Do You Give Burdensome Gifts?

copper cookwareI got into a conversation last night with my mother-in-law about cookware. The reason for this discussion was a mistake I’d made about not checking inside the oven before turning it on. She stores some of her pans in there, and I fried two handle covers. But I’d discovered that I could order replacement ones, so I’d told her about that, and then somehow we started talking about various metals that are used for pots and pans, and she mentioned that someone who’d stayed with them many years ago had given her a set of copper pans with a cooktop included. “Where is it?” I asked, intrigued. “Oh, somewhere in the garage. I’ve never used it–I don’t have room for it. I’d have to use it on top of the stove, and that wouldn’t make any sense–I’d be using it on top of the burners that are already there.”

When I went into the garage just now to look for it I realized that the quest was hopeless, mainly because all of our stuff is in there, plus a lot that had to be moved out of the downstairs to make room for us.

(Our family is so gracious! Not one word have I heard from them about our mess, which we are valiantly trying to get cleaned up as soon as possible.) So I have no idea if the illustration is of the same product. It seems as though it must be something very similar, though, going by Jan’s description.

So I got to thinking, ‘Why did those people think this was an appropriate gift?’ I’m sure their intention were good, but I wonder . . . was this an instance of the dreaded re-gifting phenomenon? ‘Someone gave me this, and I don’t want it, so I’ll give it to someone else and let that person worry about it.’ Or, perhaps more likely, ‘I’ll bet he/she could use this.’ But no real objective evaluation took place. They didn’t ask themselves, ‘Does she have room for this? Does she really want it? Would she even be able to use it?’ I can see this item as being very useful in someplace like a church where meals are prepared for big groups, but it doesn’t make much sense to me in the context of a small home kitchen.

And I was reminded of something funny from when I got married (a quarter of a century ago!–so I think I’m safe in telling this story). I had registered for a ton of things, most of them very reasonably priced so that people wouldn’t feel bad about being able to afford only one crystal glass or one china plate. (I already had china and crystal anyway, and now I’m planning to sell it on eBay.) They could buy me kitchen items! They could buy me some of my Pfaltzgraf stoneware! They could buy me . . . towels! Yes, I registered for towels. (I don’t agree with the hoopty-doopty etiquette people, by the way, who think that gift registries are sort of gauche. I think they’re wonderful. Yes, please, go ahead and put the gift registry info right on the shower invitation.) So I had picked out these two colors, peach and rust, in towels carried by, I think, May D & F (a store which no longer exists). I had very carefully coordinated them and was looking forward to having that combination hanging in my newlywed bathroom. But later on when I started unpacking the gifts that had been brought to the wedding and put on the gift table I realized that some people hadn’t gotten the towels from the registry. They weren’t the same color or brand. I remember one set that was shocking pink. Shocking! What they’d obviously done was to go to the registry store, look at what I’d chosen, and then gone somewhere else to buy what they considered to be the same thing but cheaper. (I think the shocking pink towels were from Target, which, by the way, has some really nicely-designed items these days.) They didn’t have to buy me anything at all, of course. I appreciated the thought, I really did. But, I wondered, why couldn’t you just get me what I asked for? You could have bought fewer towels but in the correct color. Or you could have just come to the wedding, which was all I wanted: I honestly didn’t care whether or not people brought gifts. I just wanted them to be there. (There were well over 300.) And I remember some spectacularly loud pink-and-blue plaid placemats which didn’t go at all with my dinnerware, and, as the pièce de résistance, a pair of the World’s Ugliest Candleholders. That last item was undoubtedly a re-gift. The problem was, I had to do something with all of these things, unless I wanted to throw them away, and even I, committed thrower-outer that I am, couldn’t bring myself to just toss brand-new and perfectly-good items. But neither could I bring myself to hang those pink towels up next to the peach ones. I would have been ill.

So there in our rather small first married apartment I had a pile of all the gifts I had no use for. It was pretty large. Then Jim asked one of his co-workers, a guy who’d just gotten divorced, if he’d like to see if there was anything he could use. He came over and took quite a few items, saying that it was fun to go shopping in our living room. The rest of the items went to the thrift store. I hope they all found a good home.

But here’s the great moral lesson to be learned from the copper cooking set and the shocking-pink towels: gifts are supposed to be chosen with the recipient in mind. That would seem to be an obvious point, wouldn’t it? But lots of times gifts are given to fit the preferences or convenience of the giver. “Oh, I have to bring a gift. I’ll just dig out that such-and-such or so-and-so and wrap it up.” We’re not hobbits, folks! (I hope you recognize that allusion.) Or, even more common, I think, the reasoning is, “Well, I like this. So I’ll get it for her.”

Gretchen Rubin says, “Respond to the spirit of a gift.” Liz, her sister, has a mantra that says, “Don’t treat a gift like a burden.” Both very true. But I’d like to posit a third principle: “Be unselfish enough to think beyond yourself.” If you know someone who seems to always have the knack of giving the perfect gift, I can guarantee that  that person is really good at reading others.

What to do if you’re just stumped? Money is always nice. Gift cards can be a real treat, but, again, you have to be sure you’re not just creating an inconvenience for the recipient: “Oh, we need to use up these gift cards!” Much of the time, maybe the best thing to give is nothing. Or a service of some kind. Don Aslett has a really great chapter in one of his books on how to give gifts without just creating hassle and clutter for people. Follow the link to read the relevant pages in his totally great book Clutter’s Last Stand. Then go thou and do likewise!

Are the gifts you give truly gifts, or are they burdens?

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