Awkward: What is the etiquette of giving and receiving gifts?

By Lauren Leazenby, News Editor

Sedona Steffens

Your friend presents you with a perfectly wrapped gift—one about the size and shape of the book you’ve been talking about. The only problem is, you don’t have anything to give in return except a smile and a surprised “Thank you!”

Gift giving can create some of the most awkward interactions of the holiday season. Etiquette experts provide advice on this and other sticky gifting situations:

If you receive a gift you weren’t expecting, do you have to give one in return?

The short answer is no. Maralee McKee, founder of the Etiquette School of America, said just because you receive a gift, does not mean you are obligated to give something back. If you do give something in return, McKee said you will likely start a tradition of reciprocal gift-giving.

“Just allow the gift-giver the pleasure of giving you a gift without receiving anything in return,” McKee said.

Are you ever required to get someone a gift?

No relationship—whether it is a family member, friend or significant other—requires an exchange of gifts, McKee said. However, if you have always exchanged gifts with a person, then it is expected that the tradition will continue unless you have a conversation about it, she said.

Also, never go beyond your financial means to get someone a gift, said Bonnie Tsai, founder and director of the etiquette training company Beyond Etiquette.

How do you discuss not being able to afford gifts this year?

COVID-19 has put many people in a situation where they cannot afford to spend like they have in years past, McKee said, so nearly everyone should understand that financial hardship might be the reason you are not participating in the gifting tradition.

She recommends sharing the truth about your financial situation—maybe you lost your job or your hours have been reduced—and then let the other person know you will not be part of the exchange of gifts because of that.

“If you’re close enough to the person to exchange gifts, then you should be close enough that [the] person … would certainly understand,” McKee said.

What do you do if you are “not giving gifts this year,” but you want to anyway?

It depends on the relationship, but Tsai said if you are close enough to know the other person means it when they say they do not want to exchange gifts this year, you should probably honor that.

Instead of giving a gift, you might give an experience that will allow you to spend quality time together—or, you can always write a card, Tsai said.

“I always believe that a nicely written card means a lot more than a gift,” Tsai said. “It’s like a keepsake someone can find later in the year … and it reminds them of the memory.”

Do you have to send a thank-you note?

While the tradition of sending a thank-you note is seen as standard practice, McKee said it is not always necessary.

Thank-you notes are customary for weddings or baby showers because gifts are not typically opened in front of the giver, she said. The note is a way to acknowledge you are grateful for the gift, but you can just as easily do that in person when you open it.

If you have a tradition of giving gifts back and forth with someone, McKee said a thank-you note is even more redundant.

Still, if you do send a thank-you note, McKee said it will be a “lovely touch.”

Are gift cards acceptable gifts?

Gift cards used to be seen as the cop-out gift, or as an afterthought. However, they are no longer taboo, McKee said. While they do let the receiver know exactly how much you spent on them, they are gifts that will almost certainly be used because the person gets to pick out their own present.

“This being 2020, a gift card is probably a good thing in a lot of circumstances,” McKee said. “Especially if we can use that gift card to [help] any restaurants that are temporarily closed due to [the pandemic] and help small businesses stay afloat.”