Ah, the season of giving…and receiving. While the holiday joy may be as palpable as the sweat in a SoulCycle locker room, nothing deflates the good vibes quicker than unwrapping a terrible gift. You don’t doubt that your Great Aunt Pearl or work wife or new hot fling meant well when selecting a prezzie for you, but that doesn’t change the reality that you now need to give an Oscars-worthy performance and matching acceptance speech to cover up the fact that you hate that necklace, or that hand-knit throw blanket, or that Kindle you’ll truly never use, or that sweater that is just so…yolky (you hate yellow, okay?).
Instead of just grinning (through your tears) and bearing it, wouldn’t it be better for all parties if you could turn your bad present into something you’ll actually enjoy? Because, hey, that’s kind of whole point, and any other course of action would be a missed opportunity.
But it’s a lot more complicated than saying, “No, thanks!” and asking if the giver knows the store’s return policy: Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman says the best way to proceed with a God-awful gift depends on who the gifter is, the quality of your relationship, and what the item in question even is.
“The bottom line is to not offend anyone and to keep hurt feelings at bay,” she says. “If your neighbor brings you a tin of treats, and they’re terrible, it’s not your responsibility to tell them that; just toss the tin.” This, she says, means you’re thinking respectfully and responsibly.
Of course, in the case of Nailed It!-style holiday cookies, the stakes are low. Such is not the case for, say, a pair of aesthetically displeasing earrings from your new (but promising!) significant other. Though honesty is generally the best policy, and you totally want this person to know your taste for future gifting purposes, Gottsman says it’s best to stay mum and provide direction for present preferences down the line. “If it’s the first thing you’ve ever been gifted by the person, you’ll look high maintenance if you do anything else,” she says.
Instead, Gottsman suggests putting the bauble away for safe keeping, or even taking one for the team and wearing it (from time to time, let’s be reasonable). “It’ll make for a good story—you’re making a memory,” she says.
When the relationship itself isn’t new, though, feel free to return or regift items that aren’t to your liking—but just be prepared when your mom inevitably asks why she hasn’t seen you wear those new designer gorpcore sneakers. If and when this happens, Gottsman says to be truthful, but to feel free to soften the news with a harmless white lie: “Say something like, ‘Full disclosure: I really liked them, but I passed them on because they were really tight on me,’ or something like that.”
If that’s not well-received? Simple: Have an open conversation about how to handle not-quite-right gifts in the future, and then stick to the guidelines that’ll keep your relationship healthy. And if your bond with you mom is dicey? Just keep the sneakers and trot them out on her next visit—it’s for the best.
But, be sure to never regift or donate an heirloom or something of emotional significance. If your mother-in-law gives you a tea set that’s been been in her family for three generations, don’t just give it to your sister because you don’t have room for it in your stuffed closet. Either keep it or, if you’re confident doing so won’t hurt any feelings, when the time is right (read: not at the exact moment you receive it), suggest it might be better off with someone who will use it more. (“You know who loves tea? Cousin Sarah! Would it be alright if I gave it to her, since she’ll get more use from it?”)
“With the gift comes emotions, so before you do anything, think about the relationship,” Gottsman says. And since sorting the emotional ramifications of this minefield of niceties can be headache-inducing, we created a tool to make the experience merrier.
Use the guide below to decide the fate of your lackluster gift.
Now that present returns are settled, here’s how to talk about gift-giving expectations with your S.O. And these are the best credit-card rewards to maximize your holiday shopping needs.
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