A Guide to the Etiquette of Gifts & Giving

December  1, 2016

Day 11 of 30 Days of Thoughtful Giving: Know the rules—so you can break them.

Growing up in the American South, I was no stranger to etiquette (even if I occasionally often ignored it). Some rules of decorum—like using the terms "yes ma'am" or "no sir," and vice versa, as a way to politely address an adult, even a young adult—had to be sharply curbed outside of my hometown, lest I make every new non-Southern acquaintance feel like an old hag.

Others, like always writing a thank-you note no matter how minuscule the gift, were golden tickets to spreading feel-goods with people later in life. In the spirit of that good etiquette, which transcends geography and era, we're sharing a few "rules" around gifts and giving—according to two versed experts on the matter.

Wrapping in newspaper: Yes, you can. Photo by James Ransom

I went to two etiquette experts who have different areas of expertise to poll ideas.

Dallas-based Diane Gottsman is the founder of the Protocol School of Texas, as traditionally-leaning as modern manners writers come. She—and sources like the Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Travel & Leisure—considers herself a "national etiquette expert" (and she responded within moments to my inquiry on her website, including thoughtful details about when and how we might speak).

Applied science-writer Amy Alkon, whose 2014 book is called "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck. So she falls at the other end of the spectrum: She calls herself the Advice Goddess, hosts a radio show "with the luminaries of behavioral science and psychotherapy," and suggested to me that this hot cheese gun was, to her, the perfect food gift.

Here are my favorites of their tips on gifts and giving:

Better a small luxury, than something big and stupid.

That's a direct quote from Amy, who went on to explain is that the wonderfully-packaged, $8 chocolate bar with a hand-written note will mean much, much more than a random-but-impression-making gumball machine they didn't ask for, need, or want.

"Less and tasteful is better than more and garish," Diane agreed. Besides making a person slightly uncomfortable, an overly expensive, flashy present might also resonate as more about making yourself look good—rather than being designed for them.

Never give out of a sense of obligation.

"One of the things we should do away with is mandatory giving," Diane told me, giving the example of when you drift apart from someone it's not necessary to keep sending them an overkill present on their birthday. Instead, "set a new standard," she says, "send a card."

Amy echoed this sentiment, offering a barometer for knowing if you've gotten a gift worth giving at all: "You should feel fun and excitement giving it; if you don't, it might not be the right thing." In that case, a nice hand-written note would be more meaningful.

Don't tie on extra gifts.

With every additional "bonus" gift that you tie onto the outside of the package—a trend that's taken hold in recent years—the gift inside the package is going to seem increasingly lacking, Amy explains.

Always include a card.

This might seem to go without saying, but reminding the giftee who the present is from is a form of kindness: The host of a dinner party or someone with a birthday is going to be getting lots of gifts at one time, so the note with your name on it tied to the wine bottle will help them know who it came from. Diane reminded me of those tiny, business card-sized note cards you can have made with just your name on them, to drop in smaller presents like host gifts, to make this easier (also a great gift idea!).

Don't be afraid to give cash, or gift cards.

Diane and Amy agreed that everyone, everyone!, appreciates getting cash, and that the key is to write a thoughtful note to accompany it. (So not just one of those small note-less name cards, but a real card that you write in!)

While Diane warned that giving a gift card to someone you're very, very close to might feel "cold," Amy suggested that so long as you write a note expressing why you got it for them, and that it was, in fact, for a thoughtful reason, you're in the clear. "Take some time writing that message!," she said.

Yes, some gifts are [almost] always a bad idea.

Anything that might conjure up a sense of guilt or a duty to chores—like "a scale or a gym membership"—should be avoided, Diane wisely advises. She also suggests curbing the tradition of giving family heirlooms, like a full set of grandma's ornate silverware, on birthdays or big holidays because, of course, "they might not want it!" (Instead, ask them if they actually do want it before you pass it on, and do so on a non-holiday.)

Diane also suggested avoiding fragrances, since "scents are very personal!" but later conceded that including a gift receipt so they can swap it out for a smell they like, could make this more thoughtful.

Do shop from registries and wish lists.

This isn't boring, Amy says, it's nice! And if you're afraid it will feel impersonal, select a gift that you think they'll like for a specific reason—and say so in the gift note. An example: "Because I know that your favorite Sundays are spent baking up a storm" on a mixing bowl set.

There is only one circumstance that permits re-gifting.

The very mention of re-gifting made both of my experts cringe (I could tell, even on the phone). It's rarely a good idea.

But Diane offered an exception: If you receive something that you love but you already own—or something you love but can't use for some reason—think of a friend who might love it, too. Be transparent when you give it to them: "Somebody got me this as a gift but I already have one, and I know how you love [insert attribute]." And be sure to make the exchange on a random non-holiday; don't, whatever you do, re-gift a gift to someone on their birthday! That makes it "about saving money and not going to the store," Amy says, which they'll see right through.

Try not to return gifts; if you must, take caution.

"If they’re not going to know, it’s no big deal," Amy says about returns (and the same applies to re-gifting: Don't return or re-gift a present from your wife, because... she'll wonder where it went.)

But—counter to Marie Kondo's advice, which is to let go of gifts you don't want, period—Amy says you should absolutely keep the ugly sweater from Aunt Sally even if you only see her once a year. Store in the attic, or anywhere you can find it, and then break it out when you see her. Think of how happy it will make her!

In order to be return-worthy, a gift must first come from someone you're very, very close to—and someone whose feelings are not too easily hurt. Then, tread tenderly: If you're given a red sweater, for example, but pink is really more your color, compliment it first, Amy says, and "include [the giver] in the fact that you’re returning it." Go to the store together, select the more fitting color, and it'll still feel like their gift.

Include a gift receipt whenever possible.

A good idea for a candle, yes, but also for when you're giving clothing (since size is hard to peg unless they've tried it on with you), or electronics, Diane says. The camera lens you think a photographer friend might like might not be the one they'll actually use the most, or need.

Always write a thank-you note.

"Getting something in the mail is like getting a gift," Amy says, which puts this practice in perspective: It's nice! Her formula, which she jots on a vintage postcard using a sharpie (so it can be shorter!) is to "thank the person for the thing, tell them why it’s meaningful for you, and that’s about it." A thank you note need not be a novella.

If you're not sure, ask someone close to them.

Ask your brother or sister, if you're not sure what to give your niece or nephew. Ask your friend's spouse what you think they might like. Ask a mutual friend to help drum up some ideas for the both of you.

It's as easy as dashing off a two-line email to a person close to the giftee, Amy says—let them know you'll understand if thy don't have time to help, but more likely than not they'll be inclined to (since, of course, this is someone they love, too).

Make giving a lifestyle.

On a neurological level, apparently, doing something kind for a stranger is much more fulfilling than doing it for yourself. "You get a 'helper's high,'" Amy explained, which "makes your problems smaller, [and] it makes you happier than getting a gift." Make it a habit: Stop on the way home to get that cheese your significant other likes, just because, or offer to deliver the lamp you posted on Craig's List to whomever buys it.

The more you do, the more second nature the etiquette of giving will become, when birthdays and holidays hit.

Follow Diane and Amy on Twitter at @DianneGottsman and @AmyAlkon.

Tell me: What are the rules you follow when giving gifts?

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Rock M. December 19, 2017
Very informative. Thank you for taking the time to post this. Here is a link to our first online giveaway. PS.
Janna December 16, 2016
What do you do when your spouse's sister in law tells you to buy expensive gifts for her kids? I always buy gifts for my Nieces but it seems every year the mother suggests 200-300 dollar items. I do ask for suggestions because we only see the kids a few times a year, but it seems crazy that her suggested items are so expensive. How can I say no without feeling like a scrooge?