A gift should make the recipient happy — or at least not sad or angry. As the gift-giving season is upon us, it’s a good time to remember that gifts are a powerful form of communication. So what messages are being sent by the holiday gifts you’ve picked out for people?
Gifts can enhance connections between people. A truly bad gift, though, can ruin a relationship, with emotional impact that’s remembered for decades. As a consumer psychologist, I’ve gotten to speak to countless people about the worst gifts they’ve ever received, and their answers can be grouped into six categories:
The All About Me Gift
Many women would be overjoyed with the gift of diamond earrings from their husbands. Not Patty, 58, who said that her husband Bill’s choice for her of flashy, pricey jewelry was the worst gift she’s ever been given. “We couldn’t afford them,” she said. “We had a new baby, a new house, and the last thing I needed was diamond earrings. Bill got them to impress his parents and to compete with his brother. Those stupid earrings didn’t have a thing to do with me or what I wanted or needed.” That was nearly 30 years ago. Bill’s gift prowess has improved since then, and he and Patty are still happily married. The earrings didn’t survive, though—Patty returned them the day after she received them.
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Several people that I interviewed felt that charity donations given in their names also fell into the “All About Me” category. “If it was to one of MY favorite charities that would be different,” says Glenn, a 50-something manager. “Sometimes I think it’s not even about the charity, they think they’ll look altruistic. Either way, it’s not really a gift if you ask me.”
The Obvious Regift
Andrew, 32, was initially delighted to get an elegant Italian dress shirt from his father. “Then I saw that it had his initials monogrammed on the cuff. He hadn’t unfolded it, so maybe didn’t know. Thoughtless.”
Unless it’s a family heirloom, most people feel belittled by a regift. Sometimes the gift itself is great, but what hurts is the knowledge that it wasn’t chosen especially for them. Or that little to no thought at all was put into the gift.
On the other hand, nearly everyone I spoke with had regifted a present at some point. The key to successful regifting is to ask yourself if you would have picked that gift out for that person in the first place — and then be really careful to remove any evidence that this was something that had been given to you.
Pete’s mom would not be classified as a successful regifter. “She had this book on her coffee table for years. Then one year she wrapped it up and gave it to me for Christmas,” related Pete, 62, who unsurprisingly describes his mother as “cheap.” And that’s the most common reason behind the unsuccessful regift. Others resort to regifting due to poor planning — for example, grabbing something from the closet on your way to the post office or party, out of desperation.
The Statement Gift
In a bizarre twist on the regift, Chelsea’s husband gave her the same Gucci purse — literally the same exact purse — two years in a row. “I loved that purse, it was the best gift I’d ever gotten. I loved it so much I didn’t want to use it because I had two small kids and you know, it would get dirty,” Chelsea, 38, explained. The next year, her husband rewrapped the purse and gave it to her again. “He said since I hadn’t used it, he might as well just give it to me again — now maybe this year I’d use it.”
Chelsea’s husband made his point, and that’s what the statement gift is all about. While gifts are intended to communicate a message of some sort, the story is normally one of affection and caring. Statement gifts, on the other hand, typically offer disapproval or some kind of judgmental commentary aimed at the recipient.
Lori, 40, has received a gorgeous, expensive nightgown from her mother for the last three Christmases. She hasn’t actually been able to wear them though because the nightgowns aren’t really gifts; they’re opportunities for her mother to deliver a message. “It’s always a size or two too small for me,” says Lori, who says she is maybe 15 or 20 pounds overweight. “Then my mother rips it out of my hands and says, ‘Oh that won’t fit will it? You know honey, you’ll never find a husband if you don’t lose weight.’”
Terri, 64, remembers with crystal clarity the last Christmas of her high school year. “I dropped hints for over a month about this suede fringe handbag that I wanted so badly,” she recalled. “My parents gave me a set of dishes for my ‘dowry’ instead. They had said they were supportive of my going to college, but this told me that the real goal should be a husband.”
The Well-Meant Misfire
“My best friend gave me an acne solution kit,” shared Jan, 26. “She was absolutely trying to be helpful and thoughtful. She and I had talked about my skin problems. But still, who wants an acne kit for Christmas? At least she gave it to me in private instead of having me unwrap it in front of other people.”
Misfires most often occur when the giver experiences a momentary deficiency of empathy. They weren’t thinking from the point of view of the recipient, but their own. This sort of mistake is easy to make during the rush and stress of the holidays.
“My wife gave me a stuffed teddy bear the first year we were dating. It completely threw me, I thought maybe she was saying I was a little boy or something,” said Alex, 33. “Between that and my poor reaction to the gift, it’s a wonder we made it.”
The worst misfires are those with lasting consequences. Like a living creature. Erin, 34, recalled the Christmas her single mom brought home a puppy. “I think she thought that all kids should have a puppy, but she hadn’t thought it through. Nobody in the house had time to care for a puppy — the training, the vet. It was a mistake. We did love that dog and he lived to 14, but still.”
The Passive-Aggressive Gift
“My mother-in-law takes the cake,” complained Theresa, a 40-something accountant. “One year for Christmas she gave my husband a thick, beautiful cashmere sweater and she gave me a mug that said ‘Scott’s Wife.’ Of course she was smiling and laughing when I opened it, and saying what a great joke it was. But I think it was meant to hurt.”
Passive aggression is hostility wrapped in soft bunting. It is a special breed of the Statement Gift, and when it is handed over, it is in effect as a weapon meant to deliver blows to the recipient’s ego.
“Last year, I lost almost 25 pounds, and then my so-called friend gives me two pounds of See’s candy for Christmas?” Sheree, 30, griped. “At first I thanked her and was thinking it was a really nice gift. I love See’s candy. But then after I ate half the box and felt disgusted about myself, I realized that it was actually a mean gift. She’s not my friend, she’s jealous.”
“When her dad and I first married, my stepdaughter got me a hideous top in a size XL,” recalled Sue, 50, who typically wears a medium. “Frankly I wondered if her mother actually picked it out to take a little swipe at me.”
In households with shared finances, if it was something you would have purchased anyway, it doesn’t count as a gift. Socks, frying pans, and hair brushes have all achieved the “worst gift” designation by the people I’ve spoken with. But the baddest of bad in the non-gift category are major purchases that were made without input from the recipient and laced with a touch of the “all about me” gift.
Lucy, 54, offered one example of such a present: “After I was accepted into graduate school, I spent months researching which computer to buy and was about to get a Mac when my now-ex husband comes home with a Tandy from Radio Shack. He said it was an early Christmas gift. That gift was awful in so many ways. I felt cheated out of a real Christmas gift, plus it wasn’t what I wanted. He pranced around acting like he was so generous, bragged to his parents and our friends. It was in my school budget all along.”
“Have you ever seen those ads with the car with the big bow and wondered, who would buy someone a car for Christmas?” said 30-something Sara. “My husband did. In fact I think it might have been ads like that that gave him the idea. Anyway, I’m still making the payments on my Christmas gift that WE are driving. He’s usually not that dense. I think he thought he’d look like a hero getting that bow and all.”
If you weren’t already aware, these stories should demonstrate that gift-giving is complicated. It’s time-consuming and expensive. People are pickier than ever about what they’d like, and shoppers are overwhelmed with options. It’s no wonder we don’t hit the mark every time.
But to qualify as a “bad gift,” or to earn the Worst Gift Ever title means the gift isn’t really a gift. It is a missive, a message that comes across as hurtful or just plain thoughtless. And if there’s anything that’s true about good and bad gifts alike, it’s that the thought is what really counts.
Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named as the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.