Meta-giving: Gifts as grace

A reader e-mailed to ask about "more about gift giving and how to get it right". Even though many readers already practice these behaviours, here are my thoughts.

Social ritual varies by country or group; my comments pertain to North America, and I'm thinking of tangible objects given to celebrate a personal occasion.

There's the gift itself, and then there's meta-giving, the behaviours and approaches that lift a gift from an object to a celebration.

A few ideas on how to heighten joy, beyond what's in the box:

1. Give without apology or obfuscation.

Resist apologizing for the quality or magnitude of the gift: "It's not much, but..." or "I know you only wear 'real' jewelry, but..." or, "I didn't know what to get you...".

If I could alter one gifting behaviour, this would be it. In some countries, such as Japan, an apology accompanies the act; the giver might say, "Oh, it's not a very good one." But in North America, the apology diminishes the gesture.

If you got a terrific deal on the item, it's tempting to announce it, but resist. And especially, don't swap the item's box for one from a posh store (or brand), or buy a knock-off and put it in that box. Not that you would.

2. Timing...counts!

You might keep a generic gift, such as a handsome journal, on hand for the rare occasion when a spontaneous celebration happens, but most of us know when our friend's birthday is coming up.

Present the gift on the occasion, not later, when you had time or when sales are on.

3. Give with an open hand.

My gift
I just relearned this lesson during the move, when I gave a vintage set of fine china to a friend's mother. Though I would love her to pass it on to her granddaughter (whom I know) one day, it's hers to do with as she pleases.

When the giver puts strings on the gift, e.g., specifies that an artwork must be displayed (one donor even specified the wall), or indicates who might inherit it one day, she diminishes the act. This is a hard one if you are attached to what you give, as I was.

4. Pay close attention to the recipient's characteristics.

No thank you!
Enthusiasm is a delightful quality; at the same time, take care when sharing your interests with others. The complete set of Hornblower novels that Edwina covets is not a great gift for her to give sci-fi buff Teddy. 

Introducing someone to a new experience is a possibility, but the aware giver gauges how much the recipient can tolerate. Do not even think about giving me a skydiving adventure.

5. Give treats.

Don't be too practical. New garbage bins, plumbing fixtures, a dozen pairs of socks: most everyone can use them, but a graceful gift provides a jolt of joy, whether it's a pair of tickets to a play or a custom-crafted dog collar.

Poochie pleasure
If the recipient needs an everyday item, buy it for what it is: assistance. 

6. Get into it.

Some people view gifts–or their recipients–as unwanted  obligations. They resent spending time or money, especially if there is little chance of reciprocity. Perhaps they were not part of a gift-giving culture.

If giving evokes aversion, that is a signal to examine your relationship with the recipient, and with yourself. Gifts reveal our attitude to pleasure and are often symbolic of roles, power and history between the parties. Sometimes you are into giving, but she is not into receiving, and nothing you can do is right. That's not about you; accept the perfunctory thanks. You did your best.

Malliol's Three Nymphs
When both parties participate willingly, they form, along with the gift, a circle of mutuality, where giver, gift and receiver commune like The Three Graces.

This circle, explored by Margaret Visser in her intriguing social history, "The Gift of Thanks", is far deeper than a mere material exchange, and forges links of connection and caring. Gifting becomes a spiritual act.

When we let our natural generosity and heart flow into any gift, big or small, giving feels wonderful, every time.

Like other forms of giving– volunteering, just being available, or taking the time to really listen–gifts are way to transmit love, and we often discover we've received more than we gave.


I read this as I puzzle over what to send my little brother for his 40th birthday... I won't be able to see him; he lives far away. And I think I'm psyching myself out to the point where nothing's the right gift.

Thank you for the thoughts!
Anonymous said…
Lorrie said…
This is the ultimate guide to gift-giving - all one really needs to know. Just lovely.
A thoughtful and thorough post Duchesse!
I like the sentiment about giving without strings attached...
As a young mother I had more time than money and would make jams and bake scones which I would give as hostess gifts in a basket. I often wondered if it was "enough" and when I saw the faces of the recipients my fears were allayed.
It's the thought that counts not how much you spend.
RoseAG said…
A gift from Tiffany's can do in just the blue box. Everything else is improved with over-the-top giftwrap.

I don't care if you use your stampers to do-up a brown lunch bag and top it with a coordinating ribbon, it's the time you spent doing it that impresses me.
materfamilias said…
A useful and gracious post. I'm going to put Margaret Visser's book on my list, a complement to Louis Hyde's classic text on the gift economy and creativity. Do you remember Visser being interviewed, several times, I think, by Peter Gzowski back in the good times? I miss that CBC.
Duchesse said…
ONEWWEIRD: You're right, one can overthink. Sometimes if you let go of obsessing the item just appears in front of you. Have you thought about his favourite stores or things there? Local shops will often know what he's expressed an interest in, and deliver.

Anonymous: Thank you.

Lorrie: I'm not sure I've exhausted the topic, it is for some reason important to me.

hostess: Homemade jam and scones would be at the tippy-top of my wish list.

RoseAG: I love beautiful packages too, and also novel ones. Sometimes I tear out magazine pages to use as gift wrap- also old photos, fabric, wallpaper, calendars.

materfamilias: Gzowski's show is where I think I first "met" Visser, One of my friends attended a dinner party where she ws
was a guest and said she was just as witty and interesting in person; I was jealous!
Mardel said…
I've been known to overthink, but it is best to just put one self aside and think of the pleasure of friendship and family. Not always easy.

Great post and always a good reminder.
Duchesse said…
mardel: "Putting ones'self aside" is *the* key. Overthinking is usually about the giver (not the recipient) and his or her anxiety about "doing the right thing" or "getting it perfect".

Le Duc asked me, "But what if you don;t know the recipient well enough to know what he or she would like?" You could then contact someone who does to ask about preferences.
Susan said…
Another great post, Duchesse. I SO agree about not attaching strings. It is so hard sometimes, but I know it is important.

In the last 10 years or so, I've passed on giving gifts out of obligation and have enjoyed giving gifts out of the pure joy of the giving. It's SO much better.

Please keep posting about gift giving. I've learned things from you.
Tiffany said…
A great post, Duchesse. My father was an amazing gift-giver, because he was always thinking of the recipient, and yet somehow put something of himself into the gifts. I have married into a family that prefers the 'tell me what you want and I'll buy it' approach and it saddens me. You've given me renewed faith in the importance of graceful gift-giving. Thank you.
Susan Tiner said…
I tend to give the gift of time, or consumables. I don't like the receiver to feel any obligation.
coffeeaddict said…
I really liked no. 6. Got me thinking about my relationship with people to whom I feel obliged to get the perfect, original, profound, etc. gift.
the gold digger said…
A former boyfriend gave me great gifts: One year, he gave me my own belt sander for my birthday. I still use it. I was refinishing a bunch of furniture and it was perfect.

My husband's parents are not so easy on us. I would rather we not exchange gifts on every possible occasion, but it's not been easy. There has been retaliation.
the gold digger said…
And my friend Leigh is the most fun person in the world to give a gift to. No matter what it is - a key ring with "Indiana" on it that you got as a joke - she holds it in both hands as if it is a treasure beyond pearls, gasps and says that it is just what she wanted.

When my husband's friend gave him a paper towel holder, my husband said, "I already have one." I jabbed him in the side and glared at him. He looked at me. "What? He doesn't care."

And the friend didn't.

Men are different.
Duchesse said…
gold digger: Tell it, sister. I too have been given framed photos of family members but if the love is not there, the love will not step out of a photo, will it now?

As far as your husband and his friend go, that's a realistic scenario but only (IME) among straight men.

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