I don’t receive many presents. But then I give presents even less.
Maybe it’s better that way. Receiving or giving presents can be a sad occasion. I remember the times when I was browsing book stores for hours, pondering what book to give to someone. Years later they still hadn’t read it. It was just as sad when somebody gave me a voucher for a seafood restaurant or when people bring a bottle of alcohol with them, not knowing that I don’t drink any. Or receiving a pullover when I am just about to move to the Sahara. Or a large painting in a heavy frame when I am going to move to Argentina next, with nothing more than two bags.
Most of these mishaps occur because those giving a present either don’t think at all and just give what they like, assuming that everyone has the same taste, or they think of what the other person should like, or of what they would like if they were the other person. This rarely works. It can go so far that giving a present, which looks generous, becomes a rather self-centered act where the person giving the present tries to impose its will on the recipient, e.g. by suggesting “you better read this book” or “you better wear this shirt” or “your apartment better be adorned by the painting I drew”. It’s a form of coercion. In the case of an invitation to a circus gala which you wouldn’t really have wanted to see, it’s even robbery. It robs you of your time.
“You are making this present-giving business so complicated, I ain’t gonna give nobody no more presents”, I hear you say. That’s one solution. But there are more solutions for those who still want to give (and receive) something.
- Give money. Everyone will find it useful and they can spend it on what they truly want or need. But I agree that it looks a bit unromantic, and on a date it could even be misinterpreted.
- Give something that everyone needs. I wish it was socially acceptable to give bread, milk, frozen pizzas, carrots and other things as presents which everyone needs. You won’t be in any doubt as to the usefulness that the recipient will derive from your present. Of course, this can still mean different things to different people in different places. In a war zone, you might even give bullets. If I have to think of one universal thing that everyone needs, it is toilet paper, which has the additional advantage that it won’t expire. Even if 10 people bring you 10 rolls each, you know you’ll use them eventually.
- Ask people what they want. This one is really easy and should be the minimum of courtesy among civilized human beings before going to somebody’s place with a box full of undesired stuff. If somebody is too shy or too polite and will say “oh no, you don’t need to give me anything”, you’ll reply “I know I don’t need to, but I want to. So what on earth do you want?” If they still pretend to not have any wishes, you don’t get them anything and they will receive a free lesson about the effects of being too polite.
- The next step from there on is a wishlist. Put together a list of things (or non-things) which you’d like to get. Those who want to give you something will be happy, knowing that they definitely won’t give you anything which you won’t enjoy or use.
In line with the last recommendation, I have put together a wishlist of books (and another wishlist of books in German) to make it as easy as possible and to avoid any frustration, both for the donor and the recipient of a present.