Reading Between the Ribbons
Gift card, jewelry or running apparel: Decoding the secret messages your giftsreally send
Unless they’re from Santa, the perfect gifts don’t just magically appear under your tree all wrapped up and ready to go. There’s no private workshop at your disposal or skilled workforce of elves just waiting to do your bidding. It’s just you, a long list of people to buy for, a budget and a ticking clock. But don’t let all that pressure cause you to overlook the most important aspect of the gifts you give — the message they send to your recipients about how you really feel about them.
Every gift is a token of your affection — a physical manifestation of your feelings for the person receiving your gift. In order to help ensure the message your recipient gets is the one you intended to send I have an early Christmas present to you. It’s a Translator of Hidden Information and Narratives Kit (or “THINK” for short). By using your THINK (or “THINKING”), not only will you be able to select the appropriate gift for each person on your shopping list, you will also be able to preview the messages various gifts transmit.
But first let’s go over the basic instructions for THINKING because this might be new for you. When you give a gift, the goal is to give something that will make the recipient happy. It’s not just about having a box under the tree with that person’s name on it. What’s inside that box actually matters. But be careful not to over-THINK things. If THINKING tells you not to buy something for someone, but either your gut or a reliable outside source tells you that the recipient really wants the item in question, don’t get thrown off. Trust your intuition. Now, let’s get started.
Re-gifting: “…because I really don’t care.”
Giving things you already have as gifts has long been a major fa-la-la-la-faux pas. After all, if you don’t want it, chances are no else does, either.
No matter how hectic your schedule is; no matter how easy it would be to just to wrap up that free gift-with-purchase candlestick holder set you got at Ulta when you fell for the “buy ten giant bottles of bath gel and get another ten free;” no matter how much you want to be able to check that ex-half-step-cousin-in-law off your list (and not just for Christmas, but for good)… don’t do it.
Even if you think you will never get found out, there is some really powerful re-gifting juju that will hunt you down and expose you for the lazy cheapskate you really are. I learned this the hard way when I was in fifth grade. I had gotten two identical diaries for Christmas one year, and when the next Christmas rolled around and I needed a present for my class’s Secret Santa exchange I re-gifted the spare one. Only, I forgot that I had actually written an entry in it eleven and a half months earlier.
What’s more embarrassing than getting exposed as a re-gifter? Getting exposed as a re-gifter and having a couple of pages of your diary circulated among your classmates all on the same day. Some scars never heal. So, unless it’s real estate or heirloom jewelry, it’s really not okay.
Cash and Gift Cards: “… because I care…just barely.”
These are “the-least-you-can-do”-type gifts. As in, if you did anything less, you would have done nothing at all.
Gift cards and cash tell the recipient that you are giving a last-minute gift out of a sense of obligation rather than out of any real affection. Cash says to the recipient, “I like you this many dollars worth.” And gift cards say, “I like you this many dollars worth, plus a trip to a store,” even though most of the time you didn’t even make a special trip to the store, but simply grabbed the gift card while you were in the check out line at Office Depot.
As with most things in life, there are exceptions. It’s okay to give gift cards when the recipient (a) specifically asks for one, (b) when you combine the gift card with other items to dress it up, (c) when you don’t know the recipient very well (think teacher’s gift or “gift grab” situation), or (d) it’s a gift certificate to a spa (but make sure to read the “Insulting Body Care Gifts” section below for some important caveats).
When it comes to cash, you can give it (a) as a graduation gift, (b) when you know that the recipient is saving up for something , or (c) if you are giving an obscene amount of it.
Overly Practical Gifts: “…because I really resent you (or this holiday) (or both).”
My amazing boyfriend Clint confessed to me that he did a terrible thing fifteen years ago. He bought his then-girlfriend a hubcap for Valentine’s Day. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his girlfriend; it was that he hated Valentine’s Day. He felt like it was a made-up holiday and he resented that he had to either buy his girlfriend a gift or look like a jerk.
So, he went ahead and bought her a gift, but the gift announced to his girlfriend, her family and all their friends that he was a jerk anyway. The message the gift sent was this: “I am buying you the least romantic gift possible to send the message once and for all that I hate Valentine’s Day.”
In his cocky, college-guy mind, he rationalized that she needed a hubcap and if he had to get her a gift it was going to be something she really needed, while at the same time firmly establishing that he for one was never going to cave to the pressure to celebrate a fake holiday. I wonder how the rest of the evening went, don’t you? Did I mention they broke up?
Other overly practical gifts include house wares and appliances both large and small (unless it’s something indulgent like an espresso maker — but not a cheap one, a high-quality one with a milk steamer that actually works) and auto accessories like a windshield sun shade (unless it’s a teaser gift because you also bought the recipient a car).
Insulting Body Care Gifts: “…because you’ve really let yourself go.”
Several years ago a girlfriend of mine got upset with her husband for buying her some new running apparel for their anniversary. She said the message she got from the present was, “Happy Anniversary, Fat Ass!” In her husband’s defense, when he asked her what she wanted she specifically said new running clothes. (She had also mentioned diamond earrings and a spa weekend, but he went with the running clothes.)
In this case, they were both at fault for a less-than-happy anniversary. He should have known running clothes alone would not be a suitable anniversary gift for someone who had given birth to his three children, but she should have left those off the list altogether and simply gone to Academy herself.
Listen up, ladies: You can’t fault someone for buying you an insulting gift if you specifically ask for it. But men, you can almost never go wrong if you throw in some jewelry. (I said almost. See the “Jewelry” section below for some important guidelines.)
The take away? You should never, ever give as a gift something that is designed to improve the recipient’s appearance. In addition to exercise gear, other items to stay away from are things like nose hair trimmers, home waxing kits and products that cross not-so-fine lines by having words like “age-defying,” “wrinkle reducer” or “acne” anywhere on the package.
This prohibition also extends to gift certificates for services like laser hair removal, chemical peels or cellulite treatment. If the treatment is designed to remedy rather than relax, or if the establishment has any part of the word “medical” or “dermatology” in its name — even if it is then followed by the word “spa” — it doesn’t qualify for the spa gift certificate exemption mentioned in the “Gift Cards and Cash” section above.
Remember, if you give a gift certificate for a photo facial from a medi-spa, don’t be surprised when you don’t have a picture-perfect holiday. But if you instead give a GC to Lake Austin Spa for a massage, you can rest assured that all will be calm.
A Personal Memento: “…because to know you is to love you.”
Remember back before the days of gift cards when being polite meant you made an effort to conceal how many dollars you spent on a present rather than writing it out on the front of the envelope?
The idea was to keep the focus on the sentiment rather than the dollars spent. Some of my favorite gifts have been those that didn’t cost much money at all, but rather showed that the giver knew me well enough to understand what was important to me.
Like last December when my son Aaron, after finishing his final exams, made a trip to the archives at Notre Dame and collected copies of all of the year book entries that referenced my dad when he was in school there in the late 1940s and 1950s. Or the year Clint took his favorite photos from one of the first trips we had taken together and arranged them in a frame.
Those gifts mean a lot more to me than the cost of the copy fees or the frames. Those gifts told me that Aaron and Clint cared enough to spend time thinking about what would be a meaningful gift, and then actually followed through.
Jewelry: “…because I love you and hope for a future together.”
If you’re considering giving jewelry, first of all, congratulations. That’s a big step in the right direction. But even in a category this awesome, you need to be careful. There are four types of jewelry stores: Americus Diamond, mall jewelry stores, independent and/or artisan-owned jewelry stores and Tiffany’s. (And yes, those are in order.)
The trick is to know your recipient. If you are on a budget and size is the most important consideration to your recipient, Americus Diamond is the place to go. If your recipient watches a lot of quality programming on the Hallmark Channel, enjoys Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman reruns or is otherwise a Jane Seymour fan, a chain jewelry store in the mall is just what the doctor ordered.
But otherwise, please understand that contrary to what you’ve heard on television, every kiss does not begin with Kay. (In fact, for many “disappointment” begins with Kay and ends with a lowered opinion of you and a Christmas night devoid of both comfort and joy while you toss and turn in manger-like sleeping conditions on the couch.)
If you are dealing with the artsy type or someone that likes to support local businesses, show your respect for her priorities by shopping at a locally-owned jewelry store. And finally, if your recipient is a designer diva it’s hard to go wrong with something that comes in a baby blue box.
One last thing: I am assuming that if you are buying jewelry it’s for a person with whom you are romantically involved. If you’ve been seeing this person exclusively for over two years and you are not yet engaged, be warned that if your jewelry purchase is the type of ring that one wears on ears rather than fingers you might find yourself scrambling at the last minute to find another date for New Year’s Eve.
I hope you like your new THINK! If used correctly, it should help ensure the messages you want your gifts to send are transmitted so clearly that they can be heard from on high — or anywhere else, for that matter. But if you were offended by my present in any way, feel free to let me know so I can swap it out for something that shows how much I really care… like maybe a set of candlestick holders or a gently used diary.