Unpacking Modern Gift Etiquette

friends exchange a gift
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Which is worse: Buying a gift for someone and getting nothing in return, or receiving a thoughtful present when you completely failed to get the other person anything?

They’re both awkward and horrible in different ways, and chances are good that you’ve been in both roles at least once in your life. Gift giving can be a lovely way to express how much you care, a tedious obligation, or anything in between. The etiquette of gift-giving has changed over the years, making it even more difficult to know the who, how, and how much of gifting.

Plan a Gifting Strategy

One of my best friends lives in London, and international shipping on packages can easily double the cost of a gift. We’ve agreed to exchange presents on birthdays only and send cards for the end-of-year holidays. My mom and I discuss possible gift ideas in advance and then settle on a short-list of presents that we genuinely want and that suit our budgets. This year, I’m chipping in for her RV fund.

While you don’t necessarily need to discuss gifting in that much detail with your loved ones, I’ve found that it’s much more helpful to have a plan in place before I start shopping. It takes away the element of surprise when opening gifts, but as someone with clinical anxiety, surprise is overrated. What’s not overrated is the knowledge that the people you care about will actually like their gifts.

Consider a Gift Exchange Game

If you have a big extended family or group of friends, consider arranging a Secret Santa system with a price cap. If you think that ruins the spirit of generosity and gift-giving, you’ve never had to figure out how to find thoughtful gifts for a dozen people without blowing your December grocery budget.

One of my friend groups holds a “favorite things” party where everyone brings three unwrapped gifts that cost no more than $10 each. You draw a number, wait your turn, and make a selection from a big table of gifts for three rounds. Sure, it can be a little awkward if nobody goes for the things you brought right away. But in the end, everybody gets to go home with a selection of treats and treasures.

Is It the Thought That Counts?

Let’s get philosophical for a minute. They say that it’s the thought that counts… but the truth is that gifting can be an absolute minefield to navigate. Money is a factor, of course. If I get my friend a knitted hat and she gets me a pair of emerald earrings, there’s a major imbalance in the economy of our friendship. Hence the need to strategize ahead of time.

But there’s another issue to consider as you make your holiday shopping list. How much stuff do we really need? There’s a certain obligation baked into gifts, both in the pressure to reciprocate and to the object itself. Possessions take a lot of work to maintain–something I was reminded of during my recent move. Unwanted possessions come with built-in guilt. Thanks for the novelty coffee mug, Susan. I feel bad every time I look at it.

In many cases, I’d rather get a pretty card, a gift card to a coffee shop, or even a donation in my name to a meaningful charity. Cheap, mass-produced stocking stuffers aren’t doing anyone any good–least of all the planet.

One Thing You Should Always Do

Regardless of whether you love your gifts or hate them, you need to express your thanks. A hand-written note is still the best way to say “thank you,” but email works too. Take the time to write something thoughtful about the gift and the person who gave it to you. And get those notes out no more than a week after the holidays, okay? That’s one piece of old-fashioned etiquette that still stands.

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