Gift-giving: choosing things for people, or just asking them for a list

My wife​ and I have had a friendly difference of opinion over the years, that seems to come at least partly from a difference in our family traditions around gifting. To her, it’s just natural to ask people what they want, and get them that. This rubs me the wrong way, as does giving gift cards and so on. I’ve always been a big believer in trying to individually pick out gifts for people, putting thought into them, at least if they are close friends or family (someone you don’t know as well or see very often, a gift card or the like makes more sense).

But just now I was listening to the Hidden Brain podcast, an NPR podcast about social science research, and they said the research clearly points to it being better to go with my wife’s approach. :smack: I am a good husband, so I fessed up to her rather than just quietly burying this information and hoping she didn’t learn about it on her own. :o

But I still have trouble with the whole concept. It’s like, why even give gifts then? You could do like they show the mafiosos doing in the movie Donnie Brasco (based on real events): giving each other envelopes full of cash at Christmastime. Which seems fairly pointless, at least for people on the same level who would be expected to give the same amount (and even when going from a higher level to a lower one, there’s no real point in the underling giving anything back–just have the higher-ups give less).

You forgot option 3: don’t give anybody anything. My favorite!

Yeah, I’m with you on this. I spend time thinking hard about what to get my loved ones; sometimes it’s easy and obvious, while other times I take a chance on something that I feel they’d like/need. That’s part of the gift giving process to me. The other half just straight out asks me what I want, and I feel like I’m placing an order. There’s no sense that he got me something just because he really wanted me to have it. He’s getting better, though, and has given me some really thoughtful gifts without prompting.

But ultimately, people would more often get what they actually wanted or needed if we all did it your wife’s/my so’s way.

See, you’re convincing me I was right all along; but supposedly the science is behind our spouses…

I like an option between these two where you get a vague hint and then you get to choose something for the person that is almost guaranteed to be wanted but also somewhat a surprise. Like my sister asked me what I wanted and I answered “books on travels and/or history” and I got some nice ones I enjoyed reading that were also surprises to me on Christmas. On the other hand I have no qualms on basically ordering stuff from my parents since they are rich and I’m poor. It’s no big deal to them and helps me quite a bit.

You can do both, of course. Some from the list, some from the heart.

Ideally, I think people should put thought into giving gifts and then the recipient will be (pleasantly?) surprised. That’s the fun and meaningful way to do it. I’m giving a couple of people things I selected for them that they don’t know about, and it’s the thought of giving those things that generates the only tiny spark of Christmas spirit I’ve got left.

However, it can also be frustrating and impossible, and recipients get things they have no use for. Often those things are expensive, and money is wasted which could have made them happier, properly spent… My husband even provides me the link to what he wants, and I buy it with our money. Seems silly, but I’m convinced it’s the only way to go with him.

Some people wanted specific requests from me, so I provided some, and I’m looking forward to having those useful things I actually want. But my surprise gifts might be stuff I actually want too, and opening those will be really heartwarming. Or puzzling. :slight_smile:

I always ask for a list as a backup, and as a way to get ideas to riff on. Oooh, you have a teapot on your list, but that’s more than I can spend. I buy you a variety of my favorite teas and a funny mug. I try to make sure there’s something off-list for my giftee. It shows I put some thought into things.

I shop all year 'round, especially when I’m travelling. But lists give me a fallback position if December hits and I don’t have anything on my gift-shelf for you. Also, it gives me sizes when I’m buying for kids (I don’t buy clothes for adults).

Gifts aren’t about what I want to do/give, they’re about what I think the other person would like the most. If I know they’d be happier with a gift card or an item from a wish list, so be it. If they enjoy being surprised, I get thoughtful.

I agree with you in theory, but I hate shopping. This year I went shopping for my niece, nephew and sister at the ATM on the way home. They need money, and cash they can spend where they want is even better to them than a gift card.


I think it depends on how close you are to the individual, or how well you know them, or know what they like. I’m spending Christmas with my older son’s in-laws this year. I’ve gotten to know the parents fairly well, so gifting them wasn’t a problem, but I don’t know my DIL’s brother at all. He is getting an Amazon gift card because anything I’d pick out for him would just be random and unlikely to be something he’d like.

I don’t think a well-chosen gift card is inappropriate at all, especially when you don’t know much about the giftee.

There is a non-zero chance the “surprise” gift you get for someone will be hated, returned for something else, re-gifted, or discarded. It may have given you some satisfaction thinking you are giving them something you think they want, but it could be a burden to them in terms of getting rid of it.

However, if you get something they specified, you know they will be satisfied with it, and to me, that is more rewarding as the gift-er than trying to guess at what may be a pleasant surprise to the gift-ee (and getting it wrong).

I have to admit I’m pro-list. Part of the issue I always have with gift-giving is that if you’re giving gifts for even someone you know, you tend to want to get them things that involve the things they’re passionate about. Failing that, something that they will appreciate and/or find useful. Which is the way it should be, right? Problem is for a lot of hobbies, it is goddamn difficult to find things that are appropriate and desired. Depending on the hobby, it can also be amazingly complicated to find what they actually want.

Some examples might help. One of my nephews is super into Legos - Legos are always a welcome gift, but if I’m standing in the Target in front of the Lego kits, I have no realistic way to know without extensive investigation which of them he already has (or which his grandmother has purchased, or his parents, or his sister. . .) Without a list from his mother naming a specific kit, I’ll have to guess and hope not to miss (and be damn sure to include a gift receipt). Missing means that I have accidentally given his parents the additional Christmas gift of a trip to Target to exchange things.

Then there’s my oldest niece - who is 14. Her hobbies change almost hourly these days (which is totally normal and natural at her age). If I’d purchased her a gift in, say, October, there’s a solid chance that it’s no longer relevant.

My brother is a gas-powered remote-control vehicle buff. He builds the damn things from scratch. There’s always some bit or bob he wants for his hobby - but I will be goddamned if I could correctly select it from an array of possibles without specific guidance. I know what his hobbies are - it’s just since I don’t know a damn thing about the hobby itself, selecting a gift that’s useful and he’ll want isn’t really something that’s feasible without a list.

How about for me - I’m an avid and eclectic reader. But I do the vast majority of my reading on my Kindle. Even people who know me well, unless they live in my house and can therefore get their hands on my Kindle to check to see whether or not I own a particular book, there’s no solid method of telling whether or not I’ve already got a book. Amazon gift cards are just as thoughtful and much less likely to accidentally miss the mark.

If I’m buying clothing items for the kids, I could not tell you what size they currently wear. A list tells me what size they are today :slight_smile:

It’s not that I’m not putting thought into what I get for people - it’s more that I lack appropriate information to maximize my ability to delight the recipient. A list helps me out with that. Also, in my family, we view lists as guidelines more than checklists - a list gives you inspiration and technical information you might otherwise lack. If I see, for example, a particularly awesome Lego-themed thing that calls out the Lego-loving nephew’s name then there won’t be a single thought if I go that way instead of picking up the kit his mom listed for me.

Aangelica, you made that case very well. That is no doubt what is behind the research on gifting. I guess my desire tends to be not even to try to match someone’s hobby that they already get things for, but to take them off into a different direction. And I definitely understand the risk there that they won’t like it and it won’t get used.

Literal LOL at “shopping at the ATM” :slight_smile:

When our children lived at home, it was easy to know, guess,or get the hint on what they wanted or needed as gifts.

Now as a long distance grandparent, I rely heavily on wish lists. I am aware my daughter in law finds it offensive when asked, so I don’t ask her any more. I ask my son what she would like or need.

I want to give them exactly what that want (if I can afford it) and I don’t want their parents to have to return or exchange since they live in a resort area where the shopping is boutique even for toys and intended for the wealthy, The nearest normal type department or big box store shopping is 90 minutes. I don’t want to waste my time or money, so I want to get exactly what they need or are wishing for.

I feel the same way about our parents and in laws. They are very old. I don’t want to waste my time or money and I don’t want them to feel like they have to get out to go exchange.

So of the three of them, two we worked from wish list, the third we knew what we wanted to give and that he will like it even if he would never ask for it. One wish list item was very specific as to size, brand and store, so no surprise for her, but she loves that brand of jeans and will be pleased. The other was general, “I need pjs or a nightgown that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear if I end up in the hospital again.” So I had some latitude to chose a color and style we thought she would like.

That said, if we see something we think we’d like to give we do that too. My husband in particular often comes home with gifts for the boys just because he liked it and wanted them to have it and the buying of it gave him joy.

Aangelica said it best, but I’m going to add my $0.02.

Life happens. My mother-in-law is recovering from major surgery. The same gift I gave her last year isn’t something she can use this year. I know she’s reading a lot and spending a lot of time online, but I have no idea what books she has or what form she has them in. If I buy a book that she already has or has already read, she can’t exchange it easily. Clothes are problematic because of the surgery. She’s got enough jewelry to open a store. And, to top it all off, she hates gift cards because she wants to see people make the effort to choose a gift. So she’s getting a T-shirt with the handprints of all of her grandkids. We just don’t know what else to get her. :smack: