Gift Etiquette - the unwritten rules of gift giving and receiving

Gift Etiquette – The Unwritten Rules of Gift Giving and Receiving

Hands up (virtually) if you have either given or received an inappropriate or dud gift. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I remember one Christmas when I was about 13 years old, I received and opened, in front of all my family, a gift of skimpy, red lacy underwear with my name embroidered on them.  This was from a very well meaning female relation but wasn’t really a suitable gift for a shy, awkward teenager.  I was mortified – it scarred me for life (ok so maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration) but it did leave a lasting impression on me.

Now, I don’t know about you but there have been times that I have done the wrong thing when it comes to gifts. I have given inappropriate gifts, not given gifts when I should have and panic gifted. I have also not received gifts as graciously as I should have.  Lots has been learned over the years about giving and receiving gifts and how to do it thoughtfully and so I didn’t think I could begin to write blogs about gift giving for the foreseeable future without addressing gift etiquette.

Unwritten Rules of Gifting

Although there are no formal rules to gift giving, there are some unwritten ones or guidelines really. This means that gift etiquette is mostly a grey area. Not everyone is even aware that there is such a thing. With this in mind, I have done some research and used my own experience to put together a little blog on what I believe gift etiquette to be.

It’s the thought that countsIt's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving - good gift etiquette

Firstly, the main thing to bear in mind when giving or receiving gifts is it’s the thought that counts. I like to think that this means that the Gifter has put thought behind the gift – something you would want or need – and that’s what counts rather than giving any old thing because they thought they needed to give a gift – something you would not want or need. I like to think that a gift should not be a gift for a gifts sake but an occasion gives you the opportunity to gift someone something that will delight them.


The Over-Gifter

Most of you will have one of these people in your life, that is the person who gives you the most expensive, elaborate gift when you can only afford something small. This is one of the more difficult areas when it comes to gifting. If you receive a gift that is worth a lot more than the gift you have given then this can feel awkward. Don’t let it, this is one of these occasions when it is not about the value of the gift but the thought behind the gift. Instead be genuinely appreciative of the gift. Giving a gift should bring as much delight and joy as receiving a gift and it should be given with no expectation or strings attached.

In turn think twice about giving an expensive, elaborate gift to someone that you know would be easily embarrassed by it as they may feel more uncomfortable than appreciative. If you feel that you would like to give an expensive gift then do it without drawing attention to yourself.

Saying Thank YouSay thank you - gift etiquette

Who remembers post? I mean post that is not a bill or marketing junk. There is something wonderful and endearing about getting a hand written note in the post. Therefore why not reciprocate a thoughtful gift by sending a thoughtful thank you note in the post? It is traditional but timeless. If you don’t do post then there are lots of other ways of sending a thank you. Email, Social Media, Text, Whatsapp or why not in person? Taking the time to say thank you is good gifting etiquette and basic politeness. Teach your kids about writing a thank you note as soon as they can write, they will then have the habit instilled from a young age.  

Not everyone will send a thank you.  So if you don’t receive a thank you, don’t take offence. Why not send them a link to my website so they can brush up on gifting etiquette.  


The Imperfect Gift

There was a time when my husband received handkerchiefs every Christmas from a relative. They were lovely but he never used fabric handkerchiefs so they just piled up in a drawer over the years. So what happens if somebody doesn’t read my blog and gives you a gift that you just won’t use? The polite thing is to thank them kindly and remark on what you like about them. After all they thought it was a gift you would enjoy. Then try and drop some hints about what you would like – why not forward one of my blogs to them if that would help.  Maybe mention about how much you love a particular item or brand.  Or tell a story about how you have lost an item and need a replacement. My husband mentioned that he loves different coloured pairs of socks and now receives socks every year instead (which he does use).

To Return or not to ReturnTo Return a gift or not to return a gift - good gift etiquette

This can be a difficult topic as it means that the gift was a dud and did not delight as the Gifter hoped it would. If the Gifter has included a gift receipt then they suspected that you may have to return the gift. Then it is fine. Ultimately it is what your own conscious tells you but good gifting etiquette is to accept each gift in the spirit it was given and try to make the most of it.

If it really hurts you to keep it then charity shops are always looking for things to sell.  If you give it to a charity shop then you can at least contribute to your favourite charity which should bring you contentment instead. In any case do not regift. For those of you who may not know what regifting is, it is taking a gift you have received and then passing it on to someone else as a gift.  It is offensive to the person who gave you the gift.  There is also a risk that over time you may end up giving it back to the person who gave it to you in the first place – a really embarrassing situation to be avoided at all costs!

Gift Etiquette on Repeat gifts

What about when you receive the same gift two years in a row from the same person? They’ve obviously thought they have hit on a winning gift and forgotten they have given the same gift previously. If you subscribe to my blog you can access a Gift List Journal either in Excel form or printable format.  You can sign up here. This will help you note the gifts you have given for each occasion and hopefully prevent any repeat gifting. You can always forward a copy to the culprit so hopefully they won’t do it again.


When gifting from afar, make sure your gifts arrive with the recipient either on the day of the occasion or before. It is lovely to know that somebody has thought of you on the day and sending a gift after the occasion may seem like they were an afterthought. Of course there are genuine reasons why a gift might not be there on the day. Make sure to send the card on time and put a note in to explain the gift is still to come.

What To Do If You Turn Up to An Occasion Empty Handed

So you arrive at an occasion to see a table dripping with brightly wrapped gifts and you realise you’re empty handed – the stuff of nightmares.  It might be that you have baby brain (a proven thing so the experts say) or you have been super busy recently juggling so much that you just didn’t think.  It happens.  Don’t beat yourself up about it.  Depending on the situation speak to the host.  Explain that the gift is still to come (you don’t need to go into the detail of your distracted mind).  Do not panic buy.  Make sure to prioritise choosing and sending a very thoughtful gift for them afterwards.  

If you had planned a gift but it didn’t arrive on time for you to deliver on the occasion, again speak to the host and apologise.  You could always put a picture of the gift to come in the card to generate some anticipation. 

For me, one of the few occasions when I sometimes purposely don’t turn up with a proper gift is a house warming party.  That is unless I have seen the house before.  I like to give a gift that is inkeeping with the style of the new home and can only do that when I have seen it.  This strategy is not for the feint hearted but it can lead to a more thoughtful gift.  You can always bring a small pot plant with you initially if you feel awkward turning up empty handed.  

On a similar theme, if you are invited to an occasion but unfortunately can’t attend then still arrange a gift.  Not being able to attend the event shouldn’t mean that you don’t want to treat the recipient.

Ad Hoc gift Guidelines


Don’t give clothes unless you are absolutely certain of the recipients size and style.


Don’t give perfume unless you are absolutely certain of the scents the recipient likes.

Gift WrappingTop Tip about Gifting And gift etiquette

Make an effort to wrap the gift. It may be as simple as a gift bag or more elaborately dressed in tissue paper, wrapping paper and ribbon. Whichever way you present your gift, make sure you add a tag so the recipient knows who it is from.


Complementary Gift

Some gifts require something else in order for it to work.  For example, some toys may need batteries.  If you give a gift that requires something complementary then include it so the recipient can use it straight away.

Etiquette Summary

Ultimately, gift giving and receiving is all about good manners and most of you will not need help to give and receive gifts graciously.  However sometimes we can become lazy and let our good manners slip.  In this world, when we are so easily distracted and focusing becomes more challenging every day, it is good to be reminded on how to become a better gifter.

This is not a definitive list and I’m sure I have not covered all guidelines.  I hope what I have covered above has been helpful.  I hope that you have learnt something from my guidelines.  Lastly I hope that it gives you a reminder of how to give and receive gifts graciously.

Please leave a comment if you have any other gifting guidelines that would be useful.

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