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Old-fashioned gift exchange doesn’t work for everyone

By Judith Martin Universal Uclick

DEAR MISS MANNERS: When I was a child, almost every gift I got was didactic. Despite the fact that I preferred flying kites to doll play, books to cosmetics or hiking boots to slippers, I was the unhappy recipient of dolls, kiddie makeup, and scratchy dressy clothes that were entirely inappropriate for the activities that I enjoyed most.

The message I got was, “This is what young ladies should like, or should be like,” or “This will help you get better grades, make better friends or find better opportunities.”

Most of the time, the subtext was also obvious: “This will give ME (the giver) something to boast about.”

Mom made me write thank-you notes for this stuff, and I felt like a liar for expressing gratitude I definitely did not feel. It was even more difficult to thank the giver for the spirit, when it was pretty obvious that the giver’s spirit extended only to the degree that the cost or fashionability of the gift reflected well on him or her.

I came to hate gift-receiving events such as Christmas or birthdays. I still have a great deal of difficulty receiving gifts, especially surprises.

My husband, bless his heart, always asks if I want something when he is considering a gift, and I know that I will not have to pretend to be thankful for a clumsy guess. I do the same for him.

When giving gifts to others, I generally prefer to give money, which I know will go to something the receiver really wants, whether it is frivolous or necessities, or gets put into a savings account for a big purchase that would be difficult to save for without a bit of help. Verbal thanks or email are fine with me; I just want to know that the gift has gone to the correct hands. Once there, the rest is up to the recipient.

I’m not asking for permission. I do this in full knowledge that the better half of society frowns on such gift-giving, but I do want to point out that the old-fashioned way does not always work. Money can be empowering, not just mercenary.

A gift can so easily become a weapon with which to bludgeon a child’s sense of self. In an ideal world, of course, all gifts would be given with the recipient’s happiness as the main goal, but long, bitter experience has shown me that that is far from the case.

GENTLE READER: You make a powerful argument for abolishing the ancient custom of exchanging presents. If we are replacing it with the exchange of shopping lists, or the duty to pay others to get through the milestones of life, there doesn’t seem to be any point.

The point should be thoughtfulness, and Miss Manners acknowledges that it is in short supply. She doubts that the givers of those clumsy presents intended to propagandize you or to glorify themselves. They merely reached for the standard choice of little girl items, without giving any thought to your particular tastes.

Your mother was right that even the minimal thought of sending you anything needed to be acknowledged. But otherwise, Miss Manners can hardly blame you for opting out of a system that doesn’t work. There is no reason to continue such thoughtless payments.

Still, Miss Manners dearly hopes that those who are willing to put in the effort necessary to please others will continue with the ancient and charming custom of exchanging presents.


DEAR MISS MANNERS: OK, I’ll bite. When are you/were you supposed to wear gloves?

GENTLE READER: Before you get frostbitten.

Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website,; to her email,; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

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