Novelist Richard Hine shares a story in which, when he was five years old, he gave his mother a box of 1000 pins as a gift for christmas and learned a hard lesson about gift giving–it’s not always the thought that counts.
“As an adult, I’ve never made the mistake of giving my life partner a vacuum cleaner or an electric can opener or a washing machine, and for that, I have to thank my mother.” He writes.
Giving something practical as a gift is mostly a great idea because practical, useful gifts are easier for the receiver to imagine themselves using and hence determine the value it adds to their lives.
Imagine someone gifting you a nice set of wireless headphones. Say you didn’t have a pair already, so the moment you open the present and see it, you’ll imagine what you can do with it. Listening to your favourite music without the tangling cables and having to hold your phone while on a call.
The potential benefits which are easy to foresee makes the object appealing. This is not just true for gifts, it applies even to shopping. Practical, useful things make our lives easier and hence we are motivated to own them.
But not all gift giving situations are the same and neither are all the recipients. Sometimes, depending on your relationship with the recipient and the context, they will expect you to give them something more thoughtful and less practical.
Gifting your wife the latest model of a microwave oven on a valentine’s day is not a great idea.
While a microwave oven is a useful gadget and will add value to their lives, it’s not something they can tell their friends about. And bragging a little about a romantic gift your husband or boyfriend got you for valentine’s day is not shallow, it’s just something we humans do to feel validated.
That is unless that microwave owen has some emotional value attached. Take an example from an episode of the TV series How I Met Your Mother called “When Lily Stole Christmas” Marshall gifts Lily an easy bake oven which normally is far from a romantic gift as it gets. But in this case what made it special was the story behind that choice.
Marshall was trying to figure out what gift to buy Lily on Christmas when his friend best Ted told him to buy her the oven because he remembered Lily telling him she wanted to own it ever since she was a little girl but her mother wouldn’t let her.
Lily ends up loving the gift. And she had been mad at Ted but because of this gesture she forgives him. There is nothing more seductive and endearing than knowing that you’re being paid attention to.
In this case Marshall didn’t gift Lily an easy bake oven because it was practical but rather because it was something he found out she wanted ever since she was a kid but never got. The oven represented an unmet desire that he fulfilled. It had emotional value.
And, also, it makes a great story. It’s romantic.
A woman will expect you to be a little intuitive about these things. While you can complain about how they’re impossible to understand, a little effort and thinking is all you need to put to make her happy.
Women are naturally more intuitive about these things. They put in more thought into gifts. If she gifted you a watch that you’ve wanted to own on your anniversary it’s because she was paying attention.
And while a watch is still practical enough to provide value to your life, it’s not too practical. Say a toolbox would be more practical but won’t make you feel as excited about getting it.
Besides, you can buy these low emotional value, high utility things yourself if you need them. They are pleasant when you get them from someone who you’re not expecting a thoughtful gift from. May be a neighbour you carpool with sometimes.
Now, this post is about when to avoid practical gifts, but don’t take it as an excuse to confirm your bias towards fancy, non-practical gifts More likely than not, your recipient will prefer getting something they can use rather than something you believe that will impress them.
I’ll tell you when to avoid practical gifts, but first let’s understand why practical gifts are preferred by receivers.
iver vs Receiver Preferences
If figuring out what to gift someone came naturally to everyone, then researchers wouldn’t have been spending hundreds of hours on studies to determine the psychology behind good gifts, millions of people wouldn’t be googling for gift ideas online and this website wouldn’t have existed.
Fortunately for me, and those researchers, it’s not that easy.
But don’t lose hope. There has been enough research done on the subject for us to figure out how human psychology works when it comes to exchanging gifts and that knowledge will help you avoid gift giving errors and become better at finding great gifts.
A study titled Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift Giving by researchers Jeff Galak, Julian Givi and Elenor F. Williams, puts some light on how preferences of receivers contrast with the expectations of givers on what kind of a gift they’ll like.
We don’t have to get into the details so here’s what they found out.
“When a giver chooses a highly desirable gift, he or she is hoping that the recipient will be dazzled upon opening it. In contrast, recipients care greatly about their ability to use or enjoy the gift and prefer more feasible or useful gifts.”
So while you may think that the funny “I shoot people” t-shirt was a brilliant gift for your filmmaker friend, they would have likely preferred a book on filmmaking.
The lesson here is: When in doubt gift them something practical.
Although, if you’ve been reading this article, you already know that practical gifts don’t always work. So let’s see when you should avoid giving practical gifts.
hen Practical Gifts Don't Work
We love gifts because they’re joyful little surprises wrapped in a box. Us humans love pleasant surprises.
The anticipation makes them exciting and besides someone putting an effort to buy us a gift makes us feel loved.
The choice of gift though must be based on the receiver’s expectations.
These expectations differ from person to person based on their relationship with us. You would expect your lovers, family and close friends to be more thoughtful than your coworkers, neighbours and acquaintances.
Which is why a practical gift, while they might find useful will likely not meet their expectations and end up disappointing them.
Which is why according to Buddhism one of the secrets to a good life is not expecting anything from anyone. They can’t disappoint you if you’re not expecting anything from them.
We don’t have to go to that extreme. Most of us gift exchanging, emotional mess of people do have expectations from our loved ones, which is not bad.
All we have to do is put in a little thought for the people we care about and try to give them a few moments of joy. Because these are the moments that bring us closer to each other.
There are three factors you should consider when deciding whether to buy a practical gift or a more thoughtful one with more emotional value.
1. Relationship With The Recipient
For people who are close to you–family, lovers and friends, spend some time into picking a gift that lets them know that you’ve put some thought into it and that you were trying to make it special.
These are the people who you’ve shared great memories with. Who cheer you up when you are down and vice versa.
Keep their interests in mind, pay attention to the needs they convey and meet those.
2. The Occasion
While you can be creative on birthdays, celebrations and festivals, it’s best to stick to practical gifts on weddings and housewarming parties. They could use the gadgets to help begin their new lives and equip their homes.
3. Emotional Value of The Gift
Back to the easy bake oven example from How I Met Your Mother, the gift itself was ordinary but the thought behind it made it special.
Even practical gifts can be thoughtful.
Let’s say they’ve hinted that they always wanted to try writing a book, you can gift them a book on writing or a typewriter (If they’re into vintage stuff).
This way you show your encouragement towards their aspirations and also gift them something practical yet thoughtful.
Practical things your recipient can use are the best options when it comes to gifts, but when you are close to someone they expect you to put a little thought into your presents. It makes them feel special and loved, which is far more valuable than anything that is useful but devoid of meaning.
If in doubt just find something that is both meaningful and also useful in some way.
And lastly; never even think about gifting something like an oven or a mixer grinder to a romantic partner. There is no excuse for that.