An insensitive gift is worse no gift at all, because it tells the receiver that, while you feel obliged to them, you don't really care about them, or, at least, not enough to give them thought and consideration.
So here are the 10 rules of gift giving:
1. Never give naked money. Cash sends out the message, "I couldn't be bothered to think this through, so, here you go, please yourself, that's what you're worth to me."
2. It need not be expensive. In fact, some of the best gifts are free or very cheap. For example, a friend once gave me a recipe for one of my favourite dishes, writing it out in calligraphy on parchment paper, together with an offer to cook it with me. Total monetary value about zero, and yet one of the most charming and thoughtful gifts I have ever received.
3. Don't give something that only you will like. Don't assume that others share your likes, or presume to convert them to your tastes.
4. Prefer experiences to objects. Gifts such as a sports massage or concert tickets are generally more memorable than objects that can all too easily be cast aside and forgotten. Remember that some objects, such as books and DVDs, can also be experiences, so long as they are well chosen.
5. If the person is short of time, give something that doesn't take up much time or, better still, fills up dead time. A friend once gave me a collection of audio CDs that I could listen to while driving to appointments. Instead of a purely utilitarian experience, a means of getting from A to B, driving became my story time.
6. Wrap it up. There is much pleasure to be had, both for the giver and the receiver, in the ceremony of slowly and carefully unwrapping a gift. If the gift is, say, a pair of cinema tickets, then put the tickets in an envelope and wrap the envelope. Choose the envelope and the wrapping paper carefully and seek to match it to the gift or receiver.
7. Write a card. Include a thoughtful message with the gift. Don't just buy one of those customized cards, but compose the message yourself. You can even write in verse form if you feel up to it. Your message should be read before the gift is opened.
8. Give something that you yourself can share in. Such as theatre tickets, a shared meal in a restaurant, or a shared holiday. This shows that you want to spend more time with the receiver, and also provides you with the perfect excuse to treat yourself!
9. Choose your timing carefully. When you give the gift, make sure that the receiver is happy and relaxed, and that there is plenty of time to slowly unwrap and revel in the gift. After a nice meal is usually a very good time.
10. Make it a surprise. If the gift can come as a surprise, then all the better. If not, you can still make it a bit of a surprise by giving two gifts, the first being a sort of decoy.
In the words of Voltaire,
God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.