December 2013

Being Better: The Art of Gift Giving

Author: Kitty Bartell

Like the Island of Misfit Gifts, is there a drawer or closet in your home filled with presents you received that you are considering re-gifting? Are you ready to resort to gift cards for all, and to all a good night? Do you avoid looking at the gift list you wrote in early November because the thought of finding, buying, wrapping, and presenting them makes you a bit nauseous? Have you ever dropped off a gift on your neighbor’s doorstep or your co-workers desk, hoping they weren’t going to be there to open it in front of you, because you’re just a bit embarrassed with the obvious no-thought-put-into-it theme you’re going with this year? Being a better gift giver is possible, and it doesn’t require blowing your budget or taking a leave of absence from your job.

Being a better gift giver begins by simply paying attention. There is an expression that says we have been given one mouth and two ears because we should listen twice as much as we speak. When it comes to finding a great present for someone, I like to add that we have also been given two eyes to assist our ears in their quest to overcome the almighty mouth.

If you really listen to what someone says and watch what they do throughout the year, you will have a notebook filled with gift ideas. Conversations are loaded with great ammunition to arm you when it’s time to get inspired. Does your boss keep it all business until her grandchildren are mentioned? A photo album! Does your aunt always know who’s on the New York Times Bestseller list and talks passionately about volunteering as a reader at the senior center? A book light! Does your daughter sleep with her tennis racquet tucked under her pillow? Cool tennis backpack! Clues … clues … clues … right before your very eyes, ready to make you better.

One of my favorite tricks to gathering those perfect give ideas is when I’m shopping with a friend or relative. Some of my most well-received gifts have resulted from an annual girls’ day that my sister spearheads when we’re together during the summers in Northern Michigan. We can’t always be together, and sometimes one of the guys even tags along. But when we do manage it, what happens is a great lunch followed by some aimless meandering through the charming shops overlooking Little Traverse Bay. The things my mother-sister-daughter-niece-brother talk about and pick up are like mined gold for the aware gift giver. A notebook is key—something small that is always with you to jot down ideas. A brother obsessed with finding the best gelato… Hmmm, I know how to make a great pistachio gelato…check. A niece who wants to stop at every bead shop in the county to feed her need to make jewelry… Hmmm, she may not have asked for it, but a gift card to Michael’s would help her supply… check. Yes, sometimes gift cards are thoughtful.

One caveat to all this inspired meandering: do not confuse your own wishes with those of your recipient. You may have seen the perfect pair of gold hoop earrings or tasted the most sublime lemon verbena jam, but likely, these are not good ideas for others. Now is the time to use your mouth and express how much you love what you see, and hopefully one savvy gift-giver will catch on and it will be under the tree for you on Christmas morning.

With the holidays upon us, it may be too late to do all this meandering and careful reflection; however, it is not too late to be thoughtful. Choosing one gift for everyone isn’t usually the road to better gift giving. However, if “everyone” means that all your co-workers will receive a pretty package filled with candies you made from your grandmother’s recipe, go for it; but please don’t give all your female relatives, ages 2 to 82 matching nightgowns… cute Christmas picture, but that’s the end of it.

Also, ’tis the season for impulse buying. RESIST! I love the lists of gift ideas magazines and TV shows start pumping out in early November. Who doesn’t want to see what the Today Show’s top toy picks are, or the latest make-up trends? What I try to do is keep specific people in mind who are on my list to glean inspiration from the media blitz and then stick with a plan. Also, all those displays at the front of stores with piles of gifts priced to entice… I repeat, RESIST!

Finally, the hot-potato subject of re-gifting: When you re-gift, it’s obvious, really. We may be gracious enough not to call you out, but we know. I even have a couple of gifts that were excellent re-gifting decisions because they were perfect for me; they just weren’t perfect for my friend. These I consider happy accidents, and if you have something that you know, without question or doubt would be perfect for someone on your list, then go for it. But proceed with caution and always consider if it might not be better to donate it to charity. If you are re-gifting, ask yourself, am I being better?

Receiving gifts graciously and being appreciative of those who put some thought into what you may like/want/need helps make you a better gift giver. And if you do receive a gift from someone who is not on your list, say thank you, and move on. It was thoughtful, but I say, along with many etiquette gurus, you do not need to respond by coming up with something for which you had not planned. Simply be gracious.

One of the best things about delivering just the right gift to just the right person is that you get a warm glow deep inside that can send shivers of the season right up your spine right to your heart. Here’s to being better … and to all a good night. 

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