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What's the Correct Way to Give Gifts?

The Paulas way, it turns out.
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When it comes to gift giving, my family is about as pragmatic as Al Swearengen. In order to avoid the potential messiness of one party feeling slighted by, say, a stingy sibling, we've issued a "spending cap" on our gifts. Recently, we've taken to simply emailing each other links to specific items that have caught our fancy. At this rate, in a decade or so, we'll be buying our own gifts and just sending the other person a bill.

It's going to be great.

When I tell other people about how my family gifts, I'm usually met with a mix of general skepticism and frustration—the latter emotion centered on the assertion that we're, somehow, going against "the inherent rules" of gift-giving. Gift-giving is supposed to include actions like "surprise," they tell me, and "buying something the other person wouldn't buy on their own"—not asking them specifically what they want, "because that's, like, cheating."

But is the Paulas family cheating? Or are we just doing it right?


The success or failure of a particular gift is the ratio between the gift's quality as determined by the giver and receiver. If you, as a giver, are expecting the receiver to simply love the DVD box set of M*A*S*H you've shelled out $100 on, and they've never heard of the show, that gift is bad. If you give a can of sardines to someone who turns out to be a hardcore salted fish fanatic, well, that's actually a good gift. This difference is at the core of any study into the gift-exchange process.

In 2011, Stanford University professor Frank Flynn looked at five previous studies that examined the differences between giver and receiver. The results offer a glimpse into what works and what doesn't.

Flynn's findings revealed that recipients appreciated receiving items from their wish list more than unsolicited items, and perceived the requested items to be more thoughtful and considerate. But in direct contrast, the givers thought that recipients would be more impressed with unsolicited items.

The main takeaway from this is that my family is correct, and everyone criticizing us is terribly wrong. The ancillary takeaway is, you know, listen when people tell you what they want for the holidays.

"Oftentimes when givers go above and beyond, they're not actually paying attention to what the receiver wants, and wind up giving less good gifts," says Ernest Baskin, a professor of marketing at St. Joseph's University who has studied gift-giving. "So when givers try to give a gift that's seemingly better, what they wind up doing is overrating something. The receivers, if they are asked, prefer something that is feasible and practical."

"Feasible" and "practical" are two awfully boring words, and that feeling doesn't jive with how givers want their gift to be perceived. "You're not thinking, 'How am I going to use this gift?'" Baskin says. "Because that's not part of the gift-giving process. You're more imagining, 'What is the best gift I can give my receiver?'" The difference in excitement is even embedded in the pre-purchase gift inquiry process, where we tend to ask someone "what they want" (read: ice cream cake), not "what they need" (read: an oil change). The former is far sexier, and thus considered a better gift. In reality, if you don't get the latter, your car breaks down. That's the failure of the process.

As an example, Baskin lays out the problem of a (hypothetical) Italian restaurant gift certificate. Say there are two restaurants: One has amazing food but is an hour's drive away; the other has decent food and is just five minutes away. Baskin's research shows that givers usually chose the better—though geographically further—restaurant. But when asked which gift they'd prefer, receivers chose the closer/decent-enough option.

So what causes this disconnect? Part of it stems from a subtle difference in temporal space, between the actual gift-giving moment and the future usage of the gift. There are, after all, two time periods at play here: that eye-widening surprise when the receiver opens up the box; and then everything that comes after. It makes logical sense that the latter should be weighted heavier, since it encompasses a much longer time period and, thusly, a longer range of when the gift could be used and enjoyed. But—whether due to the heightened emotions of the moment, or the insidious way that gift-giving's been presented in pop culture—it's the initial moment that givers are focused on.

This, frankly, is the problem people have when I detail the Paulas Way of Gifting, since it mostly removes the surprise factor. If you tell another person exactly what you want, and you're given a box that's roughly the size of what you've asked for, the fun is mostly lost. That said, there's an easy way to re-introduce a level of excitement into the process: simply expanding the list for givers to choose from.

But, according to Baskin, the "surprise moment" isn't a determiner of a gift's success, as much as it is a way to disguise failure. "As you go further from the gift-giving moment, [an impractical gift] is only going to get worse," he says.

What's the solution, then? Baskin's suggestions are obvious. Primarily, the giver should put themselves in the shoes of the receiver. What kind of thing would they want to see when they tear open the gift wrap? If that's too difficult, just ask the loved one what they need, and then actually just get them the gift.

In conclusion: My family's right, everyone else is wrong, and you'd all be wise to imitate us. The end.