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Why does receiving a bad gift make us feel so upset?

It might seem petty and shallow to get upset over a bad gift, but there’s often a deeper reason behind the feeling.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach, Kelli McClintock, Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • People can become incredibly upset when they receive a badly chosen gift. Given that getting any gift at all is good, why does it cause so much distress?
  • The answer probably has less to do with the gift itself and more to do with the feeling that the person giving you a bad gift doesn’t really understand you.
  • Gifting is a way of telling a person they are on your mind. When we commercialize this and see gifting as a chore, it becomes meaningless.

My mom cried on her last birthday. It took me by surprise, to be frank. I was sitting in her big, comfy chair, holding a cookie, and sipping a lukewarm cup of tea, and she just started crying. I don’t think it was my fault. Moments before, I’d asked: “So, have you had any nice gifts this year?” It’s the kind of question that’s innocuous, safe, and wholly unworthy of tears, I’d say.

After she calmed down, mom told me the problem: “Jeff got me a Kindle Fire.” Now, Jeff is my mom’s partner, and he’s a lovely guy. He’s the kind of guy who would buy you a Kindle Fire for your birthday. But what Jeff got wrong was that my mom is a dyed-in-the-wool, techno-fearing, iPhone-sneering luddite. She has just about cracked the TV remote, but anything more than that might as well be sorcery to her. The problem with Jeff’s Kindle Fire is that it utterly, spectacularly, and hilariously misjudged my mom. She felt like the person she loved didn’t understand her.

“How can Jeff say [sob sob] he loves me when he thinks this [wave tear-soaked hand at offending item] is what I’d like for my birthday!”

Gifting and buying

There is a great difference between buying someone something and gifting. When you buy a thing, you’re giving something useful or fun or beautiful. But when you give a gift, you’re giving consideration. To gift is to let someone know that they matter enough to you that you’re willing to seek and find something that suits them. A gift says you either know a person or want to know a person, and you would like to find the thing that fits their life. The best-chosen gifts are pieces of yourself that add to another’s being.

So when we’re given a truly meaningful and thoughtful gift, it feels incredible. When we receive something from someone who understands us entirely or, better yet, when we get something that we didn’t even know we needed, we’re gifted twice. We have the physical present unwrapped and we have the infinitely more valuable gift of being seen, being known, and being loved.

A well-chosen gift is a grasping and reaching effort that tells the gifted that they matter to you. As the poet David Whyte writes in his book, Consolations, “Giving means paying attention and creating imaginative contact with the one to whom we are giving, it is a form of attention itself, a way of acknowledging and giving thanks for lives other than our own.”

A bad gift

We’ve all been given bad gifts in our time. They might be the oddness of a novelty mug or a garish pair of trousers you’ll never wear. Or they might be the practical and dull — not bad per se, but not special, for sure. Socks and ties are nice, in the most underwhelming sense of the word.

What’s curious is that people will respond differently when they receive a bad gift. Dunn et al. did research into “bad gifting,” and they found that people perceive a poorly chosen gift as indicative of being misunderstood. As the paper shows, people report “feeling less similar to their romantic partner after receiving a bad versus good gift.”

What’s curious, though, is that there were noticeable differences in how the genders responded to getting a bad gift in the study. Based on their study into roughly 30 heterosexual couples, the team from the University of British Columbia discovered that the men in the relationship took bad gifts worse than women. A bad gift makes men feel less close and more upset with their partners. For women, however, their outlook on a relationship “was impervious to receiving a bad versus good gift—even though women were just as displeased with the bad gifts as men.” In other words, according to this sample at least, women tend to downplay the “I’ve been misunderstood factor” of a badly chosen gift.

The thought is all that counts

Christmas, birthdays, and celebrations today have mostly become a commercial monstrosity of Amazon’s dream. We have lost what it means to give a good gift. As the philosopher Theodor Adorno puts it:

We are forgetting how to give presents… [Today] even private giving of presents has degenerated to a social function exercised with rational bad grace, careful adherence to the prescribed budget, skeptical appraisal of the other and the least possible effort. Real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver. It means choosing, expending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject…. This decay of giving is mirrored in the distressing invention of gift-articles, based on the assumption that one does not know what to give because one really does not want to.”

Gift giving is an ancient and special tradition. It’s a part of almost all societies and arguably has evolutionary roots in cooperation and reciprocity. When we buy someone a Hallmark card or the first item in a “Best Gifts for Mother’s Day” list, we make gifting meaningless. We make it offensive. This is not gifting as it’s meant to be, but rather frames the receiver as an imposition and hassle to be done with quickly.

Perhaps, next time, gift someone your thought and attention. Let them know you’ve spent time thinking of them. After all, if the thought is all that counts, you should make that thought as good as your gift.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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