How to Avoid Gift-Giving Faux Pas

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As any gift-giver knows, there’s a big difference between, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” and “Oh … you shouldn’t have.”

The first signals that you found just the right present.

The second … not so much.

Follow these helpful hints to avoid that latter, less enthusiastic reaction over the holidays.

First of all, don’t procrastinate. If you wait until the last minute, you’ll end up in a 24-hour drug store on Christmas Eve, trying to convince yourself that a can of mixed nuts constitutes a decent gift. (Hint: It doesn’t, unless you’re shopping for your friend who happens to be a squirrel.)

Jewelry can be a great gift – but on the other hand, jewelry is tricky. Obviously, it’s expensive. Get something too cheap, and you risk looking … well, cheap. But if your break the bank and buy something very expensive, you’re potentially putting the recipient in an awkward spot if they bought you something far less pricey.

Plus, it’s hard to pick out jewelry for another person, unless you’re very familiar with their style. Clothing is even worse in that regard, because you also need to guess the recipient’s size correctly.

And out of all clothing, lingerie is the least appropriate for the holidays – largely because so many guys give tacky lingerie. Save it for Valentine’s Day, Romeo – along with chocolates, if your significant other is dieting. Conversely, if they’re not dieting and not interested in doing so, then don’t give them anything diet or exercise related.

In fact, avoid self-help gifts in general, because these convey an implicit criticism of the recipient. Give a single person a relationship advice book, and you’re effectively telling them, “Maybe if you read this, you won’t be alone next Christmas.” Totally inappropriate.

Which reminds us, make sure gifts are age-appropriate, particularly for kids. Also, don’t give gifts to kids that will drive their parents crazy (e.g., drum sets). And as much as someone else’s child might want a pet, definitely clear that one with the parents first.

Don’t give used items (unless it’s an antique), but regifting is fine if done tactfully. You can’t regift to someone who knows you’re regifting. That is basically saying, “I feel socially obligated to give you some sort of gift, but not quite obligated enough to worry about whether you’ll actually enjoy it. So here’s this thing that somebody gave me, but that I didn’t really like.”

Speaking of things that people don’t like, don’t give fruitcake. Some might like the holiday sentiment that a fruitcakes represents, but the actual fruitcake is usually destined for the trash can. The same goes for tins of popcorn and baskets of processed meats and cheeses. These are gifts that are filled with calories but devoid of creativity. Instead, put some thought into and customize a gift that reflects what the recipient likes and what that person means to you.

It’s also important to be culturally aware. For example, when selecting a gift for a Chinese recipient, avoid timepieces (symbolic of time running out in life or in a relationship), anything in white (associated with death and funerals) or anything in sets of four (the word for which sounds similar to the word for “death”). In other words, whatever you do, don’t give a set of four white clocks to your buddy from Beijing.

– Matt Rehm