#925: “The Muddled Tealeaves of Birthday Presents and the Giving Thereof”

Hey Cap,

This is mostly an attempt to get an outside perspective, as I’m not quite sure if this is An Actual Problem Worth Discussing With Said Person, or if this is just something Jerkbrain is blowing up to be bigger than it is. So, my best friend and I have known each other for about 8 years, are currently living in different places but are still in very regular contact, and for the most part she is an amazing friend with whom I have a tonne in common. The current issue on my part is about exchanging birthday presents.To be clear, I don’t really mind if we give each other presents or if we don’t, the issue I have is that it’s so inconsistent- we never used to do presents, then we did, then one year I gave her a birthday present and she didn’t give me one (our birthdays are about three months apart, mine is after hers), so I figured we weren’t doing presents anymore and didn’t get her a present for her birthday the following year, but then she gave me a fairly pricey gift for my birthday three months later so I had an internal freakout about being a terrible person and got her an equally priced Christmas present (we don’t do Christmas presents, not an issue) and then this year, again, I got her a birthday present because based on last year it appeared to be A Thing We Do, and I got zip for mine. If I’m being perfectly forthright, this happens because, while BFF is a wonderful, smart, kind person, she’s a little…well, inconsiderate isn’t the right word, she’s not that bad, but for her outside of her immediate family and her boyfriend gift-giving seems to be on a more “if it occurs to me and I don’t have anything else going on” basis, whereas if I think gifts are A Reciprocal Thing We Are Doing, I will make sure I get a gift regardless of what else I’m doing.
Again, it’s not that I feel entitled to a gift, I really don’t! This situation bothers me primarily because

(1) the part of my brain that gets really stressed out about social interaction depends on cues from other people when figuring out stuff like gift-giving, and the current situation is profoundly unhelpful.

(2) As the local oddball, I’ve always found it difficult to make friends, and I’ve been in situations in the past where I’ve made waaay too much effort to make friends with people who didn’t give a shit about me, and it’s always made me feel like shit about myself. This means that as a rule I don’t give presents anymore unless I’m absolutely sure it’s a reciprocal thing, because one-sided gift-giving reminds me of those times, and I never want to feel like that again.

(3) Related to (2), I’m not gonna lie, it is a little bit hurtful to spend ages looking for the perfect gift for a person and get nothing in return.

But again, as Frank Underwood would say, I’m entitled to nothing. My natural impulse would be to stop giving gifts to BFF, but for all I know I might get something from her next year and the whole awful cycle will repeat. So then I should say something, right? But what do I say? BFF doesn’t know this is a problem for me, and I doubt it’s a problem for her- I’m worried that if I say something it’ll come off as me guilt-tripping her. Any ideas? Or is this just my problem and I should keep it to myself?

-A Grey Warden

P.S.: She/her pronouns all round

Dear A Grey Warden,

Your script, should you choose to accept it, could be:

“Friend! I really enjoy the ____ you got me for my birthday a while back and use it all the time. I know some years we exchange birthday gifts and some years we don’t get around to it. What do you want to do about that in 2017?”

After 8 years and multiple gifts I think you can just come right out and ask what the preferred deal is between you. Additionally, you could set a budget or talk about skipping gifts this year in lieu of taking a trip together or whatnot. You’re not acting entitled to anything, you’re discussing the creation of a ritual that works for everyone.

If talking about it ruins the whole vibe for your friend then that’s good information for you (and less time shopping/stewing).

❤ and good birthday wishes, whatever you decide.




53 thoughts on “#925: “The Muddled Tealeaves of Birthday Presents and the Giving Thereof”

  1. I agree with the Captain- this is definitely a Words situation.

    It sounds like, and I’m not sure I’m right, but it sounds like the actual interplay is okay except you don’t want to be a) trying to anticipate their moves and b) Doing It Wrong.

    So what if they gave gifts when they found something they thought was perfect for you and you gave gifts every year BUT a) that was The Deal and you both knew it and b) the time/money/thoughtfulness you were each putting in was roughly equivalent?

    Would that work for you? Because you’re allowed to do it that way, if you want. You’re allowed to do it any damn way you want that makes you both happy or at least comfortable.

  2. I have taken to announcing several weeks before x-occasion “I am intending to give you a present” because I don’t get everyone something every year and I never want me giving someone a gift to be presenting them with an obligation as well, but know that many of my friends are super into reciprocity and appreciate the heads up. My spontaneity shouldn’t be the cause of my friend’s anxiety, that’s not fun! Gifts should be fun.

  3. Yes, and if this were me and my bestie, I would hope that they could also let me in on the angst this causes for them. I tend to be someone who gives presents when I find something perfect but am pretty chill about both the regularness and reciprocal-ness of the gift, so if that made someone really anxious, I would need them to spell that out for me. I get that it puts you in the same headspace as when you have a lopsided friendship happening, but because your rational brain knows this is not the case about your BFF, I think you can just talk about what you want and need. Even just knowing that they give you gifts kind of at random and don’t always expect one from you might ease your mind!

  4. I’m very much like the friend – i only give gifts if i can think of something really good, and i only want gifts if something good occurs, not duty gifts. But I’d be very happy to talk this out in advance if a friend approached me and said it was making them anxious (anxiety: not a gift i wanted to give)

    1. Ditto. I don’t like giving gifts that people don’t really want, that will just take up space. And I’m fine with getting gifts inconsistently. But I’ll get an obligation gift if the friend is really into exchanges.

  5. I really like the “Instead of giving each other presents this year, let’s treat each other to ‘X Fun Activity’ halfway between our birthdays” idea. You get consistency, she’s freed from trying to pick out a present at the last minute, and you both get an outing together.

    1. In this situation, since they live far apart, “outing together” probably wouldn’t be the best solution.

      1. Wouldn’t it though? I guess it depends on how far apart and how difficult it is to get together, but if they rarely see each other then an outing together would be an awesome mutual gift.

        1. My best friend lives in Florida. I live in Canada. We are both broke, don’t drive, and don’t have passports.

          If the writer’s situation is like ours, nah, outing together is not the best solution.

  6. Since the consistency is important to you and it’s not important to her you could just shift your reciprocity to the next year. e.g. She gave you a gift in 2016 => you give her one in 2017. She doesn’t give you a gift in 2017 => you don’t give her one in 2018. Nobody has to worry, and you get to feel like things are fair. (e.g. this wouldn’t be a problem for you if your birthday were 3 months earlier instead of 3 months later, right?) You only care that you two match, so let her decide, and then that tells you what to do for her next birthday.

    1. Yes, this is a good way to frame it in the mind – you two seem to have developed a biyearly giftexchange!

  7. I like the Captain’s script, but I would suggest waiting to use it until no more than a month or two before her birthday, so that it’s fresh in her mind when the time comes.

  8. Hardly anyone gives gifts with the intent to make you unhappy and anxious. If I were your friend, I would be really sad to learn that you thought my getting you a nicer gift than usual was an obligation that upset and stressed you out and made you spend more money than you wanted. You might want to think a bit about what your friend’s intentions are, and whether they are really trying to fish for gifts from you or whether they just want to do a nice thing for you, and whether you can be a bit more flexible yourself.

    You can always ask, but having a deadline and promise in place might take some of the joy out of it for her, so that’s why I suggest trying to find a more flexible attitude. I love giving gifts but I would maybe not want to sign up for gifts in advance (unless I already had a thing or category in mind). There’s a really nice emotional feeling of seeing a perfect gift for someone and knowing it will put a smile on their face, which is not at all the same from promising you’ll get them “something” and then going out trying to meet that deadline. A gift freely given should be a gift freely given.

    1. I absolutely love your first paragraph–the friends is almost certainly giving the gifts out of generosity and to make the LW happy, and it would be helpful for the LW to view it in those terms.

      However, I don’t think it’s very helpful to tell someone to just stop being anxious about something that’s bothering them. Gifts freely given and gratefully received can be a wonderful thing, up until one interacts with someone who gives gifts purposefully to engender a sense of guilt and obligation. I’m not saying this is where the LW is coming from, but gift angst can’t necessarily just be smoothed away by being told to be more flexible.

    2. It sounds to me like Giving A Gift is a big deal for the LW. Maybe practice more casual, low-key gift giving? I know I can drive some people crazy with this, but I prefer sporadic gift giving. I come across something I think someone will like, I buy it, I give it right then. I might hang on to it a few weeks if a big occasion is coming up, but usually not. Price might be extravagant, but often not. Wrapping is often skipped or very artisanal. To me a gift simply means ‘I thought about you’. And in my experience hitting on something that shows I’ve paid attention to what they were telling me is a lot more important than price, timing or formal reciprocity. This might describe the friend’s MO better than the LW’s current one, but adapting to it might lower the stress level.

  9. Oh yes, this all feels so fraught until you have a consistent habit in place. Especially (but of course not exclusively) when you’re entering adulthood and gift rules suddenly change drastically. I used to stress out too, but then I made a friend who would ask every year for Christmas, and that taught me to do the same whenever I was in doubt.

    With one friend we’re doing the inconsistent “whenever we have time or stumble across something perfect”. At the beginning we would apologize when it was one-sided but eventually we settled into happy gratitude knowing that it all balances out in the end. I always like finding gifts for her because I never stress about it and the gifts are always perfect.

    With another friend, we ALWAYS exchange Christmas gifts because she asked me every year and always got a yes, and after three years she stopped asking yes/no and just went straight to budget negotiations. That means there’s still a yearly check-in around November, but it’s pretty seamless. Usually it’s just the higher earner asking “hey what were you thinking in terms of budget?” or the lower earner just throwing out a number that’s immediately accepted.

    Another friend once looked at me like I had three heads when I asked if he wanted to exchange Christmas gifts, so I just breezily explained that I don’t care either way and just wanted to avoid awkwardness. A few years later, one of us gave a gifts for some occasion (I forget who). Now it happens sometimes. My last gift to him was because “well you’ve had milestone X, and Y, and Z now that I think of it, and honestly I just saw this thing and thought you would love it”. It’s rare enough that none of us really consider direct reciprocity at all.

    In my immediate family, my mom got fed up with the whole gift thing so we negotiated and tried a few different things before settling on not-so-secret Santa. This was as simple as “hey am I the only person who’s getting fed up here? Can we find another solution?” (My mom is kinda… blunt)

    (You’ll note that’s all about Christmas gifts. In my social circle, birthday gifts are generally for close family members and for people who invite you to the celebration (whether a party or just birthday coffee and cookies). It’s been years since I got or gave an unexpected birthday present. Your mileage and social norms may, of course, vary.)

    Point being, reasonable people will have no issue whatsoever taking about it, stating their preferences and finding a solution of sorts. Some like clear guidelines because it reduces anxiety and turns gifts into a neat reciprocal tradition. Some couldn’t care less about equal exchange since they don’t find gifts particularly important and just see them as something nice to occasionally do when you feel like it, not as an obligation (I’m kinda in this category, to be honest). If you and your friends are on opposite ends of that spectrum, it might be time for a compromise or at least a clarification of expectations. It’s a little scary, I know, but it’s really no big deal, especially if you follow the Captain’s script and look forward rather than focus on the pattern. Then it’s just a thoughtful question.

    Oh, and happy holidays to you and your friend!

  10. Agreed with the other posters; just talk to your friend and explain that you want a little more clarity in the giving of birthday presents. My guess is that you’re overthinking this, and your friend is buying something when they find something they think you’ll like and not worrying about whether you got them something in return, but this shouldn’t be a fraught conversation if you find that you need more formality in the arrangement.

    1. Yes, and it’s one of those kinds of situations that can seem much bigger from the inside than the outside! I have definitely been the person who generally doesn’t exchange presents with Friend, but who was on vacation and saw a shell bracelet that I knew that Friend would adore, and picked it up for them. When I do that it is with absolutely no expectation that they will reciprocate, or that I will necessarily do the same next year–but if Friend was confused or anxious about that, I would very much welcome a conversation to clear the air!

  11. This is a Use Your Words, Solve Your Problem situation. Gift-giving is a universally fraught behavior (if not outright dysfunctional – just consider the ever-present problem of friends or family in radically different economic circumstances for a start). Regular commenters will be aware that I consider it to be much more trouble than it is worth, but even for those who disagree, please realize that the meaning we place on gifts is entirely socially constructed and can thus be renegotiated or redefined between any set of people at will. LW, CA is entirely correct here: have an explicit conversation about what you want to do, and even if it feels a bit weird because you are accustomed to a particular model, I promise the conversation you’re having is a really common one. Pick a norm that works for you; none of the existing, dominant norms are especially well thought-out or universally functional.

  12. Yep yep yep.

    I’ve found that overall, one of the most common causes of friction between good, kind, well-meaning people is a mismatch of assumptions. It can happen with gifts (one person assumes that you either always Do Gifts–and do them reciprocally–or you Don’t Do Gifts, and the other person is a “I will buy something if I see something perfect but not otherwise, and I don’t care if it’s reciprocated or not” person). It can happen with frequency of contact (one person is a ‘if we’re friends then we’ll check in at least by text/email once a week’ person and the other person is perfectly happy with what is to them comfortable radio silence for even months at a time, and then will send the “OMG I just saw this ad and thought of you!” email as if no time had passed). It can happen with social gestures (one person expects that every get-together will begin with some catching-up small talk and feels a bit neglected if they don’t get the ‘how’s things with you?’ opener; the other just wants to leap into talking about knitting projects/The Fifth Season/Rogue One without any preamble).

    It can happen with allllllllllll kinds of things. And it’s one of those situations where neither side is “right” or “wrong.” One of the most useful comparisons I’ve seen is with regards to food: there are some traditional food cultures where it’s considered somewhat insulting to refuse an offer of seconds or thirds from your host because it’s taboo to reject the implied hospitality of the offer of food… and there are some food cultures where your host will keep offering you seconds or thirds until you decline because they have a taboo against letting a guest leave hungry. They’re both totally valid cultural traditions with long histories… but if you’re from Food Culture One and you’re being fed by someone from Food Culture Two, you might possibly actually explode, because they won’t stop offering and you won’t stop saying yes. Nobody is in the wrong–they’re both valid traditions with long cultural histories!–but if you aren’t aware of the distinction, you can run into trouble.

    So there are basically two ways to deal with this kind of thing. One is, as the Captain says, to simply talk about it. It can feel suuuuuuuper awkward to have the “are we present friends or not?” conversation, but if this is causing you angst–well, I seriously doubt your friend is buying you presents in order to upset you (that happens sometimes, but your friendship sounds otherwise pretty healthy), so I’m guessing they’re just following their present traditions, which may simply be ‘buy things for people when they catch my eye!’, and don’t mean anything beyond that.

    The other is to embrace the fact that your present traditions are different and do what you want to do without regard for what they want to do. That’s harder–I think probably for you the ‘talk about it’ route is better–but in some cases, simply knowing that it’s probably just a mismatch of traditions can ease the anxiety without anyone having to do anything differently.

    And hugs and good thoughts from me. I know this is tough stuff.

    (I say this having come from a family that did things one way, and marrying into a family that did things a totally different way–and neither way was Right or Wrong, they were just both Different, and I had to learn how to fine-tune my social radar to recognize the difference between Wrong and Different.)

  13. As a person who is probably more like your friend than I care to admit, I can assure you, the inconsistency is truly not intended to cause you stress, as the gift receiver. In MY particular case, because I work in social services, am paying off grad school loans, and am single and paying rent by myself, it’s harder for me to give nice gifts as often or as regularly as some of my friends who are not in the same boat. Trust me, I feel mortified pretty much every time they give me anything, and when it swings around to their birthday or some other holiday, I find that I simply can’t always swing a gift. Luckily, my close friends know this about me and usually only give me gifts as they can or want to. I really don’t expect for ANY of them to give me anything other than the pleasure of their company (a drink or two- a fun activity!), but some of them just enjoy the act of gift giving. However, anytime I do have some extra cash or I find THE PERFECT! present, I do give gifts to my friends.

    So, maybe consider your friends circumstances? She may not need your consistency in gift giving… Or, like me, she may not always have the funds to give gifts to her friends, so context is important. Like everyone has mentioned here, understanding whatever the cause is starts with a kind, but honest conversation on your part. If you need the consistency or at least an understanding of where you stand for YOU not to feel bad about the gift exchange, that’s probably the best place to start.

  14. My best friend told me about a month before his birthday one year, “I don’t like birthdays. Please don’t even acknowledge it.” So, on the day, we had a pleasant conversation and no one mentioned it. This is how it goes. Every year I remember to chat with him without saying anything about birthdays. But every year he makes an effort, totally unprompted, to wish me a happy birthday and remind me how special I am to him. It’s the least reciprocal birthday arrangement I have, but we’re both happy with it.

    What I’m trying to say is, reciprocal doesn’t always mean equal. And equal doesn’t have to mean reciprocal. Maybe your friend likes giving gifts only when something strikes her fancy, and you prefer a price-matched system. You’ll have to have a chat with her to figure out how to handle that. I like the suggestion above to reciprocate the following year – especially since you already seem to be doing that!

  15. I will also add that I have a hard time finding good gifts for people, so for things like Christmas I have a handful of people that I ALWAYS buy presents for and then others that get presents if I see something I’m sure they’ll like. (If I do then I’m happy to spend whatever spare money I’ve got on gifts, but I don’t like just buying something for the sake of buying it.) I will also sometimes see something that I think someone will like and then save it for their birthday or Christmas so I don’t have to worry about finding something else. This does mean that like your friend I can be inconsistent in the giving of gifts, but I don’t mind if the other person doesn’t get me a gift. (Although I will admit that it’s more awkward for me if they buy something and I don’t, so I hear you when you say this is tricky.)

  16. For several birthdays now, my brother and I have given each other ‘the gift of not having to shop for me.’ Useful phrase if you go that way.

  17. I am one of these people like your friend. I love getting gifts for people but am terrible at getting it to line up with socially accepted gift giving occaisions. I know I really hurt a dear friend years ago when I didnt get her a present for her 50th. I knew it was coming up but I just didnt THINK she would be expecting a gift. I have made and given her things over the years and she gives me stuff all the time, but I thought we were both kind of whacky and didnt expect gifts. She was hurt that I didnt celebrate a huge milestone in her life 😦 she never said anything but I knew.
    I never go to someone’s home/party empty handed, but thats the only social convention that stuck.
    I would so very much appreciate a heads up that gift giving was A THING we were doing, I would especially appreciate knowing a few months in advance so I could find the appropriate gift and pay for it when I can afford to.
    On behalf of the terrible gift givers of the world, I apologize for the times you have been disappointed. I love my friends so much and do love spoiling people, I just forget that people consider birthdays to be so important.

  18. I am also like your friend. I often as not don’t like running out and buying gifts, but if I happen to see something that I just know so-and-so will love, I get it. I realize how that can be stressful on the other hand I find it stressful to /have/ to buy someone something and it tends to suck the fun out of gift giving for me. On the other hand that means if someone gets me a gift it’s a happy surprise but I don’t expect it on a regular basis.
    Captain’s script may work if current arrangement really just isn’t working for you vs just accept friend as they are and try to either only buy stuff when they did last year or just when you feel like it or whatever works for you.

  19. I am exactly like you, LW. The one friend I regularly exchange gifts with, we were young when we started and we actually sat down and talked it out: what time of year would we be sending them (our birthdays are also three months apart, but mine is very close to Christmas. So we agreed that we would both send a combo birthday/Christmas gift), how much would we both spend (we set a price limit of about $50 because we have to ship the packages), and that made the world of difference to me. Because otherwise I would in your shoes.

    This year, one of my friends from England sent me a gift out of the blue. And now I feel bad I didn’t get her anything. She tells me she’s completely fine with that – I have a hard time imagining that myself, but seeing some of the comments here of people who really do feel that way is comforting.

  20. When you have a conflict between structured person and freewheeling person, I find there’s much more success in the person who likes structure adjusting than the free-wheeler. Kind of like on-time people versus late people–everyone will be happier if you leave the tickets at will-call and take your seat in the theater rather than count on the late person to show up on time with tickets in hand.

    That doesn’t mean you have to give up structure entirely, or at all. You could decide that this is too anxiety-inducing and declare that there shall be no gifting between the two of you at all, ever, even if that tanks the friendship. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but there’s nothing wrong with it if that’s what you need. But you could also decide that your structure is to give her a gift within a month after she gives you a gift. To always give a birthday gift because she averages about one gift a year to you over the course of five years. To wait until Christmas to see if you’re “behind” and then get a gift or three to even out the year.

    Her style may never fit your default rule, but maybe a new rule can give you structure and security while she merrily continues to give gifts (apparently) at random.

  21. Just chiming in to say: I am exactly like your friend when it comes to gifts. I’m very inconsistent about gifting with anyone outside my partner and immediate family. Even very close long term friends rarely get gifts.

    For me, it’s a combination of several factors. I will get you a gift if:
    1. I come across something that reminds me of you/us and I think you would appreciate/get a kick out of
    2. I have the money at the time I notice said potential gift
    3. It’s reasonably close to a gift-giving holiday/birthday

    All this is to say: inconsistent gift-giving is probably NOT a reflection of or commentary on the status of your friendship. Definitely just speak up and ask about it if it’s bothering you. If my friends approached me like cap suggested above, I’d probably feel very mildly guilty about being inconsistent, but ultimately relieved to have an open conversation about it, and hopefully re-affirm our love and friendship despite the gift situation.

    All the best to you.

  22. I was very relieved when I realized that I could just discuss this ahead of time with people. I do this with my boyfriend and it is very helpful. We have an established routine for birthdays and Christmas/Chanukah but for things like Valentine’s Day or our Anniversary I will just ask, “So do you want to do presents this year or just cards?” We have even sat back-to-back making cards for each other at the same time!

    Also, you can then make it a routine that every year you ask her, “So, are we doing gifts this year?”

    Taking out the guesswork is such a stress reliever!

  23. LW, you depend on social cues from others, and I think your friend IS giving you some cues. They might seem inconsistent, but what I’m seeing is:

    To your friend, gifts are meant to be given more or less spontaneously. They are loosely triggered by an occasion (your birthday/holiday), but she is probably getting you things that she happens to see or think of when a gift-giving occasion is coming up, rather than thinking “hey, her birthday/Christmas is coming up, I should try to think of a gift!” She may also be giving you gifts when her budget allows, and not giving when it doesn’t. Basically, what Brigitha outlined above. In your friend’s mind, there IS a consistent policy; her behavior is governed by certain rules. It’s the circumstances that change.

    Maybe you could follow her lead and adopt the same practice. If you see something you know she will like and you can afford it, by all means proceed. If no gift/idea comes to you, skip it. Or maybe that just doesn’t work for you? I say try it out, but ultimately, YDY. I agree with other commenters that if you want things to become consistent, it’s a good idea to plan an annual outing rather than give presents. But try not to stress if she still spontaneously gives you something now and then. She obviously doesn’t think reciprocity is mandatory, and she’s unlikely to be hurt by an absence of material gifts, so you’re unlikely to go wrong here as far as I can tell.

  24. I’m a gift giver if I find something wonderful, like say a napkin with Leonard Nimoys DNA. I also have such a horrible memory for such things I’d forget to wish my Mom happy birthday, if facebook didn’t mention she had one coming up. I certainly would want to know if my erratic behavior was making anyone feel bad.

  25. I am probably like your friend (sorry!). Sometimes I’ll find a perfect gift for one of my good friends and send it out in time for their birthday and/or Christmas, sometimes I’ll find a perfect gift at another time of year and send one randomly, and sometimes I won’t find something I think they’ll like and/or life gets crazy and I won’t send a gift. In no cases is it meant to cause anxiety though, so I would hope that if it did, my friends would say something to me! (Luckily they also seem to have similarly sporadic gift-giving patterns, so hopefully we are all on the same page!)

  26. I’m like your friend, and I would recommend being a little stronger in your wording – it sounds to me like something that’s kind of not a big deal to her is a fairly big deal, a fairly important and formalized representation of relationships, to you. So I think you should tell her that, like, “Gift exchanges are kind of important to me. Can we agree on whether or not we’re going to exchange gifts for our birthdays? It would make me feel a lot more comfortable to have a consistent plan.”

    1. That phrasing (“Gift exchanges are kind of important to me…”) would make me personally think that I was being pressured TO do gift giving, not just to decide yes or no.

  27. I have been close with my best friend for 15 years. Some years I get her a present and some I don’t, usually because I am awful at present buying. This was true even when we were in high school. At no point has she thought I’m a bad friend. I used to apologize and then I just took her word for it that it didn’t matter.

    Similarly I rarely get gifts from her and I just assume that if I do its because she was inspired one day and if I don’t it’s because she wasn’t.

    Gift giving can be so fraught. I figure it’s better to give something you want to give, rather than something of a particular value, and I tell people so, and it works.

  28. If I am poor, we may not exchange presents unless you are under 18, gave birth to me, or still believe in Santa. If I’m doing OK, we may exchange presents, but I will either be done shopping before Thanksgiving or sweating it out days before Xmas, hoping the stuff gets to me on time to wrap it. So, you know. It varies. Note that neither scenario reflects a lack of affection for the recipient.

  29. I kinda wonder, and maybe this is just me trying to think the best of your friend, but I wonder if maybe some of this is the difference between “happened to spot this thing that would be just perfect for LW” (or “could afford,” or whatever) and “didn’t happen to see anything that reminded me of LW.”

    I know my gift-giving for my romantic associate varies pretty widely depending on whether I’ve got good ideas or if I’m just working off a list. I try to send good signals back about whether I’m making a big deal out of this christmas or not, and it seems to work pretty well. But that’s also a symmetrical setup where I can do that signalling during the appropriate shopping period. Your friend does have the advantage of not really needing to signal… but then the disadvantage that whatever you did for her birthday is nine months in the past by the time your next one rolls around.

    I’ve also had friends where I felt like we were close enough for regular gifting but it just didn’t quite work (in particular, friendships based strongly around a particular shared interest can be tricky: we already loan and gift books on the regular, say, so saving something for a birthday just seems… weird? But without that, it’s down to socks, right?)

    The good captain is right: if this is stressing you out, and especially after an eight-year friendship and more than one year of off-balance gifting, just ask. Even if her answer is “oh, I didn’t really think about it, I thought we just gave each other gifts when “the spirit struck”/we found something good/in years divisible by 3/whatever,” there’s been enough history for her to realize, when you ask, that yeah maybe you guys could just settle on something. Either it’s not something important to her, or that she stresses about (in which case she’ll be happy to do whatever makes you comfortable) or it is, and she probably has an idea in her head of how it works, and she’s probably almost as stressed as you are and will be happy to clear the air and make it work.

  30. I find pre-set occasion gifts (birthdays, holidays, lifecycle events, etc) really stressful, and most of my friends now know this about me and we don’t usually give each other gifts at those times. But I do often randomly buy people (usually small, inexpensive) presents when I see something and think of them– like “I saw this blanket in a store and it was so soft I just wanted to send it to you” or “I read this book and it made me think of you so I sent you a copy.”

    And some of my friends also do this for me, which is pretty much my favorite thing ever. Because they I know that they didn’t just have to get me something because it’s my birthday, they legitimately thought about me when they didn’t have to and care about me. But to make that work, first I had to ask people to stop buying me birthday presents.

  31. I’m a Random Gifts person and I realize from this discussion that my more methodical friends have found a way to deal with that by inviting me out to lunch sometime near my birthday (and not generally getting me anything). So now, sometimes I take them out and also give them a gift, and sometimes I just reciprocate the lunch or coffee-and-cupcake.

  32. This is a great reminder. I’m going to set an alert in my calendar for next Halloween to see if my friends want to do gifts or not.

    Last year, we mostly didn’t. This year, I was content to do a lot of baking and bring my fancy eggnog to our Friends Christmas and spend my budget that way. Then out of the blue, Nancy* texts me “Hey, if you weren’t sure what to get Donna*, here’s an idea” with a link to an item from Ulta. I had a bit of twitchy eye after opening that text.

    Now presents and been bought/made, but next year we’re discussing it before anyone has bought anything.

  33. I give gifts when I can afford to and as long as I don’t have to go to a brick and mortar post office. This has never been consistent. Now I’m wondering if I’m quietly driving someone up a wall by my inconsistency.

  34. Yes yes yes to just casually asking!! Especially if you’ve been friends this long, I swear it’s not weird to be like “hey it would be super helpful for me to know ahead of time if we wanna do presents this year and figured I’d just ask! What do you think?”

  35. Gifts are so tricky! I love to buy people things they want, and hate occasion giving, and like to throw money at problems. My sister in law is a “give a number of small, hand-made, adorable and often useless items” kind of person. We’re a bad match. And that’s ok. We’re each expressing love. And that’s what I try to focus on.

    1. My family had to deal with this when I was a kid. My mom’s side of the family goes for carefully-selected, beautifully-wrapped presents given at specific times (Christmas and birthdays, usually, although sometimes we might get something like fancy chocolates on Valentine’s Day or similar). My dad’s mom, on the other hand, hated the idea of gift-giving as a scheduled thing; she’d just buy things that she thought we’d like throughout the year, putting them into a big shipping box without wrapping or labeling, and when the box got full she’d tape it up and mail it to us. This happened completely at random: a “Nana box” might show up in December, but it was at least as likely to show up in March, or September, or June (none of which were our birthdays, either).

      Both sides, I think, found the other side pretty odd. My dad I think kind of found my mom’s parents’ neatly-wrapped carefully-timed gifts a bit fussy, and I know my mom was totally baffled by the appearance of random boxes full of stuff a couple times a year rather than “birthday” or “Christmas” presents. (I only know that due to conversations we’ve had now that I’m an adult; she never let on when I was a kid.) But honestly? We adapted just fine. And it was an important lesson to learn early: Gramma and Grampa do presents this way, and Nana does presents this other way, and both ways are fine, and they all love you very much and are trying to express that by getting you things. Different families have different ways of doing things, and that’s okay.

  36. Maybe try the good old standby “I wasn’t sure whether to give you a gift or not this year, so I [donated to X charity] in your name instead”?

    1. No. 🙂 I do not want you to adopt a sea turtle, a Florida panther, and a (what was it?) a manatee? in my name and have a certificate, a poster, and a calendar sent to me for each animal.

      However, if you would actually have that conversation with me (or my husband) and not collapse into indignant tears every time he tried to de-escalate the present giving, I would be happy just not to have Drama. I would rather deal with rational people and watch my birthday present go to charity than have Drama With My Husband’s Mother May She Rest In Peace (and get a cast-iron cat or a framed photo of the in-laws or still have animals adopted in my name).

      1. Coming up a bit late, but just a reminder that “donating to charity in your name” can be exactly as personalized as any other gift. If environmental causes are not your frontburner issue, then donating to that doesn’t make sense. But there may be a legal defense fund for people who share your identity, a charitable organization by your religious association, an arts program that beautifies your city, an educational purpose you support, a school you, your children, or other family members attended, or something else which would feel deeply personal to you without cluttering your house with calendars, mail, stickers, or other trinkets.

  37. LW, this letter is so timely, and resonates with me so much. I’m also a person who appreciates explicit social cues and this kind of ambiguity drives me bananas. I think the Captain’s script is perfect, and the other commenters are right – you’ve known this person long enough and have enough of an established history to just Use Your Words with each other. Best of luck to you!

  38. As a well-intentioned but borderline flaky person who is 100% of the “sometimes I find the perfect gift for Person X, sometimes it doesn’t even occur to me” school, the Captain’s script would be entirely welcome and appropriate. I’d hate to think I was stressing someone out with my weird, inconsistent, and frankly kind of whimsical gift-giving habits. It doesn’t stress *me* out if I get a gift one year and not the next, so I guess I don’t necessarily think too much about whether my gift-giving or lack thereof would cause stress—clearly I should be more thoughtful about that! I will try to be, going forward.

    (FWIW, I think my personal inconsistencies stem from the fact that only sometimes do I find the Thing that seems like the perfect Thing to give X, and if the just-right Thing doesn’t present itself, I don’t want to give some lesser thing just for the sake of giving a thing. When I have my act together and plan ahead, which does happen sometimes, then I have a backup plan in the form of thoughtful gift certificates or event tickets or whatever, but that’s not all the time.)

    (Oh, also, now that I’m really thinking about it more, I realize that the last ~5 years have seen SO MUCH up and down and back and forth with my personal employment situation and finances, and that probably has a lot to do with it too. I could go on and on, but I’m glad this letter got published because it’s giving me a lot to contemplate.)

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