BRENT STOLLER

Writer. Advice giver. Peanut butter and chocolate enthusiast.

Advice for the Modern Man: To Give and Receive

Holiday Presents

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Happy holidays!

(Questions have been modified for space and clarity.)

I know this sounds picky and ungrateful, but with gift giving season upon us, is there a polite way to tell friends and family that I’m sick of getting the same thing every year? It’s frustrating that they don’t seem to consider that I have several interests.
–First World Present Problems; Minneapolis, MN

Is it cash? Are you getting cash every year? If so, I’ve got nothing. Nobody should complain about getting cash from friends and family. Just be quiet and take it. And say thank you.

I love your self-awareness, both in your question and your screen name. It shows that, despite coming off picky and ungrateful, you’re also keeping this (first-world) problem in the proper perspective.

That’s not to say that getting the same (type of) present every year can’t be frustrating. It can be. For one, it’s a dead giveaway of a lack of thought/effort on the gift giver’s part, as if they’re mindlessly checking you off their to-do list.

On a deeper (if not overly dramatic) level, it can make you feel as if these people don’t know you. Just because you once liked Hot Wheels doesn’t mean you still like Hot Wheels. You’ve grown, and so have your interests, and these gifts are an invalidation of that maturation, of the person you’ve become.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if there’s much you can do about this. I guess if people ask you what you want, you can answer. (That’s bold, though.) Or if there’s a gatekeeper for your gifts — like, say, your parent or spouse — you can tell that person what he/she can tell other people when asked about what you might like.

Other than that, I’d recommend two internal adjustments:

1) Be grateful. Be grateful you have people in your life, people who think enough of you and care enough about you to get you something, even if it’s nothing but reruns. Sadly, there are too many out there who have nobody and get nothing.

2) Eliminate expectation.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines gift as follows:

“Something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.”

Yet the more interaction I have with our gift-giving culture, the less I believe the terms voluntarily and without compensation have a place in it.

Look no further than the engagement ring. Rarely did guys used to propose with diamonds — until the late 1940s when De Beers’ ad agency coined the slogan that redefined the expected proposal standard: “A diamond is forever.”

In the 80s, the stone company upped the ante with an advertisement stating an adequate, acceptable ring should cost a man two months of his salary. Some now contend it should cost three.

Of course, if you’re unsure of how much to spend, check the Engagement Ring Calculator, which in addition to asking about your income, housing situation and debt, also asks questions like, “Has she ever caught you cheating on her?”; “Are her friends overly materialistic?”; and “Is she a wildcat in bed?” The suggested amount calculated swings wildly with each answer you input.

You would think asking someone to spend the rest of their life with you would be the ultimate display of love and devotion, but apparently that can only be demonstrated by the proportional pain inflicted on your pocketbook.

Predictably, similar Gift Giving Guidelines have been concocted for every conceivable occasion. If someone’s getting married, you’re supposed to get them two presents — for the engagement and the wedding — despite it all being tied to one life event. If someone is giving birth, you’re supposed to get something for the baby and do something for the parents, like bringing them a meal. And if that someone giving birth is your wife, you’re supposed to get her a “Push present” for pushing your child out of her womb and into your presence.

I know, I know…I know that I’m in the minority, that my stance on all this cuts against social norms. I know I’m coming off as the Grinch, as some miserly jerk who doesn’t want to acknowledge, share in or be put out by anybody else’s happiness.

I also know I’m a hypocrite, or at least a part of the problem. Full disclosure: When I proposed to my now-wife, Emily, I gave her a diamond ring. And prior to our wedding, we registered for numerous gifts that our friends and family purchased, making our transition to married life a million times easier.

But I swear, my issue isn’t with the concept of gifts (I love gifts!), nor is it with the sanctity of the occasions or even the money. I’ve given countless presents to mark all sorts of celebrations, and I’ve been happy to give them all. Really, I have been. (And I’ve probably missed sending a bunch, too, because before I was married, I was clueless to this type of stuff.)

My issue is with the expectation, this notion that 1) the receiver is owed something, and 2) if the giver doesn’t give the proper present in the proper time frame that costs the proper amount, then he/she somehow doesn’t care.

I get that these protocols have purpose, that they give you direction when you want to do something for someone but don’t know what.

But they’ve turned the gift giving process into a sort of give-and-take system, something you engage in not (only) because you want to but because you have to. This friend experienced this, so I’m indebted that. But it’s OK, we tell ourselves, because we all do it for each other. Everything evens out in the end.

In April 2015, Emily was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Thankfully, everything is fine now; her doctors handled the issue flawlessly, and she’s been cancer-free for over a year. But those days leading up to and during her treatment were a trying time.

I’m sure the Gift Giving Guidelines have a chapter outlining what’s owed in the face of illness, but I have no idea what it says. And I had absolutely zero expectations about what the response would be from our friends and family, nor did I give it an ounce of consideration. It never occurred to me that I should.

Which made their outpouring of support that much more meaningful. Some called, some sent messages, some had food delivered; all of them made it clear how much Emily and I meant to them.

And just as with the wedding presents, I was unspeakably appreciative. It didn’t matter how quickly people had made contact or how much money they’d spent or whether their casserole was homemade or store-bought. It was simply the thought that counted.

What do you think? What advice would you give this reader? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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