When I was a young teen, I loved Chicken Soup for the Soul. And when Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul dropped? I was verklempt. Like, finally, a Chicken Soup for me. I remember a lot of the stories quite well—for example, the incredibly dark poem about drunk driving that I realized recently I could still recite parts of. Still, no story sticks out in my memory like “The Bible.” It’s the (true??????????) story of Bill, a teenage boy who desperately wants a new car as his high school graduation gift. Instead of giving him a car, his father gives him a Bible, which upsets Bill so much that he storms out of the house. It’s the last time he and his father speak, because his father then… dies!!! We are not told how or even when this happens, though it appears to be many years later. While going through his father’s possessions, Bill finds the ill-fated Bible. Here, the story ends: “He brushed away the dust and opened it to find a cashier’s check, dated the day of his graduation, in the exact amount of the car they had chosen.”
It’s been 20 years since I read this story and I still can’t tell you exactly what the takeaway is meant to be. Being an ingrate… kills? Act excited about God and/or the gift you don’t want and you might just receive a new car? It also calls to mind the Poptart Tragedy, that other iconic bad gift morality tale. The muddled message of “The Bible” didn’t stop me from thinking this story was incredibly deep, though, or from reading it solemnly to my religion class (!!!) when it was my day to lead prayer. Lik dis if you cry evertim.
All this is to say: giving gifts is hard, and sometimes receiving is too, and it would probably be good if everyone knew how to react to a present they don’t like in a way that doesn’t end with a family estrangement or untimely death. To all of you Bills out there…. this one's for you.
Yes, it’s the thought that counts… but sometimes, the thought is pretty bad, or lacking entirely.
Gifts are my love language, so I’m not going to tell you that receiving a disappointing gift is no big deal, or that you’re shallow for being upset. It’s totally understandable to feel bummed about a gift that didn’t live up to your expectations. Does that mean you are justified in throwing a big fit, or resenting the person for the next 15 years? Probably not. A quick search of /r/AmItheAsshole turns up tons of examples of people acting like spoiled brats about gifts—and way more parties who subreddit-goers have dubbed “not the asshole” in the gift situation.
A few things that are helpful to consider, if you’re feeling let down by a present and also don’t want to be the asshole:
- Not all “bad” gifts are created equal; there’s a massive difference between a meh gift from a family member who doesn’t know you particularly well versus an egregiously off gift from your partner of five years. (More on both in a bit.)
- Not everyone values gift giving, a reality that can be really hard to accept if you put a ton of time/money/energy into creating the perfect gift and expect others to do the same. But before you take any action, consider that you might be going above and beyond because it’s important to you, but that the other person did enough by most standards.
- Yes, the thought absolutely counts!!! If someone, say, bought you a giant Houston Astros hat that’s also a cat bed because you love both the Houston Astros and your cats—totally not realizing that this is something you’d never buy yourself because it makes zero sense in your home and couldn’t be less your style—it’s kind of hard to fault them for it. The person genuinely, honestly tried! Even if they obviously just walked into a Bath and Body Works and said, “What would a 25-year-old woman like?” and bought one of the gift baskets that a well-meaning employee recommended well… again, they tried!
- On the other hand, sometimes the reason a gift is upsetting is because it shows an unmistakable lack of thought from someone who you think about a lot, and who you expect to think about you, too. And if you’re feeling super upset about a bad gift, it probably isn’t really about the gift.
When it comes to the cringey but harmless or just kinda Off gift from a relative, just be gracious.
‘Tis the season for giftovers, those well-intended gifts from relatives who mistakenly believe that Adult You is still into the fandoms and hobbies that Teen You was. It’s also the time of year for gifts that just… ain’t it. I’m talking about things that are harmless and inoffensive, and would be perfectly fine for someone who is not you. (Think: fairly inexpensive jewelry or a sweater you’d simply never wear, or a strong candle that makes you feel lightheaded.)
The only thing you need to say about this kind of gift is some form of, “Thank you! This is great!” with a big smile on your face. Seriously! It’s not that deep!
My current theory is that bad gifts of this type persist because, for a lot of families, these are presents given out of obligation, exchanged between people who rarely talk to and see each other outside of big holidays. So of course these gifts are going to be slightly off, or represent interests from the last time you saw each other, which was a full year ago.
That’s not great—and if you’re broke or you actively dislike these people, it can be really frustrating—but it’s also not necessarily a huge problem that needs to be solved. However, if you really care about the extended family member who consistently gives you slightly-off gifts, or you know they are putting a lot of money or thought into these presents, you might want to make an effort over the next year or so to talk to them more often. Call or text more regularly, ask them what they are reading and watching on TV and share what you’re into, post photos on Facebook (gasp) from time to time, etc.—whatever you can do to keep those lines of communication open. Doing so will make you a better gift-giver too.
Speaking of which… if you always send somebody in your life the same exact thing year after year because you swear they love it, check in every few years with a mutual third party who can be honest with you about whether there’s something else the person might like. Don’t be That Aunt.
When the bad gift demands a performance of some sort, you might have to be more direct.
In some unlucky instances, there’s additional pressure to Do Something with the bad gift… dress your kid in it for family photos, for example, or wear it on your wedding day. At that point, you have to decide how strongly you feel about not doing this thing, and whether this battle is worth picking. If the stakes are low and you can throw them a bone for one photo to keep the peace, do it. If, on the other hand, your in-laws expect you to wear coordinating “He stuffed my stocking!”/”I stuffed her stocking!” T-shirts for your holiday card photo, well… you are totally within your rights to say a firm no, or a friendly but very non-committal “Yeah, maybe!”
What to say:
- “We so appreciate the gift, but it’s just not our [style/sense of humor] and [if this is true!] we already bought outfits for the photos that we spent a bunch of time coordinating and are excited to wear.”
- “I know you love this idea, but it’s just not our [style/sense of humor] and, honestly, I’m a traditionalist—I don’t think I could ever send a photo with a joke like that to [my siblings/parents/former teachers]!” (Try to say this in a bright, friendly tone that makes it sound like it’s a You Problem.)
Note: if you’re dealing with in-laws or a gift-to-a-couple situation, this should come from the person who is closest to the gift-giver—that is, if your partner’s parents gave the gift, then it’s your partner’s responsibility to have this conversation. If your grandparents gave the gift, it might make sense for your parents to talk to them—in that case, it allows everyone involved to save face.
If a gift is clearly a snub, take that as valuable information about the gifter.
On occasion, you may find yourself dealing with less-than-thoughtful passive-aggressive types who give shitty or half-assed gifts and are also fairly awful in a million other ways. If a person who is constantly rude to you gives you a gift that’s used/broken/dirty, designed to embarrass you, or laughably awful in comparison to what they give other family members who they have a similar relationship with, say “Thanks!” with as much enthusiasm as you can muster—which might not be much—and then file this information away for later. And when the next special occasion rolls around, free yourself of the obligation to get them something nice (or anything at all, if you can get away with it).
Is it kind of annoying to have to pretend that you like it? Yes. And if it’s a really nasty gift, you can do a, “Wow. Seriously?” or something to that effect. Some gifts are so humiliating, cruel, or aggressive (think: something very intentionally monogrammed with your deadname on it) that it’s worth making like Bill and walking out of the house and never speaking to the person again. But if you’re dealing with a run-of-the-mill shit starter who will spin anything less than effusive into a huge thing about how ungrateful and rude you are for years to come, think about whether giving them the reaction they want over this particular gift is going to serve you well in the long run. (On the other hand, if you’re tired of playing nice, Captain Awkward has some excellent advice on what to say in this exact situation!)
If your partner gave you a wildly off gift—or, my god, an engagement ring that you hate—you should probably say something.
It doesn’t feel good to receive a gift that makes you think, “Wow, you don’t know me at all” from someone who you care about a lot, and who you thought knew you. Before you do anything, think about what may have gone wrong. Do they not know enough about gaming systems to figure out which one to buy for you? Were they doing the best they could with the budget they had? Or is this part of a bigger pattern of you communicating your needs and desires to them, only to have them ignore you or find a way to make you feel small?
If it’s the latter, maybe just… break up with them in the near future? Seriously! Like I said earlier, if you’re super upset, it’s probably not about the gift. And even if you’re being a total spoiled brat, it’s probably still better for everyone to go their separate ways. Both of you deserve to be with people who get and appreciate you.
If, on the other hand, this is a person who genuinely adores you and who you love and trust a lot, you should be honest but gentle with them. Think of it this way: You want to be with this person for a while, and gracefully addressing miscommunication and misunderstandings is healthy and necessary. (Also consider that they’d probably be mortified to know you didn’t love a gift they got you, and would wish you’d said something.)
What to say:
- “Would you be OK with me exchanging these jeans for a darker color? I really like the style but I think I look better in a darker wash.”
- “So, I really love this and I love that you noticed how much I was talking about wanting to play Fire Emblem. I did some research last month and was actually thinking of buying myself a regular Switch vs. the Switch Lite so I could play it on my TV. Would you be OK with me exchanging it for the standard Switch? I know it’s more expensive, so I’ll obviously pay the difference.”
- “To be honest, I’m a little surprised that you got me this because it’s not really my thing [for X specific reasons], which we’ve talked about in the past. I know how thoughtful you are, so I’m feeling a bit thrown off by this—but you’re so caring and considerate that I feel like a total ass even bringing this up. Thoughts? Can we talk about it a bit?”
As for an engagement ring? My god, please say something!!!! You are expected to wear this likely expensive item every day for the rest of your life; you need to actually like it. Don’t be nasty about it, but also don’t suffer in silence!
Go ahead and get rid of gifts you hate or just have no use for.
Donate it, sell it, exchange it for store credit, recycle it, or throw it away. Seriously. (FWIW, Marie Kondo agrees with me!)
If you feel really guilty about this, use it once or twice so you can say you did—burn the candle, text them a pic of the cats chilling in the giant Astros cap, etc.
Should you re-gift it? Personally, I’m against this; I worry that something will give the game away—a dated gift receipt or a personalized note tucked inside a box, for example, or slight wear and tear that might tip them off to the fact that this gift isn’t exactly new. (And then suddenly you’re the giver of the “bad” gift that this article is about!!!) However, that doesn’t mean you have to hang onto something that doesn’t suit you well for five years out of guilt until your cat pees on it and frees you of this ridiculous burden.
I think the best move with regard to re-gifting is to just disclose the origin to the recipient, and, as such, it’s not their main gift. For example: “My father-in-law gave me a pair of slippers that are really nice, but totally aren’t my style, but that I thought you might like. Do you want them?” Most people will say yes and be thrilled by this prospect. And if they aren’t, they can say so—and won’t be stuck managing the guilt of receiving a gift they didn’t want.
Bonus: take a meh gift as a sign that it’s time to make exchanging wish lists standard practice in your family.
List sharing before the holidays is just practical, and has the added benefit of not making your parents, in-laws, siblings, aunts, and uncles play Telephone on everyone else’s behalf. If you’re worried this won’t go over well with your fam, try to recruit a few siblings to get on board with it first—the more of you who agree to do it from the start, the easier it’ll be to get buy-in from everyone else. (And even if your relatives don’t create their own lists, they’ll at least still have access to yours.)
If you’re looking for a website to facilitate this, Giftster is one option I like a lot. Everyone within a private group creates their own list, and each item can include links, a ranking (i.e., how badly you want this thing), price, stores where it can be purchased, and additional notes. Folks can also fill out a gift preferences profile that the entire group can see; this is where you’d add things like your clothing and shoe sizes; favorite colors; hobbies and interests; favorite bands, restaurants, TV shows, etc.; “what not to get me” (anything with animal products if you’re a vegan, for example); and your mailing address. There’s also an option to mark off a gift once it’s purchased, so other people in the group—but not the recipient—know not to buy that one.
What to say to the family when you pitch this:
- “Hey, all! [Siblings and/or Partner] and I set up a Giftster group to organize our holiday shopping this year, so we’re going to send everyone invites. If you wouldn’t mind taking a minute to fill out a wishlist with a couple things you’re hoping to receive this year, that would be awesome—we want to make sure we’re getting y’all gifts you can actually want and use.”
If there was ever a hilariously bad gift given to someone in your crew that’s now the stuff of family legend, you could also reference that in a lighthearted, self-deprecating way—”Please do this so I don’t accidentally create the next Christmas Axe Incident. 🤪”
And note to everyone reading: it’s OK to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and simply buy people the things they ask for. There’s no shame in giving people what they want!!!!
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.