Friday, December 2, 2011

How to Receive a Gift Well

It's not as easy as it sounds. It's Christmas morning, in your hands you hold a bright wrapped box, your great aunt is staring at you with such anticipation, she looked for months all over town to find this for you and she is CERTAIN that you will LOVE it. You open the box to find the most offensive sweater imaginable. You're suddenly Ralphie from "A Christmas Story," you expected a red ryder BB gun; you got a bunny suit. You glance up at your aunt's expectant face. It's crunch time. This is a train wreck waiting to happen. What do you do? Do you tell her how you really feel about her gift? Do you lie through your teeth? There's got to be a better way!

Psychological research has shown that gift giving and receiving is an incredibly complex human interaction. In the moment when we put something that was ours into the hands of someone else, incredible neurological and emotional activity is going on in the brains of both parties. Cultures across the planet and throughout history have developed incredibly complex rituals and systems to govern how and when a person should give a gift, and how a person should behave when receiving a gift. Despite the fact that in casual modern America social customs are on the whole more relaxed, it's worth our time to recognize the unique sociological interaction of gift receiving and investigate how we can make exchanging gifts more rewarding and meaningful for all parties involved.

Receiving a gift can be treacherous. Someone has, presumably, expended their own free time, money, and thought on getting you a gift. If it's something you like, maybe it's not hard to be grateful and express that gratitude. If it's something you didn't expect or don't actually want, this can be harder. While perhaps not a proper art like giving a gift, I prefer to think of receiving a gift as a skill that requires great delicacy and endurance - like ice skating, or boxing. Or like navigating an oil tanker through a mass of icebergs. And as a skill, practice is essential to getting good at receiving gifts, which can be done with varying degrees of success.
A gift can be received poorly. That is, without tact, grace, or gratitude. The goal of receiving a gift well is to be genuinely grateful, graceful, and tactful toward the giver while also being honest. There is never a need for deception when receiving a gift. It is my firm belief that you can receive any gift well, no matter how awful, by simply acknowledging and remembering certain truths, without having to deceive anyone. In other words, you can always say thanks, and mean it. Granted, you will obviously prefer some gifts to others. This is where gratitude and grace, as skills, come into play. Today we're going to cover some basics to help us receive all of our gifts with genuine gratitude. But first, let's take some time to look at what goes on when a gift is given.

It's important for both givers and receivers to recognize this incredibly important fact: giving a gift puts a burden on the recipient. That's right, by giving someone a gift you are giving them an obligation - socially, psychologically, and perhaps economically. Advertisers have known for decades that giving someone something puts them in a position of weakness. By giving someone something for free - it could be anything, a frisbee, a bumper sticker, movie tickets, a coupon, even something as trivial as a handbill - you create a psychological discomfort in the recipient. Unconsciously, the recipient feels indebted to the giver and will be more willing to do what they ask in order to resolve that discomfort. Humans have a hard time receiving gifts! We like to feel as though we've earned everything we've gotten, we like to have our debts settled, and we don't like to feel as though we owe someone. This is why political parties and religious groups give out candy bars and stickers, because we're more likely to listen to them if they've given something to us because we feel as though we owe them.

Let me tell a story to illustrate this point. In college, a couple fellow students and I were hired by one of our professors to do some work at her house. The three of us did some light yardwork and our host made us a delicious lunch. At the end of the day our professor gave us a little cash for our effort. However, one of the students, trying to be generous, refused to accept payment for his work. A small argument ensued as the professor insisted the student take the money. The student, in his attempt to be gracious, stubbornly refused. But even though this student had the best and most gracious of intentions, he was actually denying our professor the psychological satisfaction of a healthy and fair business transaction. By refusing the $20, my friend actually left our professor with a debt that she felt she needed to pay. At the end of the day I had to ask myself what she, the established suburban professor, wanted more: $20, or the knowledge that she had helped out some students she liked by providing them with honest labor. By accepting a gift gracefully, we are often actually giving the gift of a settled account, a clear balance, a clean debt between you and the giver. In other words, receiving a gift well is a gift in and of itself. 

When someone gives a gift, it is usually the case that the giver actually experiences a greater satisfaction at the experience than the receiver does. Therefore, giving and receiving a gift is not a one way transaction - it is a complex sociological phenomenon in which both parties play an important role. When we receive a gift, our giver expects something of us. I recognize that this contradicts our original definition of a gift as something for which no reciprocation is expected. However, as human beings, givers expect an appropriate expression of gratitude and recognition of their hard work and sacrifice. It is therefore our duty, as good gift givers, good gift receivers, and good people, to play our part and fulfill this important social role.  

Ok, that having been said, let's get into how to receive a gift with grace. Now, like I said previously, I believe that the secret to accepting a gift with gratitude is keeping in mind certain truths. By adopting a certain mindset that prepares one to be grateful, it will be easier to achieve our goal of receiving a gift gratefully, tactfully, and most importantly, honestly. So let's take a look at three fundamental gift receiving axioms:

1. No matter how bad it is, it's a gift. Keep this in mind. Your giver may have put zero thought into what they got you, they may have given you something so thoughtlessly as to be offensive, they may have no real connection or feelings for you, they may have only gotten you something because of social pressures that made them feel obligated to get you something. It could be a very bad gift. But none of that matters; it's still a gift. This person has given you an object, free of cost. No one put a gun to their head. They gave it to you and, at least nominally, there is no expectation of payment or reciprocation. Therefore, if you recognize that someone has, in essence, given you something for nothing, than it should be easier to accept with gratitude. You didn't do anything to earn this gift, and you are not entitled to it. On holidays where people usually receive gifts, I always try and trick myself into believing that It's just like any other day, and that I have no reason to expect a gift. That way, when a gift comes, no matter how bad, it's a welcome surprise. Imagine how excited you would be if your mom got you a set of golf clubs, even though you don't golf, on any typical day of the year. It would seem like such a nice, strange, graceful thing to do. You might even consider taking up golf now that you have some clubs. But now, just because it's your birthday, you feel that she was obligated to get you something you would like, and so now have the right to be offended? That's no good. In a later post I'll detail further how entitlement is the enemy of gratitude. For now it will suffice to know that you are not entitled to getting good gifts. They're gifts. If you don't expect anything, you won't be disappointed. 

2. Barring exceptional cases, the giver likes you and is trying to show you. Give him the benefit of the doubt. If you came across a bad painting, you would never think, "Wow, what a rotten person that painter must be. I am personally offended at how bad this painting is." No. Just because a person is not the most skilled in the art of gift giving, it does not mean that they are actively trying to irritate you. They are probably trying their best. It's incredibly important to recognize that this person is doing something to actively show you that they care about you, or they're trying at least. That fact alone is pretty rare if you think about it, and therefore should be appreciated. How often do people actively go out of their way to show that they love you? It's worth thinking about that grandma's creepy doll collection is her most prized possession, and now she wants to share it with you. I suppose this is merely a reiteration on the old cliche that "It's the thought that counts." But, it's cliche for a reason. 

3. You can find beauty in anything, if you look hard enough. Every gift has a gem hidden in it if you're willing to work at it. This may seem hard to believe, but by thinking hard about that awful gift, you will be surprised at the value you can find in it. Sure, you might never be caught dead wearing that tie your sister got you with the penguins on it that are wearing sunglasses. But try imagining what she must have been thinking when she chose, out of all those other, reasonable, sensible ties, that THIS tie - this one fits PERFECTLY. She saw something in it, you can too. Remember, if you can't find a single thing that you like about it, when she asks, "Do you like it?" you will either have to lie or say no. Maybe she thinks of you as a funny, warm, unique person - it's that element of your personality and your relationship that she chose to highlight and celebrate with this unfortunate gift. The advice in #2 goes a long way; if you give someone the benefit of the doubt, it will be easier to find something of value in their gift. Besides, if you just show to your giver that you are thinking about their gift, that may be enough for them to be satisfied. Get creative. Where was it made? What can you do with it, other than it's intended purpose? What is this gift actually saying about me, the giver, and our relationship? If nothing else you can appreciate it for the story you'll have about it later, or the perfect example of a bad gift you now proudly own. This is one time where it actually helps to be a hipster, because if you can't like something genuinely, you can always like it ironically. I'm sure that sweater will work perfectly at the ugly sweater party you have coming up later this holiday season. 

That wraps up this three part series on the Art of Giving and Receiving gifts. Armed with this knowledge, I hope that your holidays are vastly more meaningful as you take time to get good gifts, think about the ones you love, and receive their blessings with grace and gratitude. Remember that gifts are about relationship and about showing others how you love them, not about the gifts themselves. By looking deeply behind the gifts we give, and the gifts we receive, we will see what each gift is really intended to say; gratitude will come easily and joy along with it.


  1. Thanks for these, Greg! Very good thoughts... I especially liked the intro about the bizarre social interaction that is gift-giving.

  2. i love reading things posted by Greg. This one is awsome. I think that we, as such a society "casual" society, may not take time to think about all the implications of things happening in our everyday lives. thank you


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