Giving and Receiving: The Reasons and Occasions for Giving Gifts

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A guest just brought me a box of milk chocolates; I only like the dark kind. So I will re-gift it unopened the next time I’m invited to someone’s house for dinner. I remember my mother receiving a box of dried fruits with someone else’s card—a re-gifting three times over! The protocol is that if you’re invited to someone’s house for a meal, you bring a gift, most often wine, candy, flowers, or better still a small potted plant so the hostess does not have to leave her guests in order to scurry around looking for a vase. If invited out to a restaurant, no gift is necessary.

Why do we give gifts? “It is better to give than to receive,” or so the saying goes. There are people who have trouble accepting a gift or are embarrassed by a compliment, which can also be considered a gift. Women, more than men, will respond to a compliment by minimizing it, saying I was just lucky; it’s really my team, etc. Children have to be taught to say thank you and not I have one already or I don’t like it. Showing appreciation for any gift is part of a polite exchange.

What are some of the reasons people give gifts?

Appreciation—Thanking someone for something that was said or done. Often people feel under-appreciated, so this may be a most welcome gesture.

Special occasion—An expected gift when invited to a birthday, graduation, or holiday party (unless the invitation says “no gifts, please”).

Self-serving—Wanting to be well thought of or remembered or to make the person feel they owe you something in return.

Atonement—Out of guilt or reparation for some wrong doing to that person; the gift says please, forgive me.

Unexpected gift—Given for no special reason except to say I love you, I was thinking about you, I hope you are feeling better, in friendship, etc.

Charitable contributions—Some are expected as part of belonging to an organization. Others are according to one’s interests. Some people like to donate small amounts to a large number of charities while others prefer to make a large contribution to one specific cause.

The type of gift does not always need to be an object. Sometimes a note, a card, a phone call, or a compliment will accomplish the same thing. A very expensive gift may be unappreciated by someone who is struggling financially as it can make the recipient feel they have to respond in kind. On the other hand, it could be something they may need, but cannot afford. This is a very delicate situation, walking the line between appreciation and possible embarrassment.

I live in a retirement community where everyone’s personal space is limited. We all bemoan too much stuff, so a gift should be something that doesn't take up room and doesn’t last. I have eaten the chocolates, the homemade breads and jams, the cookies; I have also received flowers that eventually wilt, candles that were burned, and books that I have read and passed on.

The choice of gifts, whether personal or professional, speaks of the relationship between giver and receiver. There are very specific gifts that would only be enjoyed by a particular receiver (such as an item of clothing where size and color matter), and there are generic gifts such as flowers and candy. Books can also fall into categories of specific or general (for example, having given a book on grief to a recently widowed friend as opposed to the latest best-seller).

One of the most important gifts one can give is the gift of one’s time, such as offering to babysit so that new parents can enjoy an evening off or walking the dog when the owner is too sick to do so. Recently I have been asked to stay with a person who has Alzheimer’s to give the spouse some much-needed relief; I was happy to help out.

I went online to further research my topic and was surprised to see how much information was available…from the kind of wrapping to use and its importance to international protocols to business gifts—appropriate and inappropriate ones depending on culture. Also listed were types of gifts according to the age of the person or the situation in life, such as moving into a new home or retiring to a smaller space.

This column was based on a suggestion from Cindy Peterson who included her own ideas on various gift giving themes—this, too, was a gift.