Whether it’s a luxury holiday gift, a birthday present, an anniversary or wedding gift, or even a “just because” everyday present, the etiquette rules of gift giving are difficult to master. But no worries. Our correspondent Julie Chang Murphy, trained anthropologist and savvy gift-giver, breaks it all down for us in our ongoing series, luxury lessons: the gift giving etiquette you need to know. Here are some of the tough questions about giving gifts, asked and answered.
why is gift giving so hard sometimes?
In this edition of Luxury Lessons, we are addressing the etiquette and social rules surrounding gift-giving that everyone should be aware of in their personal life. Your professional life? We are saving that can of worms for a whole other day!
As someone who is firmly wedged right in the years where Generation X ends and the Millennials begin, I’ve often had a schizophrenic approach to gift-giving. I’m old enough to remember references to Miss Manners and Emily Post. There used to be definitive guides and even schools (which I even attended at age 10) to learn proper etiquette.
Now, the internet is strewn with self-appointed etiquette experts and references to “modern” social rules around gift-giving that all seem to vary. It’s a bit of a random walk.
the “rules” of gift giving are more and more complex
In many ways, this diversity is welcome. There is no one size fits all rule when it comes to gift-giving, especially when the people in your personal life might come from different cultural backgrounds, as well as socio-economic ones. But was it easier when there was one agreed upon source who dictated the rules? Kind of!
We here at Dandelion Chandelier are up for the challenge. We have all faced one or more of the scenarios below and wondered about the least awkward and most gracious way to handle them in the future. The good news is that we need not be part of an elaborate theater of deception when it comes to giving and accepting gifts.
luxury lessons: the gift giving etiquette you need to know
Here’s our Q&A on some of the toughest and most perplexing gift-giving dilemmas in our personal lives. Whether it’s family, friends, romantic partners, crush objects or frenemies, here are some of the tough questions, asked and answered.
Our formula? A blend of psychological research, social etiquette, common sense and a healthy dose of humor.
1. If you have more than one child, is it ever OK to give an extra gift to one child but not the other?
Absolutely- if one of the kids is under the age of 2 and is too busy chewing on the gift box to notice anyway! We jest.
If you do find yourself in this position of finding the perfect extra present, consider the research from multiple childhood psychology studies that all conclude that it might be harmful for children to be given too many toys. According to one government preschool study, children will become overwhelmed and unable to concentrate long enough to reap the benefits of play. In fact, less toys encourage children to create their own games and socialize.
For older kids, the findings are more serious. Research has shown that “children who expect many and expensive gifts can suffer negative social and emotional ramifications that extend well beyond their childhood,” according to a study from the University of Missouri, Columbia. As adults, they can be predisposed to addictive behaviors and prone to credit card debt, gambling, and compulsive shopping. Yikes!
Better to stick to a modest allotted number of gifts and not only avoid accusations of favoritism, but future psychotherapy bills, as well!
2. At what age is it acceptable to start and stop giving holiday gifts to your siblings?
Some of our favorite holiday experiences and moments center around our children experiencing the joy of giving. We say it’s never too early for the little ones to go with you to the store and pick out something that they think their sibling would like. Their choices are usually creative and spot on. Though when they’re not, it’s also an excellent opportunity to teach the recipient about being gracious and grateful.
But is it necessary to continue giving gifts to our adult siblings? Obviously there is no one right answer, as family dynamics and traditions vary so widely. One rule of thumb is if you’re the kind of person who gives a gift to your pet, then please consider giving a gift to your human sibling.
Harvard psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer points out that “Giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring.” Gift giving is often the most obvious way someone can demonstrate interest and strengthen a bond. It shows who is important and who is not. If you decide not to include your siblings on the list, just don’t let them see that new bone in Fido’s stocking!
3. What do you give if you make a lot more money or a lot less money than others in your family and friend group?
Whether you’re the wealthy one or the one “with earning potential,” all social etiquette experts can agree that the old adage, “It’s the thought that counts” is absolutely true. The cost of the gift is secondary to your intention.
If you have cash to burn and love sharing your good fortune with loved ones – by all means, go for it! We trust you to give it in a way that implies no strings are attached. If your lavish style makes some people uncomfortable, however, respect their feelings and consider a more modest gift at the next occasion.
The other way that the wealthiest family members can give a meaningful gift to the entire family is a really special all-family vacation. “Skip-gen” vacations with grandparents and grandkids are wonderful. But an all-family ski trip, luxury cruise, beach vacation, or trip to a theme park will be a gift that keeps on giving for everyone.
If you’re making do with less, there is no shortage of perfectly thoughtful, personal and creative gifts to give at reasonable prices. Ever heard of Etsy? Or the DIY movement? Have a look at our curated list of luxurious gifts under $25.
True friends and loving family members cherish you for you, not because they want to score an Hermes scarf from you at Christmas. And if that’s not the case, see the following.
4. Should you ever give a gift to someone you really don’t like? If you have to because they’re family or because you’re socially obligated, is there some way to add joy to the process?
In an ideal world, every gift would come from the heart and be a token of love and friendship. Unfortunately, those illusions were banished as we got older and realized that part of being a grown- up means doing things you don’t want to do.
But there is no reason why you can’t find joy in the process. Deliciously mischievous joy that makes doing a grown-up thing kind of fun! Yes, dear reader, “hate gifting” is actually a Thing.
Some of our favorite passive-aggressive ideas that make legitimate gifts? Consider a 654 piece monochrome Ravensburg puzzle to drive your recipient batty. Or give them a gift card in an envelope stuffed with glitter. The category of random kitchen gadgets (which includes things like strawberry hullers, cherry pit removers and garnish slicers) was made for gifts between frenemies.
Who knows? You might even share a laugh and find that you both appreciate a twisted sense of humor.
5. If someone you care about consistently says “I don’t like getting gifts,” should you keep giving them anyway? Should you try a bunch of different things in the hope that one will stick? Or just stop trying?
Wait a minute. Do you keep buying this person things like banana and mushroom slicers?
Seriously, though. Some folks have a stressful relationship with gift-giving and gift-receiving. Maybe they feel indebted. Or perhaps they can’t afford gifts in return. Maybe their childhood experience with gifts was fraught. Or maybe they’re just really, extremely picky! Yet you care for them and you want to make a gesture.
In cases such as these, etiquette experts say it’s acceptable to respect their wishes and not buy them a gift. Instead, consider an act of service or an experience. There are so many ways to show you care that are intangible. Take them out for their favorite cuisine. If you’re handy, help them hang up those photos on the wall. Offer to babysit. And of course, a sincere and meaningful note is always a good idea.
6. What should you do if someone gives you a gift that feels judgmental or hurtful (like an exercise machine or a sweater 3x your actual size)?
For this thorny issue, we turn to the grand dame of etiquette, Emily Post. And to Former First Lady Michelle Obama. Commit this phrase to memory the next time Aunt Linda comes calling: “This is so thoughtful! I really appreciate your generosity.” Your feelings might be hurt. But at least you can walk away with the knowledge that you went high when they went low, and responded with dignity and grace.
7. Is it ever appropriate to regift?
We’ve all done it. And if you haven’t re-purposed a gift for someone else that was intended for you, then maybe you should. Researchers in organizational psychology at the London Business School found that there is an asymmetrical emotional response to the practice of re-gifting between the original giver and the original recipient.
Original recipients imagined that the original giver would be much more offended by their re-gifting than the original giver actually reported feeling.
But if you still feel icky about it, consider being honest. Emphasize that the reason you are re-gifting is because you think this gift is far better suited for them than for you. If you’re correct, then it’s win-win-win.
8. Do men and women gift differently?
Margaret Rucker, a consumer psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has found that men are typically more price-conscious and practical when it comes to the gifts they give and receive. While women tend to be more concerned about giving and receiving gifts with emotional significance. No surprise there.
In another study published in the Public Library of Science, results from 3 separate experiments showed that when it comes to predicting the best gift for others, women do a better job than men. Apparently, this gender difference is due to the higher interpersonal interest women have in others.
Does this let men off the hook when it comes to finding the perfect gift? Nope. Especially not if you consider that gender differences in gift giving seem to emerge early in life.
Researchers at Loyola University Chicago studied 3- and 4-year-olds at a day-care center, all of whom had attended the same birthday party. The girls typically went shopping with their mothers and helped select and wrap the gift. While the boys were often unaware of what the gift was because they were “napping while their mothers shopped.”
The point being, good gift-givers can be trained. And it’s never too late to start, dudes.
9. Do Millennials tend to think differently about giving and receiving gifts than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations?
Millennials get blamed for a lot these days but when it comes to gift-giving. But in fact, this generation has a refreshingly confident and joyful attitude towards the whole process.
In a survey conducted by a gift-commerce company, Millenials are the more thoughtful generation. And they not only purchase gifts for special occasions, but also “just for fun.” 42% of Millennials respondents practiced this year-round gift giving, compared to 26% of Boomers or 36% of Generation X.
Millennials also shop with more confidence (likely due to social media sharing) and place importance on the uniqueness of a gift over the price. As such, out of all the groups, they are also less likely to purchase gift cards for one another. Important things to keep in mind too when you’re shopping for the beloved Millennials in your life.
Just don’t expect a traditional thank you note. If you’re lucky, maybe they’ll tag you in a photo of themselves wearing that sweater you knitted. Or text you some hearts and kissy face emojis!
join our community
For access to insider ideas and information on the world of luxury, sign up for our Dandelion Chandelier newsletter here. And see luxury in a new light.
Crediting her training as a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, Julie has immersed herself in various industries in the last 15 years including fashion design, event planning, fitness and even investigating police misconduct. Julie lives in NYC where she loves trying every ramen and dumpling restaurant with her husband and three children. She finds joy in bold prints, biographies of fierce women, kickboxing and spending way too long finding the perfect polish color to express her mood.
Join our community
For access to insider ideas and information on the world of luxury, sign up for our Dandelion Chandelier newsletter. And see luxury in a new light.