is the season of gift giving! You know what you’ll get your closest family and friends, perhaps what you might purchase for a casual work buddy…But what about that guy you always talk to at the bus stop? What about that distant relative who, despite living miles away from you, always remembers you on holidays? What to buy then, for the person you just don’t know very well? 

The answer is simpler than you’d think. 

Stick to Ole’ Reliable 

There are classic gifts out there that almost everyone enjoys.  Image Courtesy of Studio Media.

Some gifts just…WORK. You know the type. You’re always happy to see them, no matter who they are coming from, and they don’t depend on a person’s unique personality, they are considered great by just about everyone. 

These are the kinds of gifts that you can give to a person without having to worry about offending them, or that they’ll return the gift later. While they may not be the most personal gifts there are, the person you gift them to will likely understand that, as you are likely just acquaintances. 

Here are some ideas to get you going: 

  • A classic book (or, a book that you love and want to share with someone) 
  • A gift card (A great way of showing appreciation without risking purchasing something they’ll just return) 
  • A nice handbag or bookbag (very practical) 
  • A funny mug (yes, I know that everyone has too many mugs, but there’s a reason for that, okay?) 
  • An ‘exotic’ food that they’ve never tried before (true, they might not like it, but you’ve bought them an experience. And besides, some foods are reliably good, even if they are unfamiliar: like desserts) 

But Stay Away from the too Impersonal

A few of these gifts are cliche, boring, and/or not generally exciting.  It’s a good idea to stay away from them. 

On the flip side of Ole’ Reliable resides the Too Impersonal gift. Everyone has received a gift like this. Socks, a candle, maybe bath salts…None of these gifts are inherently bad, and, frankly, many of them are great–that’s why they’re so commonly gifted. The problem comes when they are just too generic, too plain, too “I don’t know who you are,” that you end up offending the person you gift them to. 

Granted, ‘offend’ might be too strong a term, but gift-giving is, by definition, a personal act. You are giving someone something to show them that you care about them…And nothing says “I care less,” or “I was obligated to do this,” more than giving them a gift that’s generic and thoughtless. 

Here are some gifts to be wary of, if you want to avoid falling into this pitfall: 

  • Scented candles from generic brands 
  • Socks (even if they’re very nice ones) 
  • Bath salts or beauty products (If you’re a woman, you have definitely received these at some point in time as a gift. Nothing says ‘I-don’t-know-anything-about-you-other-than-that-your’re-a-woman quite like a person gifting you a beauty product for the holiday season)
  • Gloves or a hat (unless they are very unique) 

Hold Onto that Receipt! (Or Don’t…)

Bear in mind that they might not have the reaction you think.

It stings to acknowledge this, but there is always the chance that the person you gift your well-thought out present to, will want to return it. 

It doesn’t necessarily mean that you were off-base with your gift giving. Maybe they already had one at their house, maybe they’re allergic to the material or can’t find space for it. While the reasons are not always malicious, it can still hurt to hear those words “oh, I just can’t,” when speaking about something you put a lot of time and effort into. 

So, for that reason, hold onto that receipt! It would be awkward if, when they tell you they already have one, you don’t have a receipt in hand to use/provide them with. As a general rule, if they tell you right away that they can’t accept a gift, just take it back and return it. If they are very polite and socially conscious, they might wait, however, to return it, for fear of hurting your feelings. This is great. But in order to help them out, you may want to include the receipt for the gift so that they can return it with ease. 

Ultimately, this is a difficult situation to navigate, so I leave the final decision up to you. There are many who believe that, even if you don’t want a gift, you should hold onto it anyway as a show of good manners. This is also a very acceptable point of view. After all, how miserable would Christmas be as a holiday if people felt it was acceptable to say “I hate this,” whenever they received a gift they couldn’t think of a use for. 

If someone you give a gift to acts rude or ungrateful, you are completely justified in taking said gift back, or never giving them a gift again. Unless the gift you’ve given is dangerous or offensive (which can happen, unfortunately), you have every reason to expect that the person you give it to will reciprocate with kindness and at least a nice ‘thank you.’ If they can’t manage even that, it may be time to start separating yourself from this person. 

Fun Fact (!) 

I once took a friend out to dinner just for the heck of it. We agreed on the place prior to their arrival–it was a new Thai place–and, though they had never eaten Thai food before, I thought that they would enjoy the new experience. 

Boy was I wrong. 

Upon arriving at the restaurant, they took great painstaking time in telling me that they are quite picky, and therefore don’t like eating: coconuts, mangoes, peanuts, or spicy sauces of any kind. They also weren’t big on vegetables, either. 

I just stared at them, incredulous, thinking to myself: Well, then why are we here? Why not check out the menu beforehand and tell me you wouldn’t like the food? Most importantly, I thought, Why tell me this now, when, as the host, there’s nothing I can do but feel bad/ awkward? 

They spent the rest of the night picking at a plate of rice and chicken, and I walked away having learned a valuable lesson: If you don’t like a gift, honestly, don’t tell the person giving it! After all, what can they do at that point but take it back, or feel bad for ever having picked it out? I know I certainly felt bad that night, knowing that a gift I had given was not enjoyed. 

Unless the gift is physically dangerous or very offensive to you, then please, the very least you can do is pretend to enjoy it. Remember: It’s the thought that counts! And somebody thought that you were important enough to them to deserve a gift. That’s certainly not nothing. 

(NOTE: This story is about an old friend, and while I was disappointed that they didn’t enjoy the food, we still had a good time together and I don’t hold it against them whatsoever. In fact, I do find it kind of funny to this day. I mean, coconuts, mangoes, peanuts, spicy sauce? That’s like all of the ingredients of (Americanized) Thai food right there!!!!) 

Bake them Something! 

Baked goods are widely loved as presents.  Image Courtesy of Anastasia Gubarieva.

Nothing is more personal and universally loved than baked goods. This is a fact. Gifting a person that you know a baked or cooked good/product (such as a casserole, pie, cookies, whatever) tells them that you want to let them in on a special part of your life. Food acts as a gateway and indicator of many things, including: culture, upbringing, and social life. By giving someone food, you are essentially implying that they are like family to you, and that you want to bring them closer. 

On the slightly more negative side of this gift giving trend, there are, however, a few caveats to consider. For example, does this person have any allergies that you might not be aware of? Are they a picky-eater, and likely to hand your food right back to you? Do they have a bit of a ‘brutally honest’ streak? If you find yourself answering ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you may want to think long and hard before giving this person a baked good item. No one wants to hear that their food sucks, that the person they gave it to is allergic to it, or that they don’t like whatever ingredients are in it. That’s a disheartening experience for the gift-giver, and it comes from putting a little too much trust in your relationship with a person you don’t know very well. 

For guidance, here are some foods that are generally liked, easy to make, and great around the holidays: 

  • Cookies (any kind, but chocolate chip tends to be the most popular) 
  • Pies (Apple is a safe bet, and so is cherry or blueberry. Pumpkin and pecan pie are a bit more controversial in the baking/consuming world, so be wary.) 
  • Casseroles (a very midwestern thing, I admit. But who doesn’t like noodles, tater tots, cheese, and the occasional veggie…All mixed into one!) 
  • A charcuterie board (On second thought, this is very hard to package. You might prefer to invite this person to your house instead so that they can enjoy it in a more natural-feeling environment) 

Show Care! 

Gift giving is all about showing you care.  Image Courtesy of Kira auf der Heide.

Even if you don’t know how your gift will go over, it’s important to remind the person on the receiving end that a gift is–at the end of the day–an expression of appreciation. By taking care in wrapping your gift, you show the person you are giving it to that you put a lot of thought into it. Just like the cliche goes, it really is the thought that counts! 

Consider adding beautiful wrappings, ribbons, and bows. Bonus points if they’re of a high quality, but they don’t have to be. Just a unique wrapping paper that you created yourself should be enough to show appreciation. As an idea, you could even sign the wrapping paper with your name or your families names, to show how every single one of you wanted to get in on the act of giving the gift. 

If you find yourself short on time and/or cannot think of what to do or how to wrap your gift, consider placing it in a beautiful box or paper bag. While the bag won’t be as high maintenance as the wrapping, it’s true, it will still provide your gift with an extra dimension of specialness. 

Here are some cute and clever wrapping ideas that can elevate even the most generic of gifts without too much thought: 

  • Clear wrapping paper (yes it exists, and it is very, very cool!) 
  • Cute washi tapes with patterns on them (these are very personal to taste and style) 
  • Buttons, ribbons, bows (all of the classics, just make sure to buy ribbons that you tie on yourself, not that are stick-ons) 
  • Adhere a small piece of candy to the top of your gift, for added sweetness at very little extra expense 

But Don’t Make them Feel Awkward 

Certain gifts can send the wrong message…

I know what I said earlier, but don’t get too caught up in the whole “showing you care” thing. I get it. You know someone, you like them enough to consider buying them a gift, and maybe, just maybe, you want to use this gift as a way of–not just showing you care–but getting closer to them as well. 

Well, here I am asking you to resist that urge. 

While it’s lovely to show a person you care, giving someone that you don’t know that well a gift that is 1) too expensive, 2) too big, or 3) too intimate, is, in general, a bad idea. At best, it can make a person feel awkward, and at worst, it can give them the wrong impression: that you are trying to “buy” their friendship. Friendships and relationships in general shouldn’t feel forced. No one should be expending more money, time, or energy than the other person–it should, on the whole, be equal. A good rule of thumb to follow is that: if this person would NEVER (and I mean never) would think to buy that for you, then don’t buy it for them.

Even if you are wealthy and they know it (meaning you have money burning a hole in your pocket and it wouldn’t be too much by your standards), I would still resist the urge to “over buy” things for a person. It can make them feel, again, awkward, and like they shouldn’t even try to reciprocate, because they haven’t the means to do so. I mean, how strange would you feel if someone you barely knew extended a very generous gift: like a Ferrari, and you knew, just knew, that there would be nothing you could ever give that would be on that same level. 

Though generous, big, expensive gifts like these (even if you can afford them) can be a little alienating. So, start small. For example, if someone says that they are trying to get into screen acting, maybe buy them a few online zoom lessons that aren’t too expensive. Don’t buy them a whole set, or a ticket to Hollywood. Even if they appreciate it, there’s still an element of that gift that is “too much.” 

If someone wants to be a chef, learn a language, or whatever–it’s a great idea to buy them a lesson in that skill, and then let them decide if they want to continue. Don’t buy them a whole private tutor, who comes to their house, and tutors them for ten hours a week. 

If you’re still lost on what you should and shouldn't buy a person, here's a general list of things that are generally not considered a bit “too much.”

Not too much: 

  • A book/film/magazine subscription (depending on the cost of said subscription, of course)
  • A class in an area that they are interested in 
  • A cute piece of art that you think they’d like (not a Monet) 
  • A new, small item of clothing: a scarf, some fun mittens, cute earrings (again, not diamonds) 

Too much:

  • A watch 
  • A magazine subscription (that really IS too expensive) 
  • A piece of high-end jewelry 
  • A full dress or tuxedo 
  • A designer bag
  • A puppy/kitten/gerbil/(any pet, really, is off-limits here) 

In conclusion, your gift should be something thoughtful, enjoyable, and appropriate. While it doesn't matter how much it costs (or even if the recipient appreciates it, depending on the case), it does matter that you put thought into all of the gifts you give, even to relative strangers.

Dec 20, 2023