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10 Terrible Motivations for Giving a Gift

Buying gifts for the people in your life is, obviously, an entire branch of science unto itself. What you’re communicating with your choice of gift is going to be either intentionally or unintentionally heartwarming or frustrating. Knowing which it’s going to be frequently comes down to your motivations for buying that gift in the first place.

Below are 10 questionable motivations for gift-giving. I won’t get into the actual gifts that much; this is more about the statement you’re making.

You want to change someone

I’m not sure I can think of a more back-handed reason for buying someone a gift. The mentality seems to go something like this: It’s the thought that counts. That’s not really true, or at least isn’t the whole truth.

If you buy a gym membership for someone, you’re trying to change their body. Same thing goes for books and clothing; nobody likes being told what to read or wear.

If you want to buy clothes for someone, suggest that you go shopping together; you can compare notes, exchange ideas, and generally have a great time.

You’re trying to apologize

Apologizing when you’ve wronged someone is clearly the cultured thing to do. But how you apologize is probably even more important.

We’ve all seen that same tired sitcom cliché: the husband is “in the doghouse,” so he stops at the drugstore after work and picks up a card, a bouquet of flowers, or some chocolates.

The truth is, this is lazy. Your words are going to say “I’m sorry” much better than your money ever will. Instead of opening your wallet, give your significant other a backrub, or cook dinner, or do anything else that actually requires some effort.

You want to get laid

I’m not sure why this even needs to be said, but it definitely does. Suppose your sex life has been lacking in the third year you’ve been with your significant other. What would you do?

One school of thought – that is, the correct one – is that sexual dissatisfaction calls for communication. It calls for trust. It’s an intensely personal thing, but if you can’t have an adult conversation about it, you’re simply not mature enough to even be having sex.

But the absolute worst thing you can do is shower your SO with gifts and expect them to suddenly get more enthusiastic “in the sack.”

You’re trying to fix a broken relationship

So we’ve already covered trying to fix a broken sex life, but what about a whole relationship? On the one hand, relationships are all about making each other happy. But on the other hand – what does it say about you if your only method for doing so involves spending money?

If your significant other doesn’t have more than fifteen words to say to you after you both come home from a long day at work, you have problems that buying presents isn’t going to fix.

You’re really buying something you want

Household purchases don’t really make great gifts. Even if you have the best intentions, this gesture could easily be misconstrued as an attempt to give yourself something you want, or need, rather than an attempt to make someone else happy.

New kitchen appliances, for example, should be a purchase you make jointly. Same goes for household décor.

You’re trying to be practical

We all know that some people are easier to shop for than others. This shouldn’t be a reason not to buy them a gift, but it also shouldn’t be a reason to half-ass your gift decision, either.

In other words, don’t buy them socks. Or underwear. Or a case of Ramen noodles. Only in exceptional circumstances are these things worthy gifts. Yes, there’s something to be said for giving a “helpful” gift – particularly for college students – but people usually want something they wouldn’t have purchased for themselves.

You want to send a message

I’ll file this one under “passive-aggressive.” The first example back at the beginning was about wanting to change someone. This is a little different. And even a little more sinister.

There were times growing up – and I’m not wholly convinced it wasn’t intentional – that my parents would choose gifts for me and my brother based on who was the current “favorite.” I don’t mean that they loved one of us more than the other – just that our behavior sometimes called for personalized responses.

So they’d give us different gifts that seemed to reflect how much they approved of our respective behavior. To be sure: this tactic feels like fair game for kids, but in adults it just comes across as petty.

You want something in return

A couple of these examples have involved some kind of ulterior motive, so let’s get a little more specific.

Here’s an example: my hometown is full of small businesses that enthusiastically threw their support behind the recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The problem is, it was a publicity stunt for most of them.

One of the rare exceptions was Cleveland Brothers – a family-run business. Their We Will Win site was in operation long before ALS was grabbing national headlines. Sure, they got a bit of publicity in the process, but the gesture came from a very genuine place.

You’re poor or wealthy

There’s nothing worse than someone who buys lavish presents because they want to show off. Just as bad, though in a very different way, is someone who acts as though every gift they give has taken a huge personal toll on them.

In both of these cases, your choice of gift is shaped by your personal circumstances. In some situations this is going to be unavoidable, but in most others you do have a choice: you can choose not to flaunt your wealth, and you can choose to tactfully avoid gift-giving obligations that might hurt you financially.

You want to observe a holiday

I saved this one for last because it has the potential to be the most controversial. I’m just going to come right out and say it: holidays are really not a good enough reason to buy a present.

Nobody ever said that Christmas or Valentine’s Day were legally binding. No state has laws on the book that say you’re obligated to give gifts. Maybe it needn’t be said, but holidays are only about one thing: togetherness. In my experience, a visit or even a phone call will trump a poorly chosen gift every time.

Parting Thoughts from the Dona sutta

A passage from the Dona sutta, as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, captures a beautiful moment between student and teacher where the discussion turns toward the motivations for giving a gift. The translated text says it better than I ever could, but the main point is something like this: Whoever gives gifts in order to “store up for himself,” or because they desire some kind of post-death quid pro quo, has been generous for the wrong reasons.

This is an ancient lesson, but one with perhaps more relevance today than ever before.


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