Whatever you think about Christmas – wonderful, a tyranny, excessive, irrelevant – the chances are that at some point during festivities, you will have to unwrap a present in front of the person who chose it for you.
Perhaps it will be a gift that leaves you speechless with delight, overwhelmed with gratitude and affection towards the giver who clearly knows you so well.
Or maybe you will open a present and wonder if the person giving it to you knows you at all. Do they seriously think you’ll love the unwanted item you find yourself staring at? Now you must react. So what should you do?
The ritual of giving – and receiving
The giving and receiving of gifts is a human ritual full of social and cultural significance, which strengthens our bonds and relationships.
One major component of the interactive ritual is the reaction that accompanies the opening of a gift and follows its acceptance. Young children are less bound to such constraints, and are often more interested in the box than its contents. But as we grow older, we become socialised towards an appropriate reaction – learning by watching those around us.
Luckily, gift exchanges are not fundamentally different from the rest of human interaction, and a core feature of human communication is what conversation analysts call “recipient design”. Recipient design refers to the way we construct or design our speech to fit with the person we are speaking to.
For example, you might begin a conversation with the phrase: “You know Jane, from the office?” But if your recipient doesn’t know Jane, or what the office refers to, you might adjust your sentence to: “You know the woman who sits upstairs, at my work?”
Recipient design is everywhere in human interaction, from the way we greet people (“hey”, “hello”, “yo”, “good morning”, “howdy”, “good day”, “mornin’”) to the way we make requests (“can I have?”, “I need”, “I was just wondering”, “have you got”, “I want”, “would it be possible”).
If you use the same words as a greeting for everyone you meet, from your best friend to a prospective new employer, you’re not designing what you say for your recipient – and they can usually tell. It would be the same as giving the very same Christmas present to everyone you know. Instead, gifts, like conversation, should be designed for a particular person.
So, let’s assume that people select gifts that they think you will like. There may still be reasons for you not to like it. If you once collected “cat things”, or enjoyed the music of Bruce Springsteen, it’s quite possible you later stopped liking cat things or listening to Bruce Springsteen.
But it’s hard to tell the person who is now giving you a cat-shaped eggcup or a Bruce Springsteen poster that you don’t want any more “bloody cat or Bruce Springsteen rubbish”.
So how do you react in such cases? Of course, it depends how much you want a good relationship with the gift-giver. If you’re looking for a way out, reacting truthfully to the unwanted gift could be a useful strategy. But if you don’t want to offend, here are three conversational strategies that will help. They’ll also help because they’re the right way to react to gifts that you actually like – so make sure you follow them either way.
Timing is everything. We can generally tell if someone doesn’t like what we say to them, and the same holds for what we give them as a gift. Delays are a good indicator of a negative response, which is why a swift response is better. So be ready to react quickly. The slightest hesitation – even half a second – will imply negative feelings.
Show and tell. If you’re opening gifts in front of others, show the gift to them. Again, speed is important. The more quickly you involve the group, the more it suggests you’re excited or proud of what you’ve received. If you’re an onlooker, you can help the recipient by adding your own “Oohs” and “Aahs” of pleasure.
A simple “thank you” is not enough. The final part of the gift giving ritual (whether or not you like what you’ve received) is the “thank you”, which should also be carefully recipient designed. This is particularly relevant for showing gratitude if the gift was unveiled in the absence of the giver.
Saying (or writing) “thank you for the gift” requires elaboration. Give a positive response that both assesses the gift (“What a beautiful cat mug!) and how you feel about it ("I love it!”).
But that’s still not quite enough. Add something about the immediate use you will have for the gift (“I’ll be able to use it with my new coffee maker”), how timely it is (“I just broke one of my cat mugs!”), or how well recipient designed it actually is (“Oh, I’ve really been after a new mug, but was too mean to buy it myself”).
It’s true that these tips involve a certain amount of deception. But as the founder of the subject of conversation analysis, Harvey Sacks said: “Everyone has to lie.” Lies aren’t always bad. In some situations, they are necessary. Just like we’re supposed to respond that we’re “fine” when a colleague briefly asks how we’re doing, some lies simply keep the wheels of social life turning.
Receiving bad presents at Christmas is such a situation. After all, in this most traditional ritual, where relationships are supposed to be affirmed, it really is the thought, however misguided, that counts.
Elizabeth and Jessica would like to reassure their friends and family that they have truly appreciated and loved every gift they have ever been given.