How to give with good grace – Telegraph

16 12 2009

How to give with good grace

The buying of Christmas gifts needn’t be a social minefield – if we allow ourselves to give for the simple pleasure of giving.

How to give with good grace

Pleasing loved ones is more likely if you delight in finding the perfect present for them Photo: Getty/Altrendo

The worst Christmas present interior designer Nicky Haslam ever received was “a terrible Noel Coward-style silk dressing gown” – not because it was cheap, but because it was “not me at all”. As a rule, he would much rather receive something home-made from his friends. “Last year, Tracey Emin sent a lovely etching and Paris Hilton made a wonderful collage. It was so touching that they’d bothered. Money doesn’t have to be spent.”

Not everyone has famous friends like Haslam, but before you condemn Granny to yet another Delia cookbook, ask yourself this: are you buying presents for the right reason?

The psychology of giving and receiving is a fascinating subject. Often we impose our desires on what we give, as the poor wife who receives a new set of golf clubs or a power drill from her husband will attest. If we overspend, the recipient is less likely to delight in our generosity than feel embarrassed and indebted. Don’t spend enough, and we feel like Scrooge.

Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University and author of The Big Questions: Philosophy, says that Christmas presents offer a way of discharging an obligation – thanking a friend for being a shoulder to cry on, or paying back a neighbour for having mown the lawn – without entering into a commercial transaction. “A lot of gift-giving has a concealed function. It enables us to maintain the truth that this is all about friendship while keeping the books straight,” he says.

Dr Pavel Somov, a Pittsburgh-based psychologist and author of Present Perfect, believes that present-buying is an intrinsically selfish act. “By giving gifts, we take something of value right back.”

So how to give? Does one settle for buying something safe that you know the other person will love, or should you search out something off-beat and original and risk the recipient not appreciating the personal value you’ve invested in it?

Choose carelessly or selfishly and you may insult the recipient. And I should know: the tube of Benefit’s Jiggle Gel body lotion that’s “fab on flab”, last year’s gift from a girlfriend, remains in its box. I’d whined about a wobbly bottom, and she’d duly taken note. But unwrapping it on Christmas Day, I was too busy thinking “So it’s true – I am fat!” to appreciate her somewhat misplaced intentions.

“Using presents as an inflicted form of self-improvement is ungracious,” says Jo Bryant, etiquette advisor for Debretts. “Good manners is about interacting with people in an easy way, not making them feel uncomfortable.”

According to psychologists, the primary sentiment behind a gift should be appreciation, not obligation or any suggestion of imperfection. Dr Gayle Brewer, lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, says: “We are all aware of our flaws, but we want other people to see us as special. A gift should give that message.” Generic toiletries and cordless DIY tools, with their miserable implications, will thus always disappoint.

Pleasing loved ones is more likely if you delight in finding the perfect present for them. According to research published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, a significant part of what we value in a gift is the effort involved.

If clicking a mouse in an online store doesn’t feel like making much of an effort, Dr Somov recommends a different mental approach. Gifts should be bought, and then given, without ego. “To do this, we must embrace the Buddhist practice of Dana-style giving without attachment to the recipient’s reactions – a giving without seeking in return.” Expect no gratitude for your generosity; instead, give for the intrinsic pleasure of giving.

The pleasure of receiving should also be intrinsic – but, sadly, it isn’t always so. Last Christmas, Samantha Marks, 38, an economist from Muswell Hill, north London, received a coat that made her look “like a brown bear”. She explained that it wasn’t her style: “I assumed my friend would appreciate the honesty.” Not quite. The gift-giver was so offended at the giftee’s lack of grace, that the friendship subsequently faltered. Samantha now says she would have preferred to have kept schtum, kept the coat – and the friend.

“A most unfortunate scenario,” says Dr Robert Emmons, psychologist and author of Thanks! How Practising Gratitude Can Make You Happier. “In giving a gift, you give part of yourself. By rejecting the coat, Samantha rejected her friend. It’s not surprising their friendship was irrevocably damaged. With gratitude comes the realisation that the other cares about your well-being. Samantha failed to recognise this.”

She also failed to see that in making others feel good, we also feel good. “The realisation that we are loved and supported,” says Dr Emmons, “is the cornerstone linking gratitude to happiness.”

So when it comes to the inevitable scramble for Christmas presents, err on the side of generosity and if in doubt, ask before you buy. And if you still end up staring at a Saucy Fireman Calendar (yes, I’m afraid so) on Christmas morning, crack a smile and follow Dr Somov’s suggestion. “Use it as an opportunity to step up spiritually.”

For Grandma who has everything #giftidea

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