Three Rules to Help You Be a Better Gift Giver

Why "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" may not be a good idea.

Posted Dec 22, 2018

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With the hustle and bustle of the holiday shopping season at its peak, and only three days left until Christmas, many of us are likely feeling the stress of what to get those special someones on our list.

Buying gifts for our significant other and close family and friends should be simple, right? As long as we do it out of love, we can't go wrong, we may tell ourselves. However, good intentions don't always lead to a positive exchange. For example, it's not necessarily a good experience for the receiver if the gift is not something that particularly resonates with him. In fact, it can strain the relationship and shut down the receiver from expressing his true feelings out of fear of hurting his partner. Rather than coming clean that the gift wasn't something he particularly wanted, he might pretend to like it, or be dismissive in an effort to please his partner. 

And for the giver, this is a missed opportunity to learn about her partner and his true wants and desires. Rather than being a meaningful exchange, or what we refer to as a "gratitude dance" for both partners, the relationship is stunted. Neither partner is learning and growing from the experience.  

For example, early on in our own relationship, one of us (Suzie), an avid chocolate lover, would repeatedly give James chocolates after a meal. She figured since she loved chocolates and enjoyed savoring one after a meal, then everyone else did too. After all, who doesn't like chocolate, she told herself! So she continued handing James a chocolate at every possible occasion. 

Soon after they were married, Suzie stumbled upon mounds of decaying chocolates stowed in various places throughout their home, such as James's coat pocket and dresser drawer. She was perplexed by her discovery, wondering why in the world he didn't eat them. She confronted James and was even more surprised by his answer. James confessed that, unlike Suzie, he wasn't a lover of chocolate. Since he didn't want to hurt her feelings, he said he would just quietly accept the chocolates and then stow them away. James then told Suzie he would have preferred something else after a meal, like perhaps a piece of mint gum. 

After talking to many couples over the years, we realized we weren't the only ones who had this type of experience. It's common for people to assume that others like exactly what they like and to act accordingly. However, despite our good intentions, it's important to realize that everyone doesn't like what we like. And that it's better to ask and be curious about others rather than assume everyone is like us and make the mistake Suzie made. And often the partner is afraid to speak up when he receives something that he doesn't particularly enjoy. 

Imagine if Suzie never discovered the piles of chocolate. She might still be giving James chocolate to this day. This type of scenario is common with couples. And we can understand how resentment can build up over the years upon receiving things that don't particularly resonate with us. We might feel that our partner doesn't really "get" us. Feeling understood by our partner is one of the key factors associated with relationship satisfaction and sustainability. 

When it comes to gift giving, asking and learning about others is especially important so that we can learn to give what others want and need. In our book Happy Together, we discuss the importance of how to be a good gift giver, emphasizing that it is a skill, and when done well, it many improve your individual and relational well-being. 

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Specifically, we talk about three rules that can help guide people in understanding how to become better givers:

  • The Golden Rule — "Treating others as you would like to be treated.” Valuable as the Golden Rule is, it has some limitations. Taken at face value, the Golden Rule asks us to treat others as though they were in our shoes. But they aren’t us. Instead, they are their own unique persons with their individual tastes and interests. We recount real-life examples, like the one we just mentioned from our own marriage, where Suzie was repeatedly giving James chocolate, something that she loved, assuming he did as well. Only later did she find out that he didn’t share her same love of chocolate. In fact, he would have preferred not to receive chocolate at all, but perhaps something else. 
  • The Platinum Rule — “Treat others as they’d like to be treated.” This rule instructs us to treat others as they wish to be treated. It seems simple enough, but can only work if you actually know what the person likes. While it’s likely to be more accurate than the Golden Rule, the Platinum Rule can get us into trouble. We may go astray if the person doesn’t know what he wants. And worse, what if what the person wants isn’t good for him? For example, if we treated our 8-year-old son in this way, we’d only be buying him ice cream and video games all the time. While they are both fine in moderation, in excess it’d be a problem. So we came up with another Relationship Rule that we coined “The Aristotelian Rule." 
  • The Aristotelian Rule — “Treat others as their best selves would want us to treat them.” In other words, this rule encourages us to focus on the good we see in others and treat them in a way that will help them grow that good and become better. What would their best selves want? In order to help us answer these questions, we might ask ourselves the following: What are their values? Long-term goals? Dreams and hopes for the future? 

By reflecting upon these questions, we can then give a gift that would align with their best selves. Perhaps a massage to feel more relaxed if they have been working at their desk for hours, a gym membership if toning and strengthening their body is a person goal, or maybe Italian language lessons if they love to learn. 

By attuning to our partner and his or her likes and desires, rather than assuming they are the same as ours, we can take the guesswork out of holiday shopping and learn how to become a better gift giver. In turn, we will likely build a stronger and more authentic bond. And hopefully, too, rather than the "hustle and bustle," we will experience more of the "holly and jolly" of the holiday season. 

References

Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.