The Unspoken Rules of Gift Giving

Somewhere out there, there are countless assholes like myself. We appreciate the gesture of gift giving, but refrain from participating in the ritual for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because we lack adequate financial resources. Sometimes it’s because we simply have too many friends or family members to buy for. More often than not, these tend to be excuses rather than legitimate reasons.

Several years ago, I decided to become the friend everyone secretly loves: The one who never fails to get you something whenever Christmas rolls around.

I set the bar pretty high too. I wanted each gift to be meaningful and unique, something customised to suit a particular person and only that person. I didn’t want to be that aunt who buys you T-shirts every year but always in the wrong size.

Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Once I began making a list of who I’d need to buy presents for, I quickly realised that I could afford neither the time nor money to follow through. Someone more sensible would have singled out a few special, more “deserving” friends. But that’s not what I did. I thought, if a couple of these guys were to find out that they didn’t get presents when others did, things might get ugly.

So I hit on a simple solution. I would just not buy presents for anyone at all.


What if my presents are so mind blowingly amazing that I will never be able to do better?

Gift giving is a complicated routine for a number of reasons. Most of them revolve around what presents mean to us, and what we think they mean to other people. The result is a fairly complex state of emotions that we often find either difficult or embarrassing to articulate.

I, for instance, have always believed that if I don’t buy presents for everyone, I might as well not buy them for anyone at all. Which means that the whole half-assed, biased, it’s-now-time-to-pick-my-favourite-friend exercise is never an option.

The truth is, buying presents for friends effectively forces us to rank and prioritise them according to how much they mean to us. It’s not so much that the truth hurts, but that it’s inconvenient.

Imagine having, on Christmas day, to explain to someone how having once gone on a trip to Japan together does not make you best friends. Or how you didn’t get someone a present because while he might be in your clique, you actually barely know him.

Much like how picking baby names reveals to you who you despise, picking the people to buy presents for can really give you a sense of who actually matters to you. It’s easier to just please them all or neglect them all.

Besides, I’m also always terrified of the precedent I’ll inevitably set. If I buy them presents this year, will they expect presents next year? What if my presents are so mind blowingly amazing that I will never be able to do better? Will Christmas then turn into this yearly struggle to make other people, some of whom I don’t really give a shit about, happy? Why would I do such a thing when there are years where I didn’t even buy myself a present!

It’s in our nature to be calculative.

As human beings who work hard, budget, and make conscious spending decisions everyday, money matters. Even if you make a decent salary, every dollar counts when you’re spending on such a scale. As such, giving presents becomes a lot like throwing a wedding banquet. You resign yourself to the fact that you might not recoup your costs, but you secretly hope you will.

Gift exchanges carry these same subtexts. Whenever we get a gift in return for giving one, we hope that it’s a present we like. We might hope to like it because it’s useful or meaningful, but whether or not we intend to, most of us can’t help also thinking: I hope it’s as good as the one I got him. It’s in our nature to be calculative.

Buried in this train of thought is another truth about Christmas presents we all know but fear to acknowledge: That so much of what we give and are given are a lot like those oversized T-shirts my aunt used to give me. It’s stuff we don’t use, don’t want, or just stuff that really doesn’t bring us much pleasure at all.

These are the thoughts we can’t help that make us feel like really horrible people. So why bother at all?

Presents, I argue, is what you resort to when you don’t have anything else to give.

I rationalise my way through abstaining from gift giving by reminding myself that I’m always there for my friends. Come break-up or family drama, I’m there to listen and to offer advice or a silent shoulder. This, I tell myself, is what Christmas is all about. Not nicely wrapped things!

Presents, I argue, is what you resort to when you don’t have anything else to give. When you won’t make plans on weekends because you might score a date, you buy your friends presents. You distract them with gifts so they forget what a shitty friend you really are.

All of which, is simply not true. But it is also better than always feeling crappy when you receive a present, only to realise you have none to give in exchange. So when this happens, just say thanks, and remind yourself of that time you had to haul that friend—incidentally twice your size—back home when he had one too many drinks on a particularly rough night.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can be either a shitty friend who never buys anyone presents or a great friend who also buys everyone something small. Under no circumstances should any of us feel obliged to buy into the ritual of gift giving unless it’s an office Christmas party and you’re playing Secret Santa. This, really, is the only even playing field when it comes to presents.

After all, you know you’re never gonna have to spend more than $20 on it.

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