What Makes a Great Gift?

What Makes a Great Gift?

What are you giving this holiday season? What are you hoping to get, or what have you already received?

Do you relish the opportunity to buy or make presents for other people? Or do you find it stressful?

In “Unpacking the Psychology of Gift-Giving,” Kate Murphy writes about what makes for a deeply appreciated gift and what makes a present sometimes fall short:

What do diamond earrings, an old window frame, a purple bicycle, a china teapot, a jigsaw puzzle, a flat iron, instant ramen and an espresso machine have in common? They were all gifts that respondents to a not-so-scientific field survey said were among the best, or worst, they had ever received.

If you were to guess which items were wildly appreciated vs. deeply resented, you would most likely fail spectacularly: The diamond earrings bombed, for example, because the giver had not noticed that the recipient, his girlfriend of three years, did not have pierced ears. The instant ramen, on the other hand, was a hit because that particular flavor, spicy miso, was not widely available, and the recipient’s mother, who knew her son was crazy about it, tracked down a case.

When it comes to gift-giving, context is everything. While marketers, influencers and innumerable holiday gift guides might suggest otherwise, whether a present is a home run or an epic fail depends less on cost, design, style, presentation or practicality and more on the giver’s ability to listen, observe and empathize — and perhaps do a little sleuthing.

“Gifts are an expression of feeling,” said Dr. Bonnie Buchele, a psychoanalyst in Kansas City, Mo., who has heard her share of angst about gifts, both given and received. “So in the rush of the holidays — that panic of ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get gifts’ — it is a good idea to take a little time to think about ‘What do I want to say here with this gift?’”

Good gifts — such as the old window frame a college student’s first serious boyfriend gave her, with a photograph of her favorite view mounted inside — show that you have paid attention. Bad gifts make you wonder if the giver knows you at all — like the floral china teapot given by a mother-in-law to a daughter-in-law whose tastes ran midcentury modern, and who had (she thought) made it clear that she preferred brewing tea in a mug. Even worse are gifts that imply criticism, such as a flat iron given by another mother-in-law to a daughter-in-law who always wore her hair curly. (Mothers-in-law fared badly in the not-so-scientific survey, whose participants included a pilot, a school crossing guard, a priest, an interior designer and a UPS delivery person, among others.)

Ms. Murphy shares some tips for giving better gifts, like attention, empathy and a little bit of espionage:

Pay attention to the topics that enliven and animate the people on your gift list. Look at the kinds of things they have in their homes and offices, what they wear, the colors they favor, what they take pictures of and what they like to eat and drink. If they are into exotic cocktails, for example, they might get a real kick out of LED swizzle sticks or a private mixology class.

Pick up not only on people’s joys and delights but also on their burdens and aggravations, and think of gifts that might alleviate those things. If they complain about never having enough free time, steer clear of time-consuming gifts like jigsaw puzzles or 1,000-page books. Instead, think about time savers, such as a robot vacuum or hiring someone to fix things around the house that the recipient hasn’t been able to attend to.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • What, in your opinion, makes a great gift? Conversely, what makes a terrible gift?

  • What’s the best or most memorable gift you’ve received? What made it special? What did it say about the person who gave it to you?

  • What’s the worst gift you have received? Have you ever gotten a gift that left you confused, feeling insulted or wondering if the giver knew you at all?

  • What is your reaction to the article and its advice for gift-givers? Do you agree with Ms. Murphy that to give great gifts, “you need to cultivate the ability to step outside yourself and really notice people’s passions, preferences and personalities”?

  • Would you say that you are good at giving gifts? What is the best gift you have ever given? How do you know it was appreciated? What are your present-giving tips for others?

  • Do you agree with the adage “It’s better to give than to receive”? Which do you prefer and why?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.

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