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It's the Thought that Counts: How Not to Choose Gifts

Updated on March 16, 2014

The Thought Doesn't Just Count - It Swears

Picture the scene: it’s my birthday. My other half enters swinging a carrier bag with a trendy logo. My heart leaps. What has he chosen? A slinky, sexy dress? A funky, fun outfit? Feverishly, I fish out the contents. Seconds later, I am staring at a sober slate-grey skirt and top - staid, shapeless and three sizes too big.

It's the thought that counts, but what on earth was he thinking? A gift is an aid to telepathy. Whatever is within the wrapper, what we’re really being given is the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us. As I surveyed my oh-so-sensible present, it hit home that in my guy’s eyes I was not the subtly maturing rock chick of my fantasies, but Susan Boyle’s frumpier sister.

The Way I See Me

by Craig Wilksinson on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
by Craig Wilksinson on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Way He Sees Me

by bulent-yusuf on flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
by bulent-yusuf on flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Please note that, unfortunately, neither of the above photos looks remotely like me.


Gifts Can Be Weapons

But at least he meant well. In German the word “gift” means poison, and some gifts, especially from my own sex, undoubtedly arrive dripping with the stuff. At one place of work our breezy Manager insisted we share the Yuletide joy and exchange Christmas gifts with colleagues. But there was a problem: one female colleague couldn’t stand me. It was mutual. I’d rather have had my teeth drilled than buy her a gift.

Nonetheless I faced necessity with resignation and spent my lunch hour tracking down something suitably non-covetable to give her. Later I watched her open the unbranded box of toiletries I’d carefully chosen, and pretend to be pleased.

But my smugness was short-lived. The package she handed me was oddly shaped, and I tore off the layers of wrapping paper with some apprehension. Inside was a hideous, gaudily-patterned, fringed raffia shoulder-bag, of a type that might have been carried by a Haight Ashbury hippy on an LSD trip. With a smile dipped in vitriol, she turned to me and cooed, “I know you like that sort of thing.” I had to hand it to her. Not only had she trounced me in the “buy a horrible present“ contest, she had managed to insult my taste at the same time.

The Hand of Friendship?


A Gift Shows How Much You Care

My colleague may have won that Christmas challenge, but no-one can beat mothers-in-law in the art of proffering the poisoned chalice. One Christmas a friend of mine watched smiling as hers handed out beautifully-wrapped parcels to the young women in the family. Each of them in turn unwrapped hers, and with much ooh-ing and ah-ing, drew out an expensive, classy, pure silk shirt. Finally my friend’s turn arrived, and her mother-in-law handed her a similar, slim package. All eyes upon her, my friend excitedly tore open the wrapping – and pulled out an oven glove.

A Love Token


How Much Should You Spend?

I have a close relative who has never bought me a gift in her life. She says she does not want to insult me with a cheap gift. It is often the case that those who assess gifts entirely by their retail value are lacking in emotional generosity. If someone values your gift only by its price-tag, they are not really your friend.

New romantic relationships can be a minefield. It's his birthday a few weeks after you meet. Do you buy a cute, inexpensive, fun gift? (He thinks you're tight-fisted/not that interested in him). Or, do you spend a month's salary on an expensive watch, to show him how much you like him? (You forlornly watch him disappear as he lopes off down the road in panic). Or do you simply take him down to the local steak-house for a rib-eye and a few beers? (You're his buddy). Whatever you do, you risk having him run a mile by assessing that you are either not really interested or just too interested.

It might be best to err slightly on the side of caution. Choose a gift that costs enough to show you like him, but not expensive enough to lead him to suspect you might be his date tonight, his stalker tomorrow. A young woman I know took the 'inexpensive, fun gift' idea a bit too literally, however, when she surprised her much older boyfriend on his birthday with a bright green plastic frog. He spent the entire evening gazing at it with an expression of total disbelief.

Pretentious or what?


My Gift is Better than Your Gift

Then there's the gift-wrapped act of one-upmanship. Someone gives you a present which is teeth-achingly expensive - and inappropriately so. It’s from a female acquaintance or neighbor you haven’t known for very long. The gift is usually something like an antique lamp that you will have to put on show, and will display to the world her superbly classy taste. You were planning to give her, if anything, a box of cupcakes. You wouldn’t spend this much money on your daughter’s wedding; yet now the onus is on you to bankrupt yourself to reciprocate in kind.

Don’t. This is a nasty little game. She could be desperate for your friendship and thinking she can buy it, but in most cases this isn’t really the case. She is someone who, in order to feed her self-esteem, has to feel that she has demonstrated her superiority to you. She is really giving herself a gift when she does this. Don't feel embarrassed when you hand her the cupcakes.

She will of course tell anyone who will listen what a cheapskate you are. Some people will see through her, others won't. Nevertheless, don't engage in the game she's playing, because it's one you can't win. Even if you re-mortgaged your home to buy her a solid gold coffee pot, she would look at it askance and tell others behind your back that it was nowhere near as classy as what she gave you.

How to Choose the Right Gift

Even with the best intentions, choosing gifts for others can be dangerous. If you buy your friend expensive moisturizer for Christmas, will she think you're hinting she’s looking old? If you give her perfume, will she think you’re saying she smells bad? If I buy my Aunt Brenda the usual jar of violet-scented bath grains for her birthday, will she take that as a sign that I see her as old and boring?

However, there’s help on the horizon. My best friend has come up with what she says a foolproof plan to solve this problem. Before their birthday, she asks her friends and relatives what famous person they would like to be. This tells you, she says, how they inwardly see themselves. Then she buys a present she thinks that famous person might like (the economy version, of course).

I decided to give this a go. This morning I asked Aunt Brenda what famous person she would like to be and she was happy to tell me. It was a revelation. I never realized she was such a big fan of Evander Holyfield.


Or maybe she would have preferred the bath grains?


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    • Mazzy Bolero profile image

      Mazzy Bolero 5 years ago from the U.K.

      You are right, L.L. Woodward. The gift they choose often shows us that they don't know us very well at all! A boyfriend once gave me a vacuum flask for Christmas:) However, these days I'm just grateful to get any gifts at all! Thanks for commenting.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 5 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Great gift selection generally requires that you know some thing about the recipient, IMHO. Knowing a person's likes, personality and even practicality -- or its opposite certainly helps in avoiding hard feelings.

      I have learned from experience that nearly all women DO NOT consider items such as a vacuum cleaner, steam iron or weight loss DVDs acceptable gifts. If you don't believe me, try it yourself, but be out of throwing distance when the gift is opened,

      Great hub; voted up and shared.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image

      Mazzy Bolero 5 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks, Au fait and TToombso8! A compliment is maybe the best gift! e-five, I can imagine just how you felt, but your mother probably felt the towels alone didn't look complete somehow - I wouldn't take the soap and deodorant personally :) It must have made a big impression on you if you still remember it after all these years!

    • e-five profile image

      John C Thomas 5 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      For Christmas 1980, my mother gave me towels, soap and antiperspirant. Really. The towels were very nice-- a set of red hand towels and bath towels. Why did she think she could make it "better" by adding $4 worth of soap and deodorant?

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 5 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      Thank you, Au fait for sharing this! I loved your sense of humor tempered with nuggets of information. A great job. Sharing this (and voted up and mor).

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 5 years ago from North Texas

      Great hub! I love it and all the pearls of wisdom it holds as well! Voted up, useful, interesting, beautiful, and awesome. Oh yes, and funny too! Will share with my followers!

    • StarsFungusCure profile image

      Veronica 5 years ago from Indiana

      Yes, very Dissapointing when that happens, how ungrateful. Sometimes people even get jealous or spiteful at your ability to BE thoughtful without spending a bunch because they either don't try at all and feel guilty or they try to 'buy your love' and they realize that they just don't get it. I wish I could change my name, couldn't figure out how, but I guess it draws attention to my other hubs :)

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image

      Mazzy Bolero 5 years ago from the U.K.

      I feel the same way, StarsFungusCure. I once gave my cousin a carefully chosen but inexpensive birthday gift. I was all I could afford at the time. She looked at it and frowned, didn't even say 'Thank you' and flung it in a cupboard in contempt. It's a shame that people think that way. Personally, I'm just glad if people remember me. Thanks for your comments. (Very unusual username, by the way:) )

    • StarsFungusCure profile image

      Veronica 5 years ago from Indiana

      Very unique hub and well written. I have always been the "thoughtful" giver in my marriages/relationships and people, especially men (in my experience anyway) :), have a hard time grasping "thoughtful" with or without a monetary value. It's like that Goo Goo Dolls song, about gifts wrapped in bows...and empty things. A thought behind a gift is so much more valuable and appreciated than a $$ amount, well at least for me...