At some point — birthday, wedding, Mother’s Day — we’ve all given and received the equivalent of the pink bunny suit that Ralphie is forced into in A Christmas Story.
A strained “I love it!” may perpetuate the cycle.
Kerry Patterson, co-author of the best-seller Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (McGraw-Hill), says the subject of gift-giving is one such conversation, particularly within families. Here’s his advice:
Q. How do you weigh your affection for the giver against how violently you hate their gift they give you?
It sometimes is an issue of consequence trade-off. Is it more important that I have the right gift or make them feel good? But the issue becomes moot the better we get at speaking up without harming the relationship. The first thing is, I express my appreciation for the fact they gave the gift. I’m not faking anything there. A generic, “I really, I can’t believe you would do this for me” will do.
My mother would knit me these outrageous sweaters, the kind you would take to an ugly sweater party. You know how much work went into that? In that case, you can talk about the things you do enjoy about the gift, the fact they made it.
Q. What about when mom or your spouse wants to see you wearing the gift?
When it comes to the sweater, I wore it when my mom came by. That’s not the end of the world. The next crossroads comes when it’s intolerable to do so, if a spouse says, “Why don’t you wear this out to dinner?”
Focus the response on yourself, as in, “You know, I’m kind of quirky about what I wear. I would probably prefer this in blue, and if you don’t mind, I’ll swap it out.” You let them know it’s you, not their choice. You don’t then swap the sweater for a trip to Hawaii.
Q. Our family does a gift drawing each Christmas. This year, one relative gave a charming chip-and-dip set and got a Ouija board in return. Funny, but it doesn’t seem quite fair.
In ongoing familial relationships, if you haven’t had a discussion as a family about gift protocols, you’ve missed an opportunity to say, “I know we’re all good at finding things that people want, but there are going to be times when we miss. It would make a lot of sense if we include a receipt.”
You have to agree together it’s not an insult. Always choose positive language. It’s all done out of love and respect. Swapping is part of our culture. We have the discussion once as a family, rather than having to apologize and backpedal time after time.
Q. What if gramps gives you a subscription to a conservative publication but you’re liberal? Do you say it keeps getting lost in the mail?
Humor can go a long way — “I see what you’re trying to do here!” — or say “Thanks, this gives me a chance to see the other side, but don’t expect me to read it cover to cover!” If you have humor in your toolbox, use it.
Q. What about when a spouse gets in a gift rut?
This happened with my wife. She says, “You’ve been giving me this sterling silver. I have all I could ever wear. I’d like to move it in this direction if I could.” I found that very helpful. … I wasn’t embarrassed.
This whole, “I can’t speak to them,” it’s making a sucker’s choice — that either I’m going to insult or live with the consequence. How about, “I’m going to speak and not hurt their feelings. I’ll be caring and informative and grateful for what they’ve done.”
We’ve written whole books on this. People are frightened to speak for fear of offending. People move to silence because they think bad things will happen. Then they hold it, and then it moves from silence to violence because we haven’t learned to speak our mind honestly without offending. These conversations are crucial in every form of our life.