Gift Giving Etiquette: 23 Rules Every Gift Giver Should Know

Written by: Lara
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Gift with a pencil

Giving gifts is a wonderful opportunity to show your love, gratitude, or appreciation for a person. If done in the right way of course. And for that, you need to know the proper gifting rules (AKA the gifting etiquette). We don’t get a course on gift-giving etiquette in school and unlike dinner etiquette, our parents don’t teach us all there is to know about the art of giving.

And that’s exactly why this post with the 23 rules of gift giving came into existence. The aim is to help you navigate through the rules of holiday seasons and other gifting expectations and to help you master the art of giving.

For more tips on how to give better gifts, check out these science-based gifting tips too.

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gifting etiquette: 15 gifting rules you should know

Side note on these gifting rules

Keep in mind that the gifting etiquette we’re talking about today relates to the non-business gifting etiquette. Business gifts are something completely different because the intention of the gift and the relationship between the giver and receiver is different.

So please, if you are looking for the etiquette of gifting for work, you came to the wrong place.

Gifting etiquette: the 10 gifting rules everyone should know

#1 Gifting etiquette is culturally dependent

Alright, the first rule of today is also a confusing one. Because basically, it says: that the rules of gift giving vary around the world.

So why on earth did I say everyone needs to know these gifting etiquette rules if it’s different around the world?

Well, because even though some rules are culturally dependent, there are also rules that should be universally known. And one of them is, that you should respect the gifting etiquette of each country.

So before you buy a gift, make sure you’ve done your research about the receiver’s cultural background. In some countries you can’t give anything with the color red, in other countries it’s inappropriate to give a clock. So look up the rules for the receiver’s country to avoid any awkward and inappropriate gifting situations.


#2 Gifting is about the receiver

Now, this is one of the gifting rules everyone should understand.

It is not about you. It’s not about showing off any of the following

  • how rich you are
  • how much effort you put into the gift
  • how thoughtful you are
  • how well you know the recipient.

I know, it’s very tempting to find gifts that show the above statements. But if you’ve checked my guide on how to give great gifts, you may remember that all these things do not influence how the receiver evaluates the gift.

Multiple studies have shown that givers’ and receivers’ perspectives on gifts vary immensely, which is why so many gifts are returned or remain unused.

So if you want to really master the art of giving, no matter where you are in the world, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

Don’t picture their reaction upon opening it, but instead, try to picture them a year after having received your gift. How often will they use it or look at it? Will they still be happy with it, or has it become a burden or will it still be in the box stored somewhere in a corner? In the case of the latter, you’ve picked the wrong gift.

Do you need some help with identifying bad gifts from great ones? Check out this post in which 15 travel bloggers spill the beans about the worst gifts they ever received and why.


#3 It’s the thought that counts

It’s a cliché to say that it’s the thought that counts and if you ask the receivers it’s not even entirely true.

Wait, what?

Studies show that the actual gift is at least equally (and in some cases even more) as important as the thought that was put into it. (Source)

So why did I include this as a gifting rule everyone should know?

Well, two reasons.

First, I want to urge every receiver of gifts (which is basically anyone) to always appreciate the simple fact that someone cared enough for you to get you a gift. So make this cliché your own and check my guide on how to accept gift gracefully to learn more about why you should.

Second, I want to tell every giver that they should not misinterpret this cliché. It doesn’t give you a free pass to give inconsiderate and shitty gifts, just because the receiver should appreciate the fact that you are giving them something.

It is the thought that counts, but the thoughts you should have are “Why am I giving this gift and how can I make this a great gift for the receiver”. Again, think about the receiver, not yourself.

Sign with "think"
Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

#4 Don’t expect anything in return

If you’re giving something only because you are expecting something in return, are you actually giving?

I know, it’s a philosophical question. But I think it’s an important one to think about when we’re talking about the rules of gift giving.

Because remember, true giving is not about you but about the receiver.

So don’t expect a return gift, a favor, and not even a thank you or a smile when you are giving a gift.

Because I think this is what makes gifting so awkward and painful at times. The givers expect the receivers to be extremely grateful and happy with their gift and are disappointed when they’re not. The receiver feels this pressure and lies about liking the gift and never using the gift. Or tell the giver honestly they don’t like it, which hurts the giver’s feelings.

And that’s all because givers always expect something in return. So let us all remember this rule; do not expect anything, not even a smile, in return. This is not about you, so don’t take the receiver’s response personally.

Neon lights with words
Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

#5 Keep gifts within a reasonable budget

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what that reasonable budget is. This depends on so many variables such as the occasion, your relationship with the receiver, and your financial situation.

But I’m pretty sure you can make an estimation of when you’re splurging.

And here is the general rule, don’t splurge.

It can make receivers feel uncomfortable. Especially in cultures where it’s expected to give something of equal value in return.

Plus, studies also showed that spending more doesn’t mean more appreciation of the gift. (Source)


#6 Always honor your host

I think most of us have been brought up with the idea that you never arrive empty-handed. And honestly, I think it’s a great gifting rule that we should all abide by. Now, this does not mean you should always bring physical gifts. I believe you can honor your host in many different ways, and you can always find the one that is best suited for your situation.

For instance, when your host explicitly tells you not to bring gifts, you can still honor them with words by thanking them and expressing what you appreciate about them. Alternatively, you can invite them to your place in return, offer to cook dinner (if you’re staying over or visit more often) or offer to do the groceries, clean up, or anything else.

Trust me, there is always a way to honor your host!

People having a dinner together
Always honor your host

#7 Always show appreciation (even if you don’t like the gift)

Now, this is a gifting rule that applies to all receivers, and it’s something I have discussed in-depth in my guide on receiving gifts gracefully. So for now, I will keep it short and simple.

ALWAYS, and I mean ALWAYS, thank someone for their gift, and for the time, effort, and thought they put into getting the gift. Even if you don’t like the gift. Even if you intend to refuse the gift. (Yes, you absolutely can refuse gifts, we will talk more about this later.) But even then, you show appreciation for the effort and thought.

Plate with "grateful"
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

#8 Stick to registries; they are made for a reason

Alright, now this is a very short and simple rule that some of you may not like. But it’s really simple. Giving is not about you. And if the receiver has made a registry list and written down exactly what they want, you should stick to it!

I know it might be tempting to buy something unique because you think you’ve got the perfect idea. But trust me, the recipient knows themselves better than you do. So just stick with the registry (if there is something on there you can afford, of course).

Now, I think the only exception here is if you are close to the recipient and you are 100% sure that they will like your gift more; you can go for something else. But if you’re only 99% sure, just go with the registry gift.

A table with with registry gifts
Stick to registries; they are made for a reason

#9 Workplace-giving etiquette

Alright, so this is not about corporate giving because that is something completely different that comes with its own set of rules. What I am referring to here is gift-giving rules for co-workers and bosses.

Now, be sure to check the company policies before you give your boss anything because it may be against the rules.

And when giving gifts to your co-workers, be mindful. Don’t give anything embarrassing or something they don’t want to share in the workplace. And if you don’t give gifts to all your co-workers, but just a few, do it in private outside office hours. That way you won’t make other co-workers feel excluded or feel bad about not buying a present.

Two people in an office exchanging gifts
Workplace-giving etiquette

#10 Send thank you notes within a week

If you received gifts through the mail, or for a party where you did not open them immediately and did not thank the giver right away, you should always send thank you notes within a week. But even if a week has already passed, it’s better to be late than never.

Now, in the current digital age, you no longer have to write each note by hand. For many, a simple text message will do.

Not sure what to write in such a note? Check out our list of funny thank you notes for inspiration!

A post it with "thank you" and smiley
Always send thank you notes if you didn’t thank them in person

Gifting etiquette: 8 taboos we should break

#11 It’s okay to not give something unique

We all want to give amazing gifts and many of us think that we can only achieve this by giving something unique. Don’t worry if you are one of those many (so am I). It’s just that research has shown that receivers often prefer generic and more useful gifts over super unique ones. (Source)

So this is one of the gifting rules we should all remember if we want to step up our giving game; it’s okay to not be unique.

Umbrellas
Photo by Noah Näf on Unsplash

#12 It’s okay to ask what someone wants

I know it’s still taboo to ask a receiver what they would like to have. It takes away the surprise and it makes it seem as if you don’t want to put in any thought and effort to pick a gift yourself.

But receivers actually don’t care about that, they prefer solicited gifts over thoughtful ones. (Source)

And you know what? The fact that you asked, actually shows that you put in a lot of thought and the right kind of thought. The thought of “How can I give person X the best gift?”.

I know I said gifting etiquette is culturally dependent and you should respect them. But if you live in a country where asking what the receiver wants is inappropriate, it may be time to break with traditions and finally give great gifts. However, I would advise you to only do this with receivers you know very well, so you’re not risking your relationship with this question.

If you really can’t ask them what they want, check out the guide to giving better gifts for tips on how you can discover what they want without asking.


#13 Money and gift cards are acceptable gifts

Here is another taboo I want you to break. Gift cards and money don’t necessarily mean that you haven’t put any thought into this gift. Again, just as with asking the receiver, it shows that you put in the right kind of thought: “How can I really make person X happy?”

Plus, this is another example where givers’ and receivers’ perspectives vary.

From the giver’s perspective, it seems like a generic and unthoughtful gift, but from the receiver’s perspective, it’s a great gift. Did you know that in 2021 more than half of the respondents actually wished for a gift card over the holidays? (Source)

And there are plenty of ways in which you can still create that “wow” factor when gifting money or gift cards. For example by adding personal notes, making money origami, or using a puzzle box to open the gift.

Check out these 29 unique gift card-wrapping ideas for more options.

Enigma puzzle for gift cards or money

#14 It’s okay to regift a gift

You know, sometimes you just receive a gift that’s not your style or you might already have it. And some people don’t want to hurt the giver’s feelings and won’t say anything. (One could argue whether this is the right approach or not, but that’s a discussion for another day).

The point is, now you’re stuck with an unwanted gift.

So let’s be practical. Instead of letting this gift collect dust in your garage, why not give it to someone who will actually use this?

There are a few things I would advise you to keep into account when re-gifting a gift.

  1. Don’t regift it to the person who gave it to you (duh, you will still hurt their feelings, and the whole point of you lying that you liked it was for nothing)
  2. Don’t regift it to someone the original giver knows as well (see the first point)
  3. Regift it to someone who will actually like it (but you want to give awesome gifts, so I’m sure you thought about this point)
  4. Repack it and make it look like you bought the gift (nobody likes to receive something that looks used)
Garage
Photo by todd kent on Unsplash

#15 It’s okay to give the receiver the option to return the gift

Here is another gifting etiquette rule that I think we should break. Giving the receipt or asking for the receipt should be acceptable.

If you are not sure whether the recipient will love the gift, and you stayed within an acceptable range of budget, it is totally fine to add the receipt to the gift. Or offer the recipient the option to change it.

It’s not an insult to you and you should never take it personally (remember, gifting is not about you). It’s just practical. They might need a different size, prefer a different color, or they may already have something similar. And if followed gifting rule #5 and you didn’t splurge, there is nothing crazy to be seen on the receipt.


#16 It is totally acceptable to refuse gifts

Now, I know I said earlier to be appreciative, but that doesn’t mean you can never say no. If for whatever reason it does not feel right to accept a gift, you always (and I mean ALWAYS) have the freedom to decline politely.

Whether it’s because it’s an expensive gift, a romantic gesture you can’t reciprocate, or a bribe, if it doesn’t feel right, simply thank them for their thought, but decline the gift.

I know that refusing gifts is quite a difficult thing to do, and it’s highly personal and cultural, so I wrote a full guide on refusing gifts to help you navigate this debate and give you tools on how to handle each situation.

Woman refusing a gift
It is totally acceptable to refuse gifts

#17 You don’t have to spend as much on someone as they spend on you

This is a gifting rule that comes with a few nuances, but in general terms, I want you to understand that it is perfectly fine if you buy someone a gift that is not as expensive as the one they bought for you. Gifts don’t necessarily need to be of equal value.

First of all, value can be measured in many different ways. So who says that if your gift was cheaper, it’s not as valuable? Second, we are all in different phases of life, and if the giver or recipient is someone you know, they will understand that and will love you for who you are, not for the amount of money you have.

So my point of view is that it should not matter too much. However, if you do feel uncomfortable because of your friends or relatives’ expensive gifts, you can always talk to them about it. I’m pretty sure they will tell you that for them it is just a way of showing that they love you and that they do not expect anything in return, but simply have a chat and figure it out together.

Creative ways to give money: inside a box
Gifts don’t have to be equal value

#18 It is okay if you don’t have anything in return

I talked about this in my guide on how to accept gifts with style. But rule number one when it comes to not having a return gift is to not make a big deal out of it. The more you focus on it by apologizing or lying that you have something for them, the more awkward it gets.

Simply thank them for their kind gesture, and perhaps remember to do something nice for them later as a return of favor in a different way. Gift giving is not an eye for an eye. It’s about sharing love, and love can be shared in a million different ways.

Gifting etiquette: 5 things you should avoid

#19 Don’t make gifting awkward for the receiver

Unless you know each other really well and your relationship is based on pranking each other, you should try to avoid embarrassing the receiver.

So don’t give a whole speech to someone who hates being in the middle of attention. Don’t say it was a really expensive gift. Don’t gift something awkward in front of other people. It might be funny for you, but remember, this is about the receiver, not you.

Basically, try to make giving as comfortable for the receiver as possible.


#20 Don’t make giving awkward for the people around

For proper gift-giving etiquette, there are two things you want to avoid when there are other people around the receiver.

First, you don’t want to make people feel left out because you brought a gift for one person and not for them. And second, you don’t want to make people feel bad about themselves because they didn’t bring a gift for the recipient.

So if there are other people around the receiver, wait until you have a private moment together to give your gift.


#21 Don’t gift things that can be a burden unless you’re 100% certain

Put yourself in the receiver’s shoes and ask yourself this question: “Will they enjoy using this gift or will it be a burden?“.

For example, don’t gift your grandmother who doesn’t understand technology a high-tech alarm clock. Instead, give her a simple one she can use right away. And don’t gift a coffee machine that only uses expensive cups (unless you know they want it). You are literally forcing the receiver to buy these expensive cups just to use your gift.

Man working on a computer
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

#22 Don’t give pets unless specifically asked for

Yes, everybody loves a cute puppy.

But that doesn’t mean everybody should have a puppy.

Never, ever give pets to someone unless they’ve specifically requested one.

Animals are living things that require love and care. They are basically like kids and probably one of the highest-burden gifts out there.

So please, if there is one gifting rule you are willing to take from today, let it be this one and treat animals with the love they deserve.


#23 Don’t gift something that insinuates the receiver is not good enough

I guess this is one of the most obvious gift-giving etiquettes on this list, but I still felt like I had to include it.

Don’t gift something that insinuates that the receiver is not good enough right now.

So don’t give exercise equipment, self-help books, plastic surgery (honestly, I didn’t even know people did this), or personal development training.

Of course, there is an exception here. And that is, it’s okay to give any of these things if and only if the receiver specifically requests it. Though you could add a personal note saying you gave them this because they asked for it, in your opinion, they are perfect the way they are.


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gifting etiquette: 15 gifting rules you should know

Final note on gift-giving etiquette

Alright, these were the 15 gift giving rules that I think everyone should know. I hope we can break some useless gifting etiquettes and taboos here and all learn the true art of giving

AUTHOR

Hi, I’m Lara, a 30-year-old travel-lover (but who’s not these days?). I love reading, puzzling, world-heritage sites, researching, and making lists, which comes in quite handy when you’re making lists of travel gift ideas!