Giving a Good Gift Is a Craft – Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface is a monthly column by Robert Lim that examines the cultural side of heritage fashions.

’Tis the season, or so they say. With holiday shopping season upon us already, I thought I might share some of my hard won lessons in the craft of gift giving. I use the word “craft” instead of “art” because I believe that it’s a skill that can be learned and practiced over time.

We’ve all probably said the phrase “it’s the thought that counts” to save someone from the embarrassment of a gift he probably would have liked to have spent more time considering – my goal is to turn this into a positive axiom for the readers of this site. These recommendations are based on gift giving to a life partner, but I see no reason they can’t be adaptable to any circumstance in varying combinations.

So, without further ado – seven rules for giving a better gift, illustrated with personal examples for demonstration purposes.

1. Give a gift that the recipient wants, not what you want

Fig. 1 - Don't force the issue

Fig. 1 – Don’t force the issue. Image via Shutterstock.

This is basic, but worth repeating… I promise the following rules will build on this! When I fell in love with the possibilities of raw denim, I wanted to share this with Ms. Beneath the Surface. Who doesn’t want to share something amazing with his or her loved one? But raw denim isn’t for everyone – among other things, it requires a longer break-in period and a general level of commitment beyond what most people are used to.

The missus prefers men’s jeans but didn’t dig the vibe when we went shopping in person – so close yet so far away! If you go in that direction and it doesn’t work out, make sure you don’t make the recipient feel bad about it. Either way, I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles and gift giving is not the time to be doing so. This leads to….

2. Give a gift that shows the recipient you listen

Rule #2 - Listening - a.k.a: Your ears are connected to your brain for a reason

Rule #2 – Listening – a.k.a: Your ears are connected to your brain for a reason. Image via Dr. Jason Routh.

If people were really upfront about the specific gifts they wanted, life would be easier but much more boring. The reason we wrap gifts is because the element of surprise is a key aspect of gift giving – it’s what separates a gift from a transaction. Not that it’s necessarily wrong – I’ve seen one family avoid holiday stress by having someone collect everybody’s wants and then parcel out the requests. Everybody’s happy, right? But if you’re not going in that direction, bear in mind: while gifts are often given at the end of the year, they are often signaled throughout the year.

Listening carefully puts you in a great position to give a great gift. As an example – sometime over this last summer, the missus casually mentioned that she was thinking of getting a fitness wearable. She’s not really fitness oriented per se, but like many of us wants to have a healthy life. It really struck me and she never mentioned it again.  So months later, I bought it as part of an anniversary present. It’s not the most romantic of things, but it meant enough that she hugged me after she opened it, saying “you listened!” – so who am I to judge? (see also, rule #1).

3. Give a gift that is personal

Ideally, the gift will convey something about you and your values in a way that reinforces a connection with its recipient.  See rule #4 below (and make sure to think of rule #1).  Most of my adult friendships have been based around shared values and/or passions – whether music, dry comedy, food, social justice, apparel, wine… and often some combination thereof.  Reflecting on these connections are great ways to start thinking of a present, but don’t go with an obvious one because you want to…

4. Give a gift that the recipient wants but wouldn’t have bought

Navarro Wines

Rule #4 – A gift you wouldn’t have thought of. Image via the SFW site Naked Filmmaking.

This could be for various reasons–she doesn’t have access to it, it’s not something he is dialed into (but maybe you are!), or it seems like an impossible luxury. The possibilities are endless here and can be combined with rule #2 or #3.

For example, my mother-in-law and I have bonded over a shared appreciation for wine. I probably spend more time actively seeking new experiences in this regard, but she can hold her own. She ended up visiting a small, family winery in Mendocino, California (Navarro) and sent me a sampler pack for my birthday. I loved it – it was New World but ran counter to the highly rated fruit bombs that have dominated Californian wine (but doesn’t resonate with me that much these days); it was the mutual appreciation and personal connectivity back to the producer that made it special.  For those scoring at home, this hit the trifecta #3, #4 and #5.

5. Give a gift that sparks a dialogue


Rule #5 – Food can spark a dialogue. Yotam Ottolenghi’s comforting breakfast shakshuka is on the menu at Nopi in London. Image via Book A Table)

Yes, it’s great for a present to be well-received on the day, but what if that appreciation can be extended over time? Going back to the fitness wearable, every day is an opportunity for an update on status, whether it’s me asking or just a general update (however, make sure you’re not conveying judgment in your questions – genuine curiosity in an open-ended way will help with that).

Alternately – if you have someone who loves to cook, a great cookbook can do the trick (and might I suggest any number of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks?  They changed my life and perception of home cooking – in particular, how to cook epically flavorful home meals without an over-reliance on animal fats).

If you’re in the early stages of a relationship, this rule is especially key (hat tip to Aziz Ansari – if you’d like further advice on this, please do read his excellent and insightful Modern Romance).

6. Give a gift without any expectation of reciprocity

A true gift is freely given out of generosity and diminished by thinking the recipient owes you back (otherwise – see “transaction,” above). As an example of what not to do, don’t give a cookbook expecting a meal in response. One day, you’ll benefit from an equally thoughtful and unexpected gift. In a way, giving a gift is a way of saying “thanks” so don’t forget to give thanks in response – it will ennoble you both.

7. Most importantly – don’t wait until a holiday to give a gift

Don’t wait until Mother’s Day to tell your mother you appreciate her.  Don’t wait until Valentine’s Day to affirm your love for a partner. If you feel it, you should say it–this is a gift you can give everyday of your life.