7 Ways to Get Better at Getting

Susan Goldberg

I’m difficult to buy for.

There. I said it. It’s a little embarrassing, but it’s true.

It’s not that I don’t like getting presents. I adore getting presents. It’s just that I loathe getting presents that I don’t like.

And the fact of the matter is that I don’t like most presents. I’m picky. I hate clutter and tchotchkes. Few things irritate me more than excess and waste. I’d prefer to try on and buy my own clothes — I know what looks best on me and what I’ll wear. I almost always don’t want other people to pick out books for me; in any case, I’d rather get them for free from the library, to which I can return them, so they’re not in my house. I’d prefer to decorate my own home, choose the movies and music I’d like, pick out the kitchen implements or household tools I want. Yes, I’m control freak. I can live with that.

Take all the above into consideration, and you’ve got a situation where almost every gift-giving situation has the potential to turn into a present fail. I mean, every so often someone gets it exactly right, but that’s rare. All too often, I find myself wishing that I could stop time while the present is still wrapped, the gift bag still unopened, to revel in the possibility of a gift that I will actually enjoy rather than the reality of one that leaves me feeling meh.

And this is sad. I don’t enjoy being a curmudgeon around gift-giving. I would so much rather be the type of person who could approach a beautifully wrapped box with excitement instead of dread, and who could delight in its contents rather than feeling disappointment. It’s never pretty to feel ungrateful, especially in the wake of someone else’s generosity and excitement. Resenting someone else’s thoughtfulness leaves me feeling petty and small, like a petulant and spoiled child. What feels worse is the idea of hurting the feelings of the giver.

To cope — and to spare the feelings of my friends and family — I’ve developed some workarounds that help make the holidays and my birthday (and, by extension, me) easier to take:

I try to minimize gift-giving occasions. I emphasize, “No gifts, please” on my birthday invitations. I’ll suggest to friends and family that we skip giving presents to adults for Hanukkah or Christmas. (For the younger generation, I’m a fan of “lottery” systems, where each kid in an extended tribe of cousins draws the name of a different cousin to buy for.) Mostly, people are amenable to this.

I get specific. When I see something I like or want, I make note of it on my phone. And that way, when a family member or a friend or a significant other asks what I want, I can give them real suggestions for things that I will truly be happy to receive. So what if there’s no surprise? I’ll take the lack of surprise over the absence of strife any day.

I let would-be givers know about charitable causes I support. Giving me a goat (in the form of giving a goat to a family in a developing country) is much less likely to get my goat than giving me a vase I will never use or a scarf I will never wear.

In the absence of specific items, I’ll always suggest consumables. In my case, it’s hard to go wrong with a bottle of wine, preserves from your garden, a gift certificate to a bookstore or favorite restaurant (you know, so I can choose), movie passes, some fantastic cookies, or a bottle of fancy balsamic vinaigrette. Plain old cash works well, too.

I return, regift, donate or recycle without guilt. If I don’t like something, I give myself permission to let it go rather than hold onto it out of the sake of obligation or guilt. What I try to hold onto is the spirit in which the gift was given.

I try to give how I’d like to receive. I ask my loved ones what they’d like, what charities they support or if they’d rather just go out for lunch or a drink. If I do buy a gift, I make sure it’s returnable. And when I see something that I know a loved one would just adore, I try to buy it for them even if there’s no special occasion.

I practice being a freaking grown-up. This means that I smile big and say thank you. I write thank-you notes. I take a deep breath and try to keep things in perspective: gifts are about love and appreciation, not a measure of how well somebody knows me or whether they got it right.

I’m not particularly gifted at receiving presents, and maybe I never will be. In a society characterized by often mindless consumption, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But I’m working on getting better at gratitude and generosity. I mean, if a present I’ll never use or don’t like is my biggest problem, then I lead a pretty charmed life.



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It’s not that I don’t like getting presents. I adore getting presents. It’s just that I loathe getting presents that I don’t like.

7 Ways to Get Better at Getting was written by Susan Goldberg exclusively for BonBon Break Media LLC.

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Susan Goldberg is a freelance writer, editor, essayist and blogger, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families (Insomniac Press, 2009). Her articles and essays have been featured in Ms., Today’s Parent (where she’s a contributing blogger), Parents Canada, The Mid, Advisor’s Edge, National, CCCA and Stealing Time magazines, the Globe and Mail and the National Post, as well as in several anthologies and collections and on the CBC. In 2012, Susan was chosen as one of BlogHer’s Voices of the Year community keynote speakers, and has twice been a VOTY honouree. She is one of approximately 30 Jews in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she lives with her sons and a changing cast of cats.