The Gift of Giving

“The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value”.
-Charles Dudley Warner

As the holidays roll around gift giving and getting takes center stage like no other time of the year. Shops, catalogs and the net are brimming with gift idea that will be loved and appreciated. But they’re also filled with things that are useless, tasteless or just plain awful. Their unlucky recipients, feigning delight, may be convinced that it truly is better to give than to receive.


Merriam Webster defines the word gift as a noun: “something that is given to another person or to a group or organization”. But gifts are much more complex and nuanced than that. The motivation for their giving can be benevolent or manevolent, intended to please or prank, or given with or without expectation of a gift or favor in return. A gift that is a hit with one person could be a dud with another when personal tastes, customs or social norms are factored in. And a gift can be deemed appropriate or inappropriate given the occasion or the relationship between the giver and recipient. With all that to consider, it’s no wonder people stress over gift giving – and getting.

A successful gift giving exchange has the two parties feeling satisfied that they have understood one another. The recipient has accurately conveyed (either actively or passively) their sense of style, need or desire. Meanwhile, the giver has correctly picked up on those cues and selected an item (or deed) that is a match. But when there is a disconnect between projection and perception a gift can become more of a burden than a joy.

As an interior designer, I am often asked to place gifts that fall into the burden category. A few years ago a client called near tears. As an anniversary gift her husband had commissioned a painting of the two of them. Copied from an unflattering vacation photo and painted by an unskilled artist it bordered on macabre. Finding a place in their home proved problematic, as it became a distracting focal point everywhere it was placed. The stress of finding a spot that was neither prominent nor insulting weighed heavily on the wife. Out of options, we found a final resting spot inside of their walk-in closet. The mismatch of gift to recipient caused a problem that had no good solution.

Giving isn’t only done at holiday or special occasion. Sometimes a “gift” is less of a benevolent act of giving and more a matter of convenience. This plays out a lot with the gifting of furniture through a family. The original owner buys it because it is their taste and it has value to them. Then circumstances change, perhaps there is a move, a renovation or maybe a death. But instead of letting the furnishings go back out into the world, in the form of consigning or donating, they wind up in the house of the relative less likely to resist. Regardless of their own personal style, need or desire, the beneficiary finds themselves furniture foster parents to someone else’s orphans.


Guilt is a tactic frequently used to disguise an act of convenience as an act of kindness. “This is good furniture”, “it would kill me if you ever got rid of this”, “it’s a perfectly good (fill in the blank)”, “you’ll appreciate this when you get older”, are just a few of the reasons given for the giving. The recipient, afraid to hurt feelings or seem ungrateful, can quickly find themselves frustrated and living with a house full of guilt-me downs if they don’t graciously decline.

On an almost daily basis I see homes bursting with furnishings that have been gifted without consideration of need or purpose. Sometimes a piece can be repurposed or refurnished and actually enjoy renewed life in it’s new home, but all too often that is not the case. The latter scenario leaves the recipient feeling put upon and trapped between two opposing worlds – the one someone thinks you should have, and the one you want to create for yourself. Being able to imprint our own tastes and needs into our homes is essential for a sense of connection and well-being. But is a gift really a gift if it stifles ones ability to do so?

In the end, we all need to be gracious about getting a gift or two that we wouldn’t exactly have picked for ourselves, especially when the givers heart is in the right spot. But if the pattern of receiving things unwanted or unneeded continues, then the onus is on the recipient to stop the cycle. We are the last stop, the gatekeepers, between what comes in to our homes and our lives and what stays out. We are not obligated to take responsibility for what others think we should have or want to get rid of, even when it’s disguised as a gift.

Perhaps the best gift we can give ourselves is refusing to open the packages with physical and emotional strings attached.