Main menu:

Recent Posts


Gift Giving and Friendship: Not Always Simple

With the holidays upon us, many of us will be spending time picking out, giving and receiving gifts. On the surface these seem like simple things to do–the giver happily gives and the receiver happily receives. But, human nature being what it is, many folks find creative ways to complicate this seemingly uncomplicated process.  After experiencing and observing gift giving problems and issues over the years I’ve broken them into categories.   

Knowing when to give a gift

I think Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” television series is funny and insightful. He clearly finds the beliefs and prejudices tied to gift giving fascinating and he examines them in funny and insightful ways. In one episode Larry takes the “no gifts” request on a friend’s birthday party invitation at face value. Then, when he is told he hurt the celebrant’s feelings by not bringing a gift, he argues that he was only following the invitation’s directive. He is then told, “Everybody knows it’s an unwritten rule that you must ignore the ‘no gift’ order and bring a gift!” 

There is a similar unwritten rule tied to the following wedding anniversary scenario. The wife says, “Please don’t buy me an anniversary gift this year; if we go to dinner that’s enough.” The husband agrees but when he keeps his promise and fails to buy a gift the wife gets her feelings hurt and accuses him of not caring about her. Again, it’s the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” unwritten rule—“Everyone knows you should always break your promise and buy the gift!” 

Gift Appropriateness

As far as gift appropriateness, some choices are no-brainers. Not too many folks would give a book of porn photos to Father O’Flaherty for Christmas; but sometimes there are more subtle choices to be made. For example, my friends know I love to listen to jazz and to read jazz criticism and history; but most have learned to not buy me things in these categories because my preferences have become specialized. So, I find it a bit sticky when well intentioned friends buy me an introductory jazz history book or a vanilla pop jazz CD. I usually exchange it but I do worry about hurting their feelings. As a result of my own experience I try to not buy gifts related to others’ passionate hobbies because chances are I will miss the mark. For example, my friend Jon is a highly accomplished fisherman. I would never consider buying him a fishing rod unless I had inside information about which rod he was planning to buy.    

Keeping score and the meaning of price

I can’t speak for other extended Italian families but the mothers in mine all kept a close eye on wedding and birthday gifts. They knew who gave what to whom and could guesstimate within five bucks each gift’s cost. If it was determined that less than equal reciprocal birthday or wedding gifts were given, mental notes of the debt were made and the basis for a grudge was born. Price was the measure of respect and caring. A cheap gift was often a death knell for a friendship. I used to joke that when I’d visit my folks after the Christmas holidays, I’d need a family sociogram to determine who I was allowed to visit because I couldn’t keep track of the grudges. 

My mom, a very generous person, had a habit of always asking about the price of gifts she received and of announcing the price of gifts she gave. After years of experimenting I finally figured a way to keep what I paid a secret, yet still keep her happy. When she’d ask the price of a gift I’d say, “Let’s just say this—it cost a pretty penny.” She would then smile, look pleased, and stop pestering me. All she needed was the reassurance that I cared enough to lay out some bucks. 

She was also famous for her inability to keep private the price she paid for gifts. I and my sibs would break up each Christmas because, inevitably, just as one of us was opening her gift and about to compliment her decision, she would announce, “Sears, on sale, nine ninety five.” Or, “Don’t be impressed with the umbrella—I got it free along with the raincoat.” 

Conditional gift giving

It’s not uncommon for folks to assume they have the power to determine what you do with a gift after they’ve given it to you. An amusing example of this also occurred on the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” TV comedy. Larry gives a 300 dollar restaurant gift certificate to a couple for their wedding anniversary. Later he happens to be at the restaurant when they are treating another couple to a dinner using his gift card. Larry goes to their table and tells them he should have been the one invited because he gave them the certificate. One of the foursome asks, “Was that condition printed on the certificate?” Another says, “So, in that case, you were giving yourself half of the gift.” Larry never gets it—he’s convinced he’s been slighted. 

In a related scenario, a woman client recently came to see me about her boyfriend. Her complaint had to do with his gift giving “take-backs.” She explained, “He’ll give me a lovely gift and then, if I don’t agree with him about something or make him unhappy, he will inevitably take the gift back.” She added, “At this point his gifts have no meaning—I know I’ll only have temporary custody.” 

If one accepts the idea that the proceeds of a will are technically a gift, this behavior is similar to that of some parents who routinely take their children in and out of their will depending upon their degree of compliancy.   

My first introduction to the irrational concept of conditional gift giving occurred years ago when I gave a used TV to a friend. Later when I went to visit him I discovered he’d given the TV to his son. I complained that I’d given the TV to him, not to his son. My friend, peeved by my words, said, “So your definition of a gift is that I have to first clear with you any decision I later make about it?” I got the message and clammed up. He was correct—a gift by definition belongs to the receiver and he can do what he wants with it. 

Timeliness of gift giving and gift acknowledgment

In another Curb Your Enthusiasm show, Larry attempts to deliver a wedding gift to a couple and they refuse to accept it, saying, “It’s an unwritten rule that one must give a wedding gift within one year or it doesn’t count. You’re one week past the twelve month mark so we cannot accept your gift.” Their conversation gets funnier and more ridiculous from that point forward. 

In a related vein, I’ve had the experience of giving a wedding gift and not receiving a thank you card until ten or twelve months later. While I don’t get upset by the delay, I am nonplussed by the decision to finally send the card. By then the gesture seems so pointless. 

Gift piggy-backing

I include the following because it is both endearing and funny. Two women friends in my neighborhood have been doing the following for a while. The scenario’s gifts may change but the pattern does not. 

One woman gives the other a gift to honor some occasion. The gift receiver then sends cupcakes over as a thank you. The original giver then sends a thank you card for the cupcakes. The cupcake giver, as an acknowledgment of the thank you cupcakes, invites the original present giver to tea. The original present giver, as a thank you for the tea time, leaves a hand written thank you note and fresh cut flowers at the other’s front door. The flower receiver calls and leaves a thank you message saying she received the flowers. If you’re confused reading this you can see why I now have an Excedrin headache from writing it. 

I’ll leave you with a question that came up in a recent conversation: When, prior to your visit, a friend or relative pulls a gift you gave out of the storage closet and puts it in plain sight, is she being thoughtful or phony? I’d love to hear your opinion. Just leave a comment at the end of this blog. 

I hope these thoughts about gift giving make your holiday giving more fun and that you enjoyed at least a few chuckles. 

Happy Holidays.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.


Comment from Doc J
Time: November 24, 2009, 1:56 pm

Where is it written that when you give a gift, the recipient must not only like it, but also use and/or display it?

Although you hoped they’d really dig that orange ceramic hedgehog with the clock in its stomach, they stuffed it in the closet as soon as you left.

But they didn’t toss it out, they only hid it, so they could haul it out on your next visit.

So it’s both thoughtful *and* phony — except that everyone’s aware of the game. (Usually!)

Comment from Misty Wycoff
Time: November 24, 2009, 5:49 pm

I like the article. clear and clean.. regarding the “friend” who puts out a gift, one otherwise hidden… geez I would hope my friends would toss the damned thing or regift it to someone else. I would hope they wouldn’t do the charade thing for me..

Comment from alan
Time: November 25, 2009, 7:41 pm

The old bromide “it is the thought that counts” applies here I think.

I don’t think it matters if you like the gift– saving it because it was given to you seems OK and rather sentimental. Whipping it out to the dining room table to spare the visiting givers feelings even that could be a “white lie” kind of thing. One could honestly say at that point “this gift means a lot because you cared to give it to me”.

Comment from dan
Time: July 21, 2011, 7:41 am

another interesting piece.

i was immediately jolted by the phrase ‘KEEPING SCORE’ and how that keeping score mentality is related to how i am unconsciously sabotaging my own friendships.
the root of my feeling slighted when i feel my visits and phonecalls are not being reciprocated….is a consequence of me always keeping a running score in my head, of the balance of contacts initiated by each party.
i dont mean keeping a mathematical figure in my head [i’m not that neurotic!] but a general awareness of where the balance lies.
i dont mind a bit of an imbalance ie: 30/70 or 80/20…..but when i feel i am making ALL of the running and the other person is making none of the running ie: virtually 100/0 ….then i feel it is intolerable.

my self-defeating isolating one-dimensional response is to shut off contact…hoping the other person will take up the slack.
this breeds isolation, and even on the rare occasions we are together it is likely that the resentment i feel at not having my friendship validated will [on some level] be being picked up on by the other person, and possibly impact on their desire to initiate contact in future.

i would love to get out of this repetitive pattern, but short of stumbing across the unwritten rules for how initiations of contact are regulated in normal friendships, and how the power balance is unconsciously negotiated….i dont know how i’m going to get off this self-esteem-shredding merrygoround.

Write a comment