open. Long term appreciation and use is the goal for any gift. If you still don’t know what they want, it’s okay to ask. Research even shows that people are more appreciative of gifts they as for than the ones they don’t. Specific, and perhaps more luxury items that a person would never buy for themselves are often the things one may ask for when given the option to voice their preference for a gift.
Forget the taboo of asking someone what they want. We’d all be better off with the honesty — it won’t make you look like a worse friend or partner. Good gifts don’t have to be a surprise.
As someone who lists the giving and receiving of gifts at the very bottom of my love language gift, understanding the social phenomenon and the intricacies of the exchange are vital for keeping up some level of reciprocity on a social level.
In all honesty, it’s not about the gift itself. It’s about the moment, the feelings, and the connection.
Every time I lace up my biking shoes, I think about the day we spent together; the winding highway drive to the bike shop, the good tunes, the snacks we grabbed on the way back. The shoes will last me years, which means years of remembering the person who gave them to me, and exactly how much they know me.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash