Ah, the holidays. That time when we express ourselves not in our words or our actions but in our shopping chops. We consulted a gift-giving expert to decipher the hidden meaning behind what we give — or don’t give — to those we love.
I have no idea what to give my significant other. Does that mean I don’t know my partner well enough?
Actually, it’s the opposite. You can’t pick a gift because you’re anxious over finding the right one. “The more the relationship matters, the more we worry about getting it right,” says Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in Hertfordshire, England, who actually studies the psychology behind giving gifts. “The more we value the other person, the more want the gift to be an accurate reflection of the strength of our feelings towards them. And what we don’t want to do is give them a gift that’s a poor sympbol of the importance of the relationship.”
My best friend gave me a gift I hate. Do my friends not know me as well as I think they do?
We think someone is our closest pal, and then they gift us with something that makes no sense. What went wrong? According to Pine, there may be a disconnect in how we think they see the relationship. “The way we think someone sees us is not necessarily how they see us. That becomes manifest in the gifts that they give us sometimes. That can be a bit of a surprise, and sometimes not a very good one,” says Pine. And maybe warrants some more together time to figure things out.
Of course, it could also mean that your BFF is simply a bit selfish — and was giving you the gift she’d like to receive. “Sometimes people choose gifts that they quite like themselves, and it gets a bit egocentric. We think that because we like it, other people will too,” says Pine.
Every year, I take a lot of time picking gifts I think my family members will like. But they always appear disappointed. What does that say about our relationship?
You mean well, and you probably do know what they like, but you may be going over the top. “Sometimes we pick something too personal,” says Pine. “We pick a certain category. For example, Aunt Mary loves big earrings and she loves cats. So, you get her big earrings with cats on them. But she doesn’t actually want that. We put the wrong things together.”
My romantic partner never gives me sentimental gifts, like jewelry. Does that mean he’s not committed?
Gender differences — big surprise — play a big role in gift giving, which is something Pine has studied extensively. Women tend to be more sentimental about giving gifts and attach a lot of meaning to specific presents. Men, on the other hand, tend to desire and give gifts that are usable, pragmatic and functional. “Oftentimes, for example, a man finds it easier to buy an iPad for his wife. If he thought she wanted a piece of jewelry, he would have no idea how to choose it. He doesn’t necessarily know what type she likes. It puts him in a retail experience that’s awkward and unfamiliar to him. But he does know how to buy a gadget,” says Pine. So don’t read too much into that new microwave that’s under your tree this year.
I only buy giftcards. What’s the big deal?
It depends on who you’re giving them to. Once again, gender differences tend to come into play when it comes to whether gift cards are appreciated, as well as who is giving them. A woman is less likely to appreciate a gift card from a romantic partner because it lacks the sentimental factor. Pine has seen this play out in her research. “A woman recently said she desperately wanted her husband to buy her jewelry, so she hinted she wanted jewelry from him. When the big day came, he gave her a voucher for a jewelry store. He was being practical, and thinking, ‘I don’t know what to buy, but you can buy what you want yourself,’” says Pine. “For her, that completely missed the point. It was the sentimental value that she wanted.”
What does re-gifting say about me?
Basically, it says exactly what you think it does — that you don’t care. If you don’t get away with it, you’re putting a relationship at risk. “Being a recipient of a gift that someone is just passing on to you violates all the laws of gift giving, especially that you should make an effort and choose a gift for someone,” says Pine. “If you’re discovered, the person receiving the gift usually feels quite hurt and insulted.”
I can never tell when people don’t like my gifts. Am I out of touch?
No–it’s really hard to tell when someone truly doesn’t like a gift, especially if they pretend that they do. But there are some body language signs that can tip you off. Pine videotaped several people opening gifts, and asked them afterward whether or not they liked them. She and her team then studied what characteristics were common among people who appreciated their gifts and those who do not. A giveaway for a dud, for instance, might be lack of eye contact with you as they’re praising the gift. “Since our faces often betray our true feelings, we don’t want to have sustained eye contact with the giver because we might disclose how we really feel,” says Pine. When a gift is unpopular, the recipient also tends to put it back in the box, or start re-wrapping it. (You can’t start too soon readying things to return.)
If a person really likes a gift, they make eye contact, and will interact with the present. “They may smell it, or hold it up against them if it’s something like a scarf. When they truly love it, they will leave it out on show,” says Pine.
How do some people always pick the perfect present? Are they just better people?
A person who always gets it right is very uncommon, so don’t beat yourself up about it. “In my research, just about everyone gets a present that they don’t like. Even people who know them well will sometimes get it wrong. The person that always gets it right is a rare being,” says Pine. “They likely spend an awful lot of time doing the research and looking around. I don’t think they get it right by charm, I think a lot of work goes into it.” Sometimes, such people are also very intuitive, and have a greater emotional intelligence, making it easy for them to pick up on when someone drops a hint.
So look at the holiday season as an opportunity–to learn more about what your friends and families like and dislike–and make your relationships stronger. Just avoid those big cat earrings.