Few moments are more uncomfortable than receiving a gift from someone you didn’t buy one for.
What’s a gift-less receiver to do? Pretend you absentmindedly left your gift at home? Simply say “Thank you so much” and accept defeat as gracefully as you can?
Don’t stress. Even etiquette experts feel awkward when they’re on the receiving end of an unexpected gift, and so do social psychologists, including Susan Newman, the author of The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it―and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.
“I’m definitely embarrassed when caught off guard this way,” she told HuffPost. “It happened to me once when celebrating Christmas with a family not related to us. My friend’s mother got me a gift that I was certainly not expecting.”
In response, Newman offered up some honesty. “I told the woman, ‘I didn’t know we were exchanging presents. I feel terrible I have nothing for you, but I just love this gift. Thank you,’ and I left it at that.”
Newman believes that’s all you’re obligated to do in such a situation. Don’t make excuses and definitely don’t pretend you have a gift at home with your pal’s name on it.
“Telling them you forgot the gift is not being truthful,” she said. “Plus, you’re going to feel just as guilty, upset or embarrassed as you do about not having a gift for that person. You’re being pressured into what you think is proper social etiquette, but it’s something you don’t have to do.”
And as Texas-based etiquette expert Diane Gottsman said, chances are your friend just wanted to treat you to something nice without expectations attached.
“People are excited to show their love, support or appreciation by giving gifts, especially during the holidays,” Gottsman said. “Knowing how to accept graciously is a skill we all would benefit from honing.”
Instead of getting hung up on that beautifully wrapped but totally unexpected present, try to concentrate on showing your gratitude.
“Respond in the same spirit that the gift was given,” Gottsman said. “Smile, make direct eye contact, show genuine appreciation and say, ‘You are so thoughtful. Thanks for thinking of me.’ Decide later if you would like to give them a gift in kind, but there’s no obligation.”
To further show your gratitude, follow through with a “thank you” note.
Still unnerved by the idea of being sans gift this holiday season? It’s not a bad idea to have a few just-in-case, universally liked gifts stored away in your closet, said Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and the founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, Florida.
“I usually buy $10 coffee gift cards in advance. After all, who doesn’t like coffee or tea?” she said. “I also keep a collection of small gifts in my closet for times like this.”
The big lesson here? You can’t go through life avoiding awkward moments entirely, but you can be a little more prepared. Happy gifting (or just receiving)!