The other weekend, I went to the local thrift store with a large, overflowing cardboard box. I poured its contents—shoes, clothes, handbags, books, toys, even jewelry—into a gigantic bin by the entrance. The Lupus Foundation gained roughly $100 in value. Meanwhile, my apartment gained about three cubic feet of space, free of miscellaneous objects that had been collecting dust. Most had been gifts.
This whole post is probably going to make me sound bratty and ungrateful, but I have never been big on presents. For one thing, I am not a materialistic person. I don’t want or need many objects in my everyday life to feel happy. When playing The Sims, I always got annoyed by the characters’ need to surround themselves with impractical possessions for a positive Room score, because I couldn’t relate. In the financial spreadsheets I have maintained for several years, luxury spending has consistently placed near last. If something serves no utility, then it is likely wasting space.
I wasn’t always this way. When I was a child, my parents had many family friends who would visit. They often came bearing gifts, some of which I actually quite liked. However, I was almost never allowed to keep them. The gifts would be stashed away in a closet, to be given to somebody else later. Knowing which closet it was, I would sometimes open the door to stare longingly up at the shelf of forbidden presents.
This is not to say I had an utterly deprived childhood. I did receive birthday and Christmas presents, but they were never what I requested in my petitions to Santa. They weren’t even as good as the family friends’ gifts, which I never understood. If it was a matter of economics, why couldn’t I keep their presents, and my mother purchase her own presents for the other kids?
The main issue with my mother’s gifts was that they were often very feminine things: sparkly outfits, delicate necklaces, fashionable purses. They tended to hail from popular brands, which didn’t fit the anti-mainstream aesthetic I started cultivating at an early age. More importantly, they made me uncomfortable because I didn’t—and still don’t—feel like a girl. They were constant reminders that my mother didn’t care about the person I was, and that she preferred to keep pushing me to become someone else.
Gift-giving, I soon realized, must be an inherently inefficient process designed to leave both parties less than satisfied. This belief was reinforced by guys I dated. As you could probably guess, this is the only “love language” that does not resonate at all. For some reason, when I tried to tell them I didn’t want to do presents, they didn’t believe me. Every generic necklace and handbag thus said three things: they also wished I were a woman, they still didn’t know me, and they believed in persisting inefficient processes.
Lots of people are lousy gift-givers, even to recipients without gender issues. Half the time, they pick one thing everybody knows you like, and get you something superficial pertaining to it. Posted a few cat pictures on social media? Next Christmas, you’ll be inundated with cat pens, posters, and paperweights. The rest of the time, they get something they would like, without considering whether you share their tastes. It’s not something you ever talked about, and nothing they know about you indicates you would be interested in it—but it appeals to them, so it should appeal to you, too, right?
I like to think I am more thoughtful with my gifts than most, but honestly, I have insufficient data for such a claim. This is the other thing that bothers me: the lack of outcome tracking. As a kid, when I gave my parents handmade arts and crafts or little mall purchases, I either spotted my offerings in the trash afterward or never again. How naïve of me to expect they would have decorated the refrigerator or nightstand with them.
I gave someone an audiobook on a topic with which he was obsessed, and I’m confident he never listened to a word. I gave someone else a necklace; after months of never seeing her wear it, I felt stupid and hypocritical for doing so. I gave someone else a robot vacuum cleaner; over a year later, she asked curiously at a party whether those things really worked, clearly never having tried running one. For all I know, those presents—and more—were also stashed away in a closet to be re-gifted in the future. I can’t believe more people aren’t disgruntled about spending money on things that evidently never wind up seeing the light of day.
The only times I see it succeed truly and consistently are through crowdsourced efforts. When friends band together, each chipping in feedback and $20 for a substantial gift, it works satisfyingly well. I’ve learned my lesson and made decisions. I won’t be participating in any more holiday gift exchanges. I won’t buy anyone souvenirs anymore unless explicitly asked. If a couple getting married doesn’t have a registry, I’ll stick to giving them cash. But if anyone wants to join forces for a low-risk idea with high expected value, do still count me in.