CHOOSING THE RIGHT GIFT can be fraught with peril. Shifting levels of day-to-day intimacy cloud the gift-giving process. Overly impersonal gifts can be met with “Thanks! This will go so well with the five other popcorn makers I have stored in my garage.” But inappropriately personal gifts are much more dangerous. Once I purchased a rubber heart and gave it to a casual acquaintance as a birthday gift. We were married a few months later.
Despite the renewed popularity of modern etiquette columns in daily newspapers, gift-giving etiquette has become increasingly hazy. Sure, traditional manners could be rigid and oppressive, but at least all the guesswork was taken out of it. Though the term “hostess gift” has fallen out of fashion, folks continue to fret over what to bring to parties. What should one bring to the host or hostess with the mostest?
If the intention is to say “Thanks for letting me stay in your beach cottage free for a month,” one should be prepared to pay a bit more than a simple “Thanks for having us over!”
But what one pays isn’t nearly as important as the thought that goes into the gift, according to Robyn Freedman Spizman, author of The GIFTionary, subtitled An A-Z Reference Guide for Solving Your Gift-Giving Dilemmas Forever! She calls gift giving a “creative display of affection and appreciation.” Even the simplest, most inexpensive ones can be personalized; a carefully considered gift is remembered long after an expensive one breaks. Spizman says, “Gifted givers listen for information and select thoughtful gifts that compliment the recipient.” Give your host something you think he or she might enjoy — not necessarily something you might want. The well-chosen gift recognizes the effort made by the host and means you’ll probably be invited back.
Good manners and common sense should dictate the rules of gift giving. But for those without any common sense (like the man who gave me a doormat for my 40th birthday), here are a few generally safe categories that will work for nearly any occasion.
Flowers are always a smart choice for hostess gifts. (Spizman, however, cautions that many people are allergic to flowers. “Ask the hostess what she would prefer.”) If one decides on a floral tribute, do not buy “freeway flowers” from street peddlers — they radiate diesel exhaust fumes and an I-picked-this-up-on-the-way-here vibe. They look cheap because they are cheap. Supermarket floral displays often lack that certain je ne sais quoi. It’s worth a trip to your neighborhood florist to put together a festive, personalized arrangement — which can be done more economically than you might think. Just tell the florist what you want to spend.
Gift baskets with food make great hostess, housewarming and holiday gifts. However, prepackaged baskets usually contain at least one completely unappetizing item. (Bizarre edibles from gift baskets of Christmases Past sit forlornly in my cupboard.) Selecting items for a gift basket adds a personal touch to an otherwise impersonal item. Small tins of pricey chocolates, a jar of marmalade, cheeses and gourmet crackers are ‰ good choices (the kinds of things you might find at Bristol Farms or Gelson’s, for instance). Try to avoid giving meat products to vegetarians and wine to 12-steppers. And stay away from those prepackaged baskets.
Glassware and products for the home can be excellent housewarming and hostess gifts. Spizman advises that when bringing a dish to a party, put the food in a decorative container that the hostess may keep. Serving sets, kitchen utensils and glassware are frequently mentioned as welcome housewarming gifts by various sources. Gadgets get a little trickier. You may think the can opener with eight different attachments makes a marvelous hostess gift, but chances are she won’t. Whether hostess or housewarming gift, it’s best to avoid decorative knickknacks, particularly the ones with cutesy sayings. (Unless, of course, the person collects such objets d’art as Ziggy paperweight sculptures and needs the one with “I Wuv U” to complete the collection.)
Soap and body-hygiene products can be a bit tricky. Some people assume a hidden message in the gift of soap, as in “You need to bathe more often. Here’s some soap — you must not have any.” Other folks, namely the ones who shower daily, a group dominated by women and gay men, are often thrilled by mango-scented shower gel with matching aromatherapy candles.
Some people look at books the way others look at soap — a message frequently decoded and interpreted as “You don’t think Danielle Steel qualifies as reading material, do you, so you’re giving me a ‘real’ book?” (Academics can be fussy: A USC medievalist puzzles over why members of his immediate family send him books about bats for Christmas.) Nevertheless, readers and nonreaders alike can appreciate coffee-table books as long as the subject of the book reflects the interests of the recipient.
Ultimately, it all comes back to the old adage: It’s the thought that counts. Then again, it’s nearly impossible to go wrong with anything that comes in a Tiffany box.