15 Dec 2022

The Foolproof Guide to Giving Presents

It’s a heart-warming tradition to exchange gifts at Christmas, but for all too many of us, the whole ritual is fraught with anxiety and dread. What if we’ve spent too much or too little? Or given an inappropriate present? Or insulted the recipient? Or caused crushing disappointment?

It’s all too easy to let these niggling worries dominate the days before Christmas, casting a cloud over the big day. So, remember these simple rules:

The Ten Commandments

• It’s not all about you

All too often we turn present buying into our own personal psychodrama and forget that it’s all about giving pleasure to someone else. We may use presents to make a statement about ourselves – our wealth, our status, our generosity. Our presents are all about showing off our own attributes rather than our consideration of other people’s taste or needs.

• Focus on the recipient

Buying a good present is an act of empathy and imagination. It’s not an act of self-love. All too often people make the fatal error of lazily assuming if they want something enough, then everybody else is bound to share their aspirations. This kind of thinking can lead to disaster – the power tool set for the impractical dreamer, the latest tablet for a stubborn technophobe…

• Play detective

If you really want to be an accomplished present giver you need to pay attention in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Listen carefully to friends and family, look out for clues about what they love. Ask subtle, probing questions about hobbies, passions and aspirations. Take note of complaints about defective equipment, or things that are needed, but be very wary of the over-utilitarian present (the vacuum cleaner or carpet-shampooer might be a step too far). By assembling this intelligence, you will be equipping yourself to make excellent and targeted choices.

• Don’t turn proselytiser

Presents should give the recipients a glow of pleasure, not a stab of searing guilt. So never give books about self-improvement or ‘how to’ manuals and be very careful about weight loss books or items of exercise equipment. All these presents suggest very clearly that you feel the recipient is deficient in some way and, even if they agree with you, Christmas is not the time to make your point.

• Comparisons are odious

Present-giving should never be competitive. Unless you have agreed a strict budget with your friends and family, there are likely to be obvious discrepancies between the amounts different people have spent on their presents. Try not to compare what you’ve received with what you’ve given, and don’t spend Christmas Day eying up other people’s presents and doing mental arithmetic.

• Do what you’re told

If you ask someone what they want for Christmas, take note of what they say and do your utmost to get what they’ve asked for. By asking them for suggestions, you have opened the floodgates. You may very well not approve of what they’ve requested, or think it is a foolish waste of money, but you are duty-bound to do your best to acquiesce. If somebody asks for something that is way over your budget, tell them this immediately. There is no shame in admitting that you have set an upper limit, and it is better to pre-warn them of this, rather than disappointing them on Christmas Day.

• Keep within your budget

This obvious piece of advice is all too often ignored or cast aside when time is short, and inspiration is elusive. But if you stray well outside your budget and overspend on presents, you’re likely to feel a niggle of resentment, which you might be in danger of communicating to the hapless recipient.

• Never apologise, never explain

We’ve all felt a stab of anxiety or trepidation as we hand over a present, but don’t let those feelings turn you into an abject apologist (I’m sorry, I know you asked for xxxxx, but I couldn’t find it anywhere) or a rambling interpreter (I know it looks weird, but in fact it’s a really useful utensil…). A good present will speak for itself, without explanation or apology.

• Wrap it up

Even a very modest, or unimaginative, present will acquire added glamour and desirability by being well-wrapped. Presents that look like they’ve been ineptly bandaged in crumpled paper, with enthusiastic over-use of Sellotape, are a discouraging sight on Christmas morning, because they communicate carelessness and laziness – never a good trait in a gift-giver.

• Accept defeat

If you give someone a present and realise immediately that it has not been a success, don’t dig in and explain why you thought it was a good choice. Try and make light of it and move on – perhaps say “sorry, I don’t think I got that quite right. Don’t worry I’ve got a receipt and you can exchange it”.

The main thing is not to display feelings of defensiveness and to ensure that the disappointment doesn’t hang like a cloud over the festive proceedings.


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