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Gifts That Disappoint: Seven Rules of Gift-Giving Explained

Have you ever opened a gift and immediately wished it had never been given?

What’s the best gift you ever received as a child? Was it something you’d begged for or something totally unexpected that introduced you to a new interest? What’s the best gift you’ve ever received as an adult? Was it something tangible, like jewelry or cash, or was it something more experiential, like a hot air balloon ride or a pair of season tickets to the theater or your favorite major league sports team home series?

All of us have different preferences when it comes to the gifts we receive and most of us believe the best gift is one that is given by someone we care about who truly understands what will please us. We like to be surprised, but most of us don’t want to be “too” surprised when we open a package.

In many cultures, gift-giving is a highly formalized event and it reflects traditions that run deep. There are expectations about gift-giving in families and between couples and friends, as well. However, according to Galak, Givi, and Williams (2016), there are a number of “rules” that givers are following when selecting a gift, but those rules may not be the ones that their recipients tend to follow.

They determined that certain types of gifts can create problems:

  1. When a giver wants to impress the recipient with a “Big Deal” kind of gift; this might be something that the giver assumes the recipient would value based on what the giver believes is impressive.
  2. The giver might also prefer to give a complete gift, like a set of knives, when the recipient would prefer that a single good knife (potentially costing as much as the complete set) be received.
  3. Some givers may believe that gifts should be material, tangible gifts when a recipient would much prefer something more experiential (like a fishing trip or night out) than the giver might think to choose.

Galak et al. also assessed that a mismatch between giver and recipient characteristics could also lead to a "gift rift" between people.

  1. Some givers might assume that an "out of the blue" surprise gift is more appreciated or better than a gift that is something the recipient has actually mentioned wanting.
  2. Other givers might use the price tag as a measure of the emotional value of the gift, yet the recipient might prefer a gift that is high in sentimental meaning rather than high in cost.
  3. On the other hand, some recipients might prefer a gift that reflects their own uniqueness, while the gift giver might assume that a unique gift is more valued.
  4. Lastly, some of us might prefer a relatively traditional gift that they can actually put to use in their lives while the giver thinks making a donation to a particular charity, such as a wildlife fund, would be more appreciated than the latest book on native wildlife in the giver’s favorite international destination. Sometimes even the seemingly impressive gesture of naming a star after someone you love is disregarded if that special someone was hoping for a trip to the planetarium’s new show.

Unfortunately, even well-matched couples or friends might be on very different pages when special occasions roll around and gifts will be exchanged. One young woman I know complained, “My boyfriend always gives me flowers on special days, even though he should know that I’m just not a flower person.” However, an old friend of mine from years ago complained that her significant other never gave her flowers and when asked why, simply responded, “Flowers die.”

This just goes to show that there is no single “one size fits all” perfect gift. Some of us might prefer the immediate joy felt when we open up a box containing the much longed-for pair of earrings. Another might be absolutely stunned when she opens up a pair of tickets to the Super Bowl.

Perhaps the most foolproof method of selecting a gift is to remember that most of us prefer gifts that hold their value to us for the length of our possession of them. Flowers die, but if the joy experienced at the presence of a dozen roses—even for their limited shelf life— is sufficient, then flowers are what that person needs! If your recipient loves poetry and scribbles down fragments of poems or haiku throughout the week, a lovely leather-bound journal and set of pens might be the way to go. But if your poetry-loving recipient appreciates the reading, not creating, of verse, giving a book by his favorite poet is probably likely to be more appreciated than the raw materials for scratching out poetry himself.

When buying a home, there’s a piece of advice that you should choose the lowest-priced house in the nicest neighborhood you can afford. Follow that advice for the recipient who favors quality over quantity—you might not be able to afford season tickets, but a pair of tickets to a home game or his favorite opera might be entirely doable. But the experience of being at the game or in the theatre might offer a long-term value that another shirt or pair of gloves could never match.

And some advice for recipients who are unsatisfied with their gifts? Express appreciation for the thought and see if you can be a little better at sharing about what you value in life and promise yourself that if you’re asked what you want for your birthday or other special occasions, you’ll be honest and share ideas about the kind of gift that would truly have meaning for you. Sometimes even our best friends or significant others might need a little guidance, and don’t be afraid to ask for some yourself.


Galak, J., Givi, J., & Williams, E. F. (2016). Why certain gifts are great to give but not to get: A framework for understanding errors in gift giving. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 580-585.