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Thursday, February 5, 2009

When Someone Returns A Gift You Gave (You Asked)

White Cream Water Lily by Marie Anakee Miczak copyright, all rights reserved by GaveThat.com

Over the past few weeks readers have had a burning question... what do you do when a friend or loved one returns a seemingly unwanted gift you gave them?


In many cases this is one of those life situations that can cause an emotional roller coaster. As I've mentioned in one of my first posts here the act of giving can be incredibly deep and meaningful to the giver. When this passing of care, love, and intimate feelings are interrupted in some way a great deal of hurt can follow. Hurt that can be greatly squelched if only the question of why was answered. The problem is many people returning gifts are afraid of a confrontation or to hurt you any further and will try to be as vague as possible. The good thing is you can find closure in some of the most common reasons why a gift has been returned below. First, how should you handle the situation when it first happens?

What to do when a person returns a gift?
Etiquette tomes all say the same thing, there is only one thing to do when someone says no thank you and that's to accept its return without confrontation or making any sort of a grand ballyhoo. Your emotions may rise and you might even be slightly shocked or put off. Try to keep all of this in check and accept the item back with grace.

In a calm tone you can also ask why your friend is giving the item back? If the reason is something you feel is a misunderstanding you can gently ask them to please reconsider taking it. If they still refuse that should be the end of it. Keep a stiff upper lip, say OK and move on. I like to think gift giving is, not about you or me, it's about them! They might be setting healthy boundaries which are deeply personal to them.

For more on healthy boundaries, including gifts, watch online this video by one of my favorite YouTuber's holistic psychotherapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish.

Affirmation: “My gift recipients have the freedom to do whatever they want with my gifts (my attention, help, etc.)—since it is now theirs.” It is OK for them to reject the gifts and you can still feel good because you gave in the spirit of true unconditional, non-demanding love.
Tom G. Stevens

Why They Might Have Returned Your Gift
While each situation is unique the factors causing a person to return a gift usually are not. The person returning your gift might be trying to send you a message or they might actually be acting in your better interest. The latter of which could be one of the best and most meaningful gifts to receive. That's why it's important not to jump to conclusions or take anything too personal initially. Especially if we're talking about an established relationship of many years.

"Talk not of wasted affection - affection never was wasted."
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
So what are the common reasons people decline gifts? Here is what I've found:
  • They simply do not like it. Yes, this has to be one of the few reasons that isn't very socially sound or high on the etiquette list. Still it's a valid reason and it can be common among close friends who frequently swap gifts anyway. What can be hurtful is when a person you do not know well returns a gift with a frank, I hate this or This is so ugly why did you give me this? comment to go along with it. This sheds a lot of light on the individual you're dealing with and what their level of gratitude and entitlement is (for more on what should have been done, read this by Emily Post). Accept the gift back graciously and think twice about giving anything else to this particular person in the future.

  • The gift didn't fit. This again is very common among close friends and relatives. Things happen! This is also another good reason to read our The Top Gifts Your Shouldn't Give article which helps guide you through avoiding particularly tricky gifts that might not go over very well. If you're gift didn't come with a gift receipt the person might feel it better to give the gift back to you instead of re-gifting it or trying to sell it.

  • They already have one. Great minds think alike and someone else might have beat you to the pass. In most cases the person returning the gift will let you know flat out that your gift is a duplicate. Take it back and either use it yourself or try to get your money back. One nice thing about the latter is you can use the refund to purchase another gift and try again.

  • They're Just Not That Into You. Quoting the hilarious and often times true book by Greg Behrendt, this is an area where very special attention should be paid. If you're giving a gift to someone because you have obvious romantic feelings you're trying to convey (good for you!) and the person returns the gift it should be clear that they're not interested. Do not take this personally and even better, consider yourself as having very good taste. This person is being honest with their feelings and you not to mention very chivalrous. There are a lot of people out there today who are not and look to use and exploit peoples feelings any chance they get for their own personal gain. Move on and keep trying with others you find interesting!

Another thing to think about when it comes to romantic gifts is that a person might be interested in learning more about you but feel it's too early in the relationship for gifts just yet. They also might feel you're trying to buy their affection (which never works by the way!). If you think this is the case save the gift and give it later, if you can, once the relationship has progressed. Betsy Prioleau in her book Swoon also makes an interesting point on why giving men physical gifts can be particularly tricky (also read further below):
"Women put stock in presents, they take them to heart and regard them more intimately than men."

  • It's a guy thing. I've been curious as to why there has been a highly disproportionate number of women telling me their gifts to men were rejected and returned, and in some cases rather rudely to boot. Betsy Prioleau in her book Swoon along with others have shed a lot of light on this recently with the ultimate answer seeming to be machismo. Along with Prioleau's telling quote above she also says physical love tokens from men have been practiced for so long and is so widespread (79% of cultures do it!) that it has become ingrained in courtship.  Some men maybe feel bad excepting things when they themselves have not given you anything (yet) &/or they have no desire to really ever start dating or forming a commitment, something gifts can strongly represent to them. Dating coach Matthew Hussey writes, "...men don't value what they didn't earn in the first place." 18th century painter Sir Joshua Reynolds noted the same hundreds of years earlier saying:
"Men are like certain animals who will feed only when there is but little provender, and that got at with difficulty; but refuse to touch it when there is an abundance before them."
This seems a likely answer to the baffling returned birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, etc., gifts, many of which were probably merely given in friendly gestures of kindness, the way they're also given to girlfriends and family members. Steve Sims of the Bluefish concierge service gives sage advice in Glamour for getting around all this:

"Go for experiences, not [physical] items and focus on the message, not the money. If the gift is financial, it can always be topped. When it evokes a great memory, it can't." They suggest renting a dream car for a long day of scenic driving, a boat for fishing, tickets to a game or concert and so on or being extra nonchalant and extending an invitation to something you're already doing. A charity event or big bash, Salsa lessons, a concert, a lovely restaurant, a picnic in the park, a bistro you're sitting at for hours anyway. If they come, share with them, and if they never do who cares. You're having an amazing experience and the opportunity to invite others still exists.
  • They feel like you're trying to buy their time or friendship. As mentioned above some people have had run ins with people who thought the only way to a relationship was through gifts and trying to buy another persons time. In many cases these people trying to buy others can act hurtfully or inappropriately and then, in an attempt, to cover or smooth the situation shower the person with gifts. This becomes a vicious and damaging cycle in the relationship. In most cases, people who have experienced this behavior in their life will now be very leery of excepting any gifts from people they do not know well. They also do not want confrontation and will avoid it at all costs.
"If you haven't come to fully accept yourself with both light and dark facets and feelings, how can you possibly like and respect yourself? This issue sets you up for having to buy another's love with gifts, gestures and behaviors that consistently place another's desires and needs before your own." -Shari Schreiber, M.A.
Accept the return gracefully and if you value the relationship, keep it going until the person sees you as a good, trustworthy person who is giving gifts out of generosity and true care. As with many things lasting friendships can take time to materialize and that's OK because it builds perspective and meaning.

Watch holistic psychotherapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish talk about The Pattern of Control Through Generosity:


  • The gift can be seen as inappropriate. This is one avenue that can go in many directions. One of the most glaring is giving gifts privately to subordinates at work. If someone, especially women, feel their boss is giving them personal gifts the right thing to do is always to return them. Some companies also have value caps where expensive gifts are simply not allowed. In these hard economic times no one wants to jeopardize their job or position. One also has to think about married individuals accepting gifts from the opposite sex. Especially if the gift giver is single. This can make people feel uncomfortable and their wishes should be respected.

  • The relationship fails to warrant such a gift. Lately I've noticed many people coming to this page because they want to return a thank you gift specifically. The reason is possibly explained in this insightful WSJ article by Melinda Beck:

    "It's possible, of course, to over-do expressions of gratitude, particularly if you try to show it with a gift. "Thanking someone in such a way that is disproportionate to the relationship—say, a student giving her teacher an iPod—will create resentment, guilt, anger and a sense of obligation," says Dr. Froh.

    "Gratitude can also be misused to exert control over the receiver and enforce loyalty. Dr. Froh says you can avoid this by being empathic toward the person you are thanking—and by honestly assessing your motivations." (also see the video above by Victoria Lorient-Faibish as she speaks more about this as well). Read the entire article here.
Never give anyone more than they are emotionally capable of receiving, or they will have no choice but to hate you for it.
Indian Monk via Elizabeth Gilbert

  • They feel you're trying to reform them. Some gifts can have the unintended (or intended) effect of trying to tell someone something about themselves. For instance exercise DVD's for someone who the gift giver thinks is out of shape or self help books for someone who is single. Giving such gifts out of the blue and without any evidence that the gift recipient has been wanting such things can sadly turn the person off. When shopping for gifts it's always good to think about what message your present will carry. Will it say I love you or I care about you as you are?
  • They want to live a minimalist lifestyle. I've noticed a growing movement to remove what some deem clutter from their lives or they could be someone grappling with hoarding tendencies. This is usually rather obvious by minimalist decor or a general lack of interest in acquiring new things on a regular basis (another example of why getting to know people well prior to giving physical gifts is important).

For many minimalists, people in general and those deemed as already having everything experts are suggesting more and more to give gifts that are experiences. Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani writes, "Everyday I receive a large quantity of bags. I don't use bags. If you stopped to think about it even for one second you could come up with a new idea, a different one." and then mentions, "Choosing a book, dedicating it, is more personal, less expensive and it stays with you forever." along with a pack of movie tickets, a gift membership to a museum, spa treatments, a trip. Read the entire article here, it's eye opening.
  • They feel you've put yourself out/over extended yourself. In our current economic climate this is a very common reason to consider. One that might show incredible care in the person who has returned your gift. Even though it might not feel like that at the time, your friend might have a clearer perspective on the situation and wants to save you heartache in the future due to a loss of income or mounting bills.

In some cases people are so enamored with someone else and so interested in filling a perceived need that they will overextend themselves and give a gift they really cannot afford. If a true friend catches on to this they might feel compelled to give the gift back to you. In some cases your gift could have been acquired at a real bargain or is a possession you have long had. It could have even been a past gift. In such cases you can try and explain and re-give the gift but if they're adamant about not taking it, accept it back and move on from there. If you have a true friendship with this person there will be time enough to give other gifts.

One other thing to consider is the power of being positive in both your thinking and speech. People will often feel guilty if they received a gift from a person, especially an expensive one, and then later on hear over and over again how this person has no money or is so bad off. Once this becomes a persons MO few will want to accept gifts from them of any kind. No one who cares wants to feel like the cause of someones unhappiness and/or possible downfall. Once again, when feeling the need to share negative or unhappy news make it to someone who can really help. Broadcasting it to everyone rarely helps to get anything accomplished and can actually drive what a person needs the most to cope with life away... friends!
  • They Forgot You Gave It To Them (recycling gifts). Anonymous wrote:
Another possibility is that they have forgotten that you gave them the gift. And it doesn't always mean that they did not enjoy the gift. In one case a former lover gave me a book I'd given him 4 years previously because he thought I would enjoy it! (It was the very same copy as I'd gotten the book signed by the author.) I forgave his forgetfulness and was glad to have a copy of a great book.

  • The wedding was called off. Lillian Eichler writes in her etiquette book, "If wedding presents have been received from friends these also must be returned (along with expensive gifts, letters and the engagement ring back to the groom) with a brief note explaining that the wedding is not to take place. It is necessary to thank the donor as warmly as if nothing had happened."

Whatever the reason ultimately is, which may never actually be uncovered, please do not beat yourself up or stop reaching out towards others through giving. I like to ponder the many gifts that can be given that are hard for others to refuse such as: giving a compliment, the time of a fully present listening ear, holding the door for someone, being supportive, kind and compassionate. For more see my post Simple Gifts to Give. Happy giving!

"The gifts of caring, attention, affection, appreciation, and love are some of the most precious gifts you can give, and they don’t cost you anything” —Deepak Chopra


For anyone having a hard time dealing with rejection, depressive feelings, hopelessness call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak to a real person.

PS... want to see quite possibly the ultimate returned gift? Click here for one I found in Return To Sender.

Thank you everyone who has shared their personal stories with us all! Do you have a reason or story as to why you felt compelled to decline a gift? Have you had a gift returned to you? Please share by leaving a comment about your experiences.

( This is article part 1 of 2, part 2 looks at how and why to return a gift with care. )

Also Read:
- How To Decline Gifts with Grace - Saying No Thank You
- Can I Ask For My Gift Back?
- Return To Sender
- Simple Gifts to Give
- This Is Your Brain in Love (review)
Image: copyright MAM for GaveThat.com.

22 Reader Comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, was this ever dead on advice! Years ago, you would see someone not accepting a gift because they knew the person couldn't afford it. Not any more! I've noticed in my own vast experience in relationships with men, giving them costly gifts is almost always a mistake. Men often don't like you to throw them birthday parties either for the same reason, (surprised?). That is because most men worth their salt do not like to feel that they "owe" you and over-the-top displays of generosity like this can actually trigger resentment. Women need to let men chase them, not the other way around. Let him win YOU with wineing, dining and presents. Your relationship will last much longer if you do. (Submitted by someone who has been married to the same man for 30 years so I think I know what I'm talking about!)

Angie said...

I didn't know that this was such a phenomenon! If I give a handmade gift and the recipient does not want or appreciate it, I would much rather have them give it back to me than give it or throw it away. A lot of time, energy, and thought goes into a handmade gift. That's just my 2 cents on the issue.

Marie Anakee Miczak: said...

Hi, thank you for your comments!

@Anonymous you bring up a couple of points that I was also thinking about but did not really cover in the article itself. 1) that gifts, especially expensive ones, can cause a person to feel indebted to the giver. Most people do not wish to be placed in such a position.

2) that people today seem to be made more and more to feel that in order for someone to get to know them--they have to show net worth or that they have something, like gifts, to offer. This is of course very wrong. People should want to get to know a person because of care, not because of what a person can give. There will always be a question in the back of a persons mind if that person really cares about them or if they're just in the relationship to get as much as possible. That of course is an awful thing to go through. It's much better to take the money you would spend on gifts and use it instead internally... seek professional help, upping ones self esteem and so on.

And yes, you are an expert in my book!!!

@Angie, yes my sentiments exactly! I think you speak for most people who create their own gifts to give--sometimes a person felt like they could not keep a gift because they were concerned it was going to be ruined in some way so they had to return it but I fully understood. I like the way you turned it into a positive and hope that readers will be able to do the same instead of feeling snubbed, hurt, etc.

Thank you again for commenting and please keep coming back and adding your insight!

Anonymous said...

What about the situation where you were close but you have drifted apart and are now only acquaintances and now 4 months later the person returns a birthday gift to you? I think this is absolutely rude and insulting and a way to try and hurt you. Maybe they feel rejected and as a way to gain control they are rejecting you back.
Absolutely ridiculous.

Marie Anakee Miczak: said...

@Anonymous, that is a hard one and I'm very sorry you went through that! Your reasoning sounds rather on the mark although some people, as seen in Part II of the post: "How To Decline Gifts with Grace - Saying No Thank You" might be doing this to send the message the relationship is over and they do not wish any further contact with the gift giver. All one can do is respect the other persons decision, move on and not let this prevent future giving! That last bit I think can be the worst scar.

Anonymous said...

somedays ago a gift was returned to me.I felt terribly bad and sad :( because I had given the gift with all my heart and when he returned the gift I felt so frustated, many feelings!!! His argumentations weren´t enough clear. He was angry with me, but I think that is not the best way to solve things. I think that one should never return a gift, it makes you feel so sad!

Marie Anakee: said...

@Anonymous I'm so sorry this happened to you--thank you for sharing your feelings and hopefully others thinking about returning this will consider how the giver may feel. Also that anger can sometimes pass and waiting before doing something final (returning gifts) might be best.

Anonymous said...

I gave small gifts to a colleague I liked with a card at Easter and Christmas, then one Christmas after giving a giftcard for them to have a meal out I sent a calendar to their house and suddenly they errupted and returned everything in its packaging unused. It was a shocking hurtful experience and has taken months to put it to rest.

Anonymous said...

I bought a present for this guy am seeing we dont really go out just meet up for abit. Anyways i bought him a present for his birthday and e didnt take it and asked me to return it. i felt so hurt and upset. but he said he doesnt like taking things of anyone. could it be that he doesnt have feelings for me and is just using mefor abit of pleasure i dont know and ant understand it. please help

Marie Anakee: said...

@Anonymous, I'm so sorry this upset you so. The conclusion you have come to is pretty much the same one that I would. He did state he does not feel comfortable taking gifts from people and it's important to respect a persons wishes even if it differs from the way you, me or others may think of doing things.

On a side note, it seems like dating in the US right now is *not* very fun compared to our grand parents and great grand grandparents. I'd personally like to see things go back to just plain having fun, being social, meeting *lots* of people which you do activity based dates with (dancing, movies, outdoor stuff) & through that maybe find "the one". Instead of meeting & focusing all attention on one person at a time and having to analyze every move, them & the relationship. This is what a pair of 80 year old's who have been married to the same person for over 60 years recently told me & I think they are right!

Also have to mention I was sent, "He's Just Not That Into You" by Greg Benrendt when it first came out to review and it's a really good book every dating woman should read. You only need to read it once and it's done with great humor but is still right on. Highly recommend it.

I must apologize for this being so long and divergent from the main topic of "giving gifts" but it feels really crummy that modern dating has gone in the direction of "hurt" that it has for many and that there *is* a better, more loving option that works. Ask grandmum or find elderly mentors to talk to and find out!

Wishing you much peace, M

Asha said...

Yes I had sent a gift to my deast guy and he didnt open the box to see wht was there and he returned back saying he doesnt deserve a gift...
Although we havent been committed so much... I show the committment and try getting the same...may be he feels pressuresized...is that the reason he wud have sent it back?

Marie Anakee: said...

I'm starting to wonder if these, "I do not deserve this gift" type responses are in reality a Freudian slip? In every case, I've personally seen, this said it really was true. The person did not deserve anything because their treatment was less than kind. In some cases downright awful. We deserve loving treatment and some people are sadly not the one to give or even receive that.

@Asha go with your intuition, it is probably 100% right. We can only respect the other persons wishes and move on. It feels good to be free actually.

Wishing you much peace, M

Asha said...

Hi Anonymous who wrote on Oct 8th ...the case is very similar and exactly same and almost same wordings as you wrote happened to me also.

The guy i was seeing bday was on Oct 4th in Maryland... and Im depressed and sad and wondering why this happened...

May be u can write to me and we share our thoughts and understand the situation better...

Marie Anakee: said...

For anyone having a hard time dealing with rejection, depressive feelings, hopelessness please seek someone real to talk to... call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or many phone books have local hotlines.

Also added a really, really thought provoking video, "The Pattern of Control Through Generosity" by Victoria Lorient-Faibish which I hope everyone coming to this page looking for answers will take the time to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2k73P6vWEg

Anonymous said...

Anonymous,

Another possibility is that they have forgotten that you gave them the gift. And it doesn't always mean that they did not enjoy the gift. In one case a former lover gave me a book I'd given him 4 years previously because he thought I would enjoy it! (It was the very same copy as I'd gotten the book signed by the author.) I forgave his forgetfulness and was glad to have a copy of a great book.

Marie Anakee: said...

@Anonymous , Thank you so much for taking the time to share this! I'm going to include it in the post above so that everyone will be sure to see it.

Anonymous said...

I recently gave my so called bf roses n left them on his front door with a note. He had been out if town n.I knew he had was due back. He sent me a long text message n basically told me it was infair to me or anyone because he was always out of town. I asked for some jewelry I had left that was a gift from my sis. He then told me He would let me know the next day when to pick it up. Next day he text saying my jewelry was hanging on his fence in athe bag to pick it up soon and stay safe. I arrived later n saw a bag hanging on his fence. Along with my jewelry were the roses and note I had given him. I saw it as him being malicious n evil. And felt he wanted to cause me more pain....

Marie Anakee Miczak said...

I'm sorry that happened to you @Anonymous , I think anyone would feel the same way if it happened to them!

Anonymous said...

What about when the person who gives was see you and all of the sudden start seeing someone else?

Marie Anakee Miczak said...

@Anonymous If I'm reading this correctly perhaps my other post on Declining & Returning love token gifts after a romantic relationship has ended would be more helpful to you: http://www.gavethat.com/2009/05/declining-gifts-with-grace-saying-no.html .

It also includes why some try to "shower a person with gifts early in the relationship", red flags and so on related to gifts.

I adore this quote by Helen Keller, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.” Switch the "Character" to "true love" and I think it's very fitting!

Best wishes to you and something better is coming!

Kanashii said...

another reason for returning a gift to the giver, which has not been stated here, is that although you love the gift you know that you will not use it (no time) and thus do not believe you deserve the gift/that someone else would get a lot more use/fun out of it than you can

just my 2 cents

Marie Anakee Miczak said...

Thank you @Kanashii, I'm sure someone would be very understanding if they were told this was the reason.

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