Eight Surefire Strategies for Giving Really Good, Inspired Gifts

It’s an art form, calling for thoughtfulness, diligence, a certain degree of selflessness (and a bit of weird canniness, i.e., gotcha smarts). Oh, and readers—Mother’s Day is fast approaching

By Florence Blecher

 

ABC Carpet & Home gifts

ABC Carpet & Home is a can’t-miss source for inspired (and sometimes offbeat) gifts.
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May 3, 2024
The year is sprinkled, no littered, with LOTS of occasions that involve the giving of gifts. From sometimes loaded manufactured holidays like Fathers’ Day, Mothers’ Day, and Valentine’s Day, to—progressively increasing in gravity—birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas/Chanukah, et al. Giving gifts well can be difficult and requires time, thought, and a certain amount of shopping dexterity. Done skillfully, it’s rooted in selflessness. Done poorly, or not at all, it hurts.

We all have people in our lives who are good at giving thoughtful, memorable presents. Not every present may be an out-of-the-ballpark hit, but sometimes, some people just get it right. They find something that the recipient REALLY wanted or something on-point that they didn’t know that they wanted. It needn’t be expensive or grand, but it should reflect thought, sensitivity, and insight.

Think back through the years on favorite presents. A precious ornament—a kimono-silk patchwork scarf—a special afternoon—a thoughtful note.

My parents were terrible at buying presents. Socks for Chanukah or shopping downtown with my mother and a pronouncement that some necessity—a half slip, for example—was my birthday gift. At some point in my childhood, I bridled and almost demanded thoughtful presents. The response? I was taken to that mega Fifth Avenue toy store F.A.O. Schwarz by my father’s secretary. So much for childhood expectations and urgings.

My birthday is the day after Valentine’s Day. One year, a dozen roses were ordered for me by a friend. I received a phone call at work from the florist, saying that roses had been sold out the day before, so what would I like to do? Oops, a well-intentioned miss, although still memorable many years later.

The question is: how to give a good gift that the recipient will love, remember, appreciate, and maybe even cherish?

Giving good gifts requires daily, almost moment-to-moment observation, not a last minute Oh my God act of desperation, panic, or projection. It’s about listening, noticing, carefully collecting ideas, possibilities, stepping beyond ourselves, and seeing the other person. It’s about having an Aha moment—not the easiest thing to do. We all want to be seen and valued, not taken for granted. We don’t want the gifts that we give— or receive—to be hurried afterthoughts or obligations.

As you can see, I’ve pondered, (maybe over-pondered?), this conundrum and have recognized several approaches to giving gifts.

Let me start by noting that, considering the ease of online shopping, including same-day-delivery, it’s difficult to find an excuse to overlook or show up empty-handed when it comes to gift-giving, that is, unless it’s deliberate or perhaps just due to exhaustion. Facebook even goes so far as to provide us with reminders of friends’ upcoming birthdays.

Harry & David Pears

Harry & David know how to put together jaunty boxes of (we must admit) luscious looking pink pears.
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The Safe, Generic Present

When you feel obligated to give a present, chances are you may tend towards something generic—Harry & David pears, or a small wheel of cheddar cheese, or a bottle of decent cabernet sauvignon. Nothing too personal, nothing requiring too much thought, something neutral-utilitarian. It’s good, it’s nice, it gets the job done, and assuages any feelings of guilt on your part. But does the giftee even like pears? Does she or he have a dairy allergy, no matter how yummy the cheese you chose? A generic gift can be great (or cold and impersonal), but only if the recipient actually likes the item that’s selected. It might even turn out to be a welcome surprise, an introduction. For the generic gift to be appreciated, some observation, thought, and insight are required to elevate it to worthiness. Maybe the very latest wireless earbuds for a music lover, or a luxurious makeup bag for a beauty fiend.

The I don’t know what to get, so I’ll-give-something-that-I-like

This is definitely a step up. Such a present often comes out of well-intentioned frustration or exasperation … sort of. The giver recognizes the recipient’s—let’s call it veneer—but doesn’t take the additional step to look a little deeper. “Person X can buy herself anything that she wants.” That statement may be true, but it’s also a bit of an excuse. It’s nice to share interests with that other person when interests coincide with the giver’s, but it’s even nicer to share those interests as excited discoveries. And it requires time and patience to slow down and look outside ourselves and our personal taste. It’s about taking that extra step of looking and listening to the cues that we all drop, and of finding something for just that other person.

The In-Between/Valiant Effort Present

This is the type of present in which the giver’s efforts are evident, but a wrong turn was taken somewhere along the way. The recipient can grasp the giver’s thought process and intentions, yet also see the misstep. The giver understood, but not quite all the way. Sometimes the issue is inappropriateness or lack of subtlety, but the giver tried really hard to get things right … and just missed. A for effort!

Basilica Farm & Flea

The Basilica Farm & Flea, a farmers’ market and craft and design fair in Hudson, NY, offers tantalizing homemade, vintage, and recycled gifts and edibles—including (we’re not kidding) simply divine maple sugar cotton candy.
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The Spot-On Present

The giver has been looking at and listening to the recipient all year long, all friendship-long. Has heard the recipient’s offhand comments. Has noted her or his hobbies, taste, friendships, romances, home improvements, health issues, quests, travels, travails, culinary curiosities, sense of humor, trials, tribulations, successes. In sum, that person’s life. The giver might even have found a weird little object at a flea market back in July while visiting Peru that would be perfect for Christmas for said recipient, so buys it and hopefully remembers putting it away in the back of the linen closet. These unplanned, impromptu presents are often among the best gifts because they express a genuine understanding/connection between giver and giftee. These presents are not about the giver but wholly about the recipient. Gifts where the giver is able to go beyond and truly see the other person, especially the quirks, idiosyncrasies, and grace notes. These gifts may not be easy, yet even when they’re slightly off, the sincerity and effort behind their choosing shine through. They’re selfless. They’re right.

The Non-/Absent Present

These are the most painful and most sad. The would-be/non-giver simply doesn’t think or makes assumptions and takes the non-recipient for granted. He or she doesn’t acknowledge that any relationship, every relationship, is an exchange. It may not be deliberate or meant to be hurtful, just an habitual oversight, an insignificance. The non-giver expects, feels entitled, and doesn’t make time to think, recognize, value.

Master Class gift card

A MasterClass gift card can be an absolutely inspired gift for the right recipient. (You’re welcome.)
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The Gift Card+

There are plusses and minuses to giving gift cards, starting with the very real, very disturbing fraud/account draining schemes that have become associated with them. Gift cards can be personal and impersonal at the same time. They can fill the gap when the recipient lives a continent away and a gift is “required,” but that person is sort of a cipher, known and unknown at the same time. One wrinkle, which can be good or not so good, and there’s no disguising it, is that the face value of the card is a clear, open statement. Yes, the recipient is free to choose something that she or he might want IF the giver has successfully selected a vendor desired by the recipient. Selecting a specific vendor is more thoughtful and personal than the all-inclusive, multipurpose Amazon. It could even be an introduction to a previously unknown vendor. Some people prefer receiving gift cards while others do not, but it can be one step above cash or a check. As with a gift card, the amount can be telling. How much is enough or too much? What is that magic number? Maybe adding a tiny little something more elevates it?

Lists

Lists are a perturbation—a subject I was discussing with a friend whose children are in their twenties. One of them provides his parents with a list of requested presents, raising issues of originality, insight, laziness, and demands. Lists make shopping easier for the buyer and assure the recipient of something that they ostensibly want, but they lack originality and insights, not to mention pleasure for the buyer, as well as the surprise element for the recipient. Are gift lists cheating? Are they a lazy loophole—at least beyond Santa’s lists from young children?

Reciprocity/Acknowledgements—Written Thank You Notes, Emails, Texts, or Phone Calls

How long can one get away scot-free? At which age should a child be expected to send a thank you note or step forward and say the actual words? At which age should a child be expected to reciprocate? When is the proverbial lump of coal appropriate? At which age is a child no longer a child?

These are valid questions for each of us to ponder.

The very word present implies being there, being present, and thereby honoring.

The word gift involves transferring something without consideration. It’s a giving for the benefit of the recipient, to help the recipient.

All of the above is of course a gross oversimplification, as gift-giving can be and generally is extremely thorny. But if these few words make a few readers think a little and maybe make another few people happier and less disappointed, then it’s all good.

Former New Yorker Florence Blecher now resides in Los Angeles with her three dogs. A retired architect and former TV production person, she is active in city planning matters and occasionally dabbles in writing.

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