The "do-not-give" gift list

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - 5:36pm

...really you shouldn't have.

Although you may have good intensions, you may be giving bad gifts and saying to yourself, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Behind every horrible gift misfire, you'll find that sentiment. Swept up by the holiday frenzy, confused by all the options, shoppers seize upon exactly the wrong things. The poor suckers often don't snap out of their delusional state until the gift is opened -- and the expression on the recipients' faces makes it clear that what the giver thought was "da bomb" is actually a bomb.
Advertising doesn't help. Items that should never, ever be given are touted as "the perfect gift." Any medium that promotes a toy pooping dog as an adorable child's present should not, repeat not, be your guide for good gifting.

Where to find better guidance? From your fellow human beings, many of whom have learned the hard way about what does and doesn't make a decent holiday offering. On the following pages, here's what they say about what not to give this year:

An appliance
If the romance in your relationship has died, been buried and had the earth around the grave salted, then go ahead and buy your significant other a vacuum cleaner. Otherwise, beware.
You may think your significant other is that rare, practical creature who would be thrilled to find a carpet cleaner under the tree. You're probably wrong.
Even if you're not, why not give something a little more fun and then get your jollies shopping together for cleaning equipment in the after-holiday sales?
Gwen McIntyre, a blogger for MyBadPad, put it succinctly in a list of "25 Outrageous & Lame Gifts You Should Never Give Your Girlfriend" in nixing her No. 10, pink appliances.
"Getting your girlfriend something pink that also supports a good cause like Breast Cancer Research just seems like a winner," McIntyre wrote. "But as soon as you enter the word 'appliance' into the mix, you have a recipe for disaster. Basically, you've just given her housework in a box."

The partial gift
Readers told me stories of receiving half-eaten cakes, gift baskets with items clearly missing and partly used gift cards. But there's another partial gift to beware, which is anything that obligates the recipient to come up with more money to use it.
Jennifer Nann of San Diego received a satellite radio, "which would have been nice . . . if we wanted to pay the monthly subscription fee. We didn't care THAT much about what we listened to, so it was never used."
Kelly Grattan of Conshohocken, Pa., near Philadelphia, had to talk a friend out of giving a $50 spa gift certificate to another, mutual friend.
"The issue, as I explained it to her, is that (the recipient) will have to make up the rest of the price for the $85 massage before she's able to use it," Grattan wrote. "Anything you have to add your own $$ to before you can enjoy it is not a good gift in my opinion."

A nose-hair trimmer
Men get a lot of lame gifts, like ties, socks and underwear. But "lame" is so very much better than "insulting." Because how else can you interpret a gadget that says, "Hey, I noticed that thatch growing out of your nostrils, and it's high time you did something about it?"
Maybe longtime marrieds can get away with something like this. But ladies, before you buy this for his stocking, ask yourself how much you'd like to receive a bikini-wax kit in yours.
In fact, any grooming item is probably something you should let your recipient buy for himself or herself, advised Cherie Burbach, of's guide to friendship.
"I love my mother dearly but one year she gave me an electric toothbrush as my gift. Ugh . . . really, mom?" Burbach writes. "Anything that you use to brush, plug, or trim things on your person (like nose hair clippers, hairdryers, or even (yes mom!) toothbrushes) is generally a bad idea."

The 'improving' gift
Any gift that could possibly be construed as a criticism should be struck instantly from your list.
This requires some judgment, of course. If your sister is a fabulous cook and collects cookbooks, adding the hottest new title to her collection is probably not a faux pas. If your sister is not a great cook, however, you may be risking a lifetime of smoldering resentment.
(My mother-in-law, by the way, played this difficult course perfectly. She and I have shared many times our mutual lack of love for cooking chores. So last Christmas she gave me Peg Bracken's classic "The I Hate to Cook Book." Score! Still, she's a gift-giving pro, so amateurs might not want to attempt something like this.)
Books about etiquette, dieting, clutter, homemaking and personal finance are minefields as well. (I love it when people buy my books but am horrified when they're used as weapons.) You may think you have the recipients' best interests at heart. But if in your heart of hearts you think they need improvement in a certain area, your real motivation will be apparent to all. So skip the improving gift and buy something they'll actually enjoy.

The gift of exercise
Gym memberships, Ab Rockets and Wii Fit games can be fabulous gifts for the already fit and already toned. For everyone else, they are "improving" gifts. (See previous page.)
One reader reported getting a gym membership from her mother-in-law. Yikes.
"Ack . . . I was so embarrassed I didn't know what to say to her," she wrote. "'Thank you, that's what I was hoping for?'"
Another reader reported that his wife wanted an exercise video set one year. "I made her sign a release form prior to unwrapping it stating that the contents were in no way a reflection of my views of her," he wrote. Smart hubby.

A puppy
Don't give a puppy -- or a kitty or a bunny, or any other adorable fuzzy creature that isn't stuffed.
An animal is not a toy. Toys don't die if they're mishandled, abused or neglected. Toys don't suffer if their owners lose interest. Toys don't wind up in animal shelters because they turned out to be "too much" for the family that once owned them.
Sorry to be so harsh, but potential pet givers need hard reality checks.
Even worse than giving an animal is doing it without warning. I'm heartsick every time I hear about grandparents or others "surprising" a family with a pet or people "replacing" a recently deceased pet without asking the recipient if that's what he or she wants.
The person who will care for the animal needs to be a full participant in choosing it. Pets are a big responsibility and a long-term commitment -- they're not something to be acquired on a whim, or without regard to the recipient's lifestyle and personality.
If the recipient is a child, you need the enthusiastic agreement of the parents as well. If all parties are on board, you should still wait until after the holidays to bring the animal into a home. There's too much activity and too many competing interests to make this a good time to introduce a pet into a household.
Instead -- if you have the parents' permission -- give the likeness of the animal in a stuffed version and arrange to pick out the live pet after the holidays. The shelters will be full of puppies and kittens that were surprise and unwelcome gifts to other families.

The generic gift
Here's a guideline: If you could give a gift to any number of people, maybe it's not a good gift for any of them.
I hear a lot of complaints about scented candles, soaps and prepackaged gift baskets. One of my readers received a gift basket of bath and perfume items in the one scent to which she's allergic.
"I tried to exchange it, but couldn't," she wrote, "and I couldn't find anyone to give it to!"
If you want to give something that has a scent, make sure it's an odor the recipient likes. And consider putting together your own basket, rather than grabbing a ribbon-topped one off a shelf.
"If your friends know you at all, they should be able to give you something that speaks to your personality,"'s Burbach reasoned. "So a generic gift basket wouldn't really cut it."
The same is true when giving rather than getting: "A gift basket created especially for them, with hand-picked items that you know they will love, is a wonderful idea," Burbach said.

The misleading box
I'm all about recycling. So I was just about to put a little gift for a young relative into the sturdy box my iPad came in when it hit me: Could there be a crueler trick to play on a 12-year-old? She tears off the paper, see the word "iPad" -- but, oh, never mind, you don't get one.
No gift, no matter how adorable, could make up for that kind of disappointment.
Allison Burnell of Reston, Va., had another good example: "A guy should NEVER EVER give a woman jewelry in a ring-sized box (if it is not a ring) if they've dated more than a year."
I'd shorten that statute of limitations to six months. Actually, forget that -- it's probably never a good idea.
Now, some families have a tradition of misleading boxes -- usually boxes within boxes, so that the real gift is disguised under many layers. It's important to make sure that none of the boxes once contained something the recipient would much rather have had.

A final word
We can laugh, among ourselves, about the truly horrible gift misfires we've received. But if you get one this holiday season -- and you probably will -- your job is to never, ever let the giver suspect that he or she has blown it.
This will take some acting skill. You need to smile and be gracious and appreciative -- even if deep inside all you can think is, "What were they thinking?"
Because the holiday season isn't about us or getting exactly what we want. If you're reading this, you're old enough to know that the holidays are about so much more. They're about community and family and friendship. They're about being generous and kind and loving to the people around us, the way we should be the rest of the year.
The people giving you gifts are trying to make you happy. Some people are simply challenged in the gift-giving department, and even the best gift givers can go awry. So appreciate the thought -- even when the actual results are downright weird. If nothing else, they'll be good fodder for this column next year.


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