Between gifts and surprises lies empathy

Giving is a surprising experience — Pic by Sunyu

“You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”

— Kahlil Gibran

My older son is graduating from High School this week.

Besides the excitement and pride, my wife and I were brainstorming what to get him as a present. Shall we ask him? Should we get him something symbolic to remember this moment forever? Or something more functional that he can enjoy now?

Which took me to write this post.

Giving is a meaningful act — it says a lot about both the giver and the receiver. Some people enjoy finding the right present; most hate it and want to find the easiest way out.

Great gifts, like feedback, are unexpected. A gift should make receivers richer, not just reinforce their tastes.

What giving says about yourself

Gifts had a bad rap. Christmas ads make everyone look like they suck at giving. Most people will get you ugly shirts or ties.

In my personal experience, I can’t remember getting a gift that was embarrassing. I’ve received many presents that caught me off-guard or made me uncomfortable. In the end, they all end up being good.

My wife is amazing buying gifts. Both friends and strangers are impressed by her ability to get meaningful presents. She is good at understanding people, even those she only met once. Her empathy turns my wife into a fantastic giver.

Giving is about the relationship — not just about the person who receives the gift.

Some people like to impose their tastes; others want to please. Meaningful giving lies in between.

When you are trying to please others, you stop being authentic. That happens in every aspect of life, not just when you are getting a present. Pleasing others is always deceiving — expectations only add pressure to your life.

Trying to impose your preferences is not good either. It feels like you don’t appreciate or understand the receiver. You just want that person to appreciate the same things that you like. Most of the times, this goes wrong too.

According to research by, meaningful gifts really matter. It’s the number one reason why people value gifts — almost half of the women surveyed said they enjoyed a gift because it was meaningful.

Meaningful giving is an art. One that can be enjoyed and cultivated through time. It pushes us into an uncomfortable situation. You need to understand the other person. The more meaningful you want to be, the more you are exposing. Embracing vulnerability is not easy for everyone, that’s why giving a gift card, or money is an easy way out.

Rather than seizing the opportunity to make it meaningful, you just check it off your list.

Giving is a rich experience

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” — Mother Teresa

Most people get stressed when having to buy a gift. That’s because they are concerned about not looking bad. They care more about their reputation than about exciting the receiver.

The power of a gift lies in being unexpected. When you ask someone what she/he wants or give them money, you remove the surprise factor. A great gift uncovers a specific trait about the person — not only your observation ability is appreciated; you make the receiver feel unique.

Unexpected events increase our awareness; expected gifts keep us in autopilot mode.

Spontaneity is one of the most exciting human experiences. We’ve turned gift-giving into something functional. Removing the surprise factor from our lives creates more damage than receiving a gift that no one wants.

The challenge lies in finding the right balance — a present must be familiarly unfamiliar.

A meaningful gift should both challenge the received as well as be appreciated. That’s why I prefer ‘experiences’ to objects — they trigger more emotion an meaning.

Don’t just give what the other person likes for sure, make them stretch a little. Music and books are perfect examples; you wouldn’t give something that your friend or colleague hates, but you can get one to make them experiment.

Great gifts provoke you as a receiver — they help you learn and grow as a person.

There’s a direct linkage between gift-giving behaviors and personal values as demonstrated by this study. Individuals that are more active and social reported higher levels of gift giving, as well as more significant effort in gift selection, than those who are more passive and less social.

To surprise someone, you need to go beyond the usual solutions. Connect with the other person emotionally, not rationally. Be willing to take risks, not to play safe.

Understand the culture of giving

In Argentina, where I’m originally from, people open the presents immediately. Doing it in front of the giver is not just a sign of respect, but of affection. The spontaneous reaction says a lot about the gift.

Hugs, smiles, kisses are the best way to thank someone — you don’t need a ‘thank you’ note for that.

It took me some time to adjust to the American style — people collect gifts as objects. They open them later at home. You don’t get to see their reactions. A politically-correct note serves as means of appreciation.

I’m not saying that spontaneous reactions don’t come without tensions. You never know how people will react to your gift. Dealing with the unexpected is a fantastic empathy exercise for the giver too.

Every country has its norms — giving says a lot about our cultures.

Dr. Michael Laver, associate professor at RIT, said: “There’s no such thing as a gift in a vacuum. The whole cultural thing must be taken into account.”

For the Yucatec Maya, If someone visits your house, you should always give something, even if it’s just a little water. There’s an expectation when you visit them; they will return it to you.

The reciprocal system of gift-giving is also present in the Western culture. As professor Laver explains: “Even a gift from Santa Claus is tied to good behavior — naughty or nice, it’s the reciprocal response. Gifts are never just gifts.”

In Western culture, receiving a gift is reasonably straightforward. You express your gratitude to the other person, and you both go on your merry way.

In India, saying “thank you” to a friend or relative likens them to the role of a stranger. In Nepal, you should give and receive a gift — or even money in a store — using both hands.

In Japan, when offered a gift, one is expected to reject or push it away — expressing that the giver is far too kind. After minutes of ‘pushing and shoving,’ then you finally accept it.

Gift giving in Latin America is not as ritualistic as in Asian and Middle Eastern countries. However, it plays an integral part in the culture — it reinforces business relations as personal relations by displaying thoughtfulness and generosity.

Lottery tickets are bought and exchanged in the UK more than they are anywhere else in the world, and often make a suitable birthday gift. Italians appreciate a personal touch when giving social gifts. Italian children are taught early on to put much thought and consideration when they decide to give someone a gift.

The wrapping color also matters. Black and white are associated with death and funeral in most cultures. Pink, violet and yellow are associated with death in Morocco. Purple is considered a symbol of bad luck in Italy.

Giving an unwrapped gift is discouraged in East Asia.

An exercise to develop empathy

Go beyond the usual preferences and find something that will delight the receiver.

Don’t ask “What would you like for your anniversary?” Ask open questions instead. Look for memories and meaningful stories to better understand what drives that person’s passions and excitement. Connect to their experience the last time they gave a gift (or received one)?

Giving is an act of empathy — it requires to walk in the other person’s shoes.

The at Stanford uses this simple exercise called the ‘The Gift-giving Project’ to introduce people to Design Thinking. One of the most critical parts is to learn to empathize with the user. If you are going ‘to design’ something that the other will appreciate, you have to understand the receiver first.

You don’t need to interview your friend to get her/him a birthday gift. Simply check out “The gift-giving” exercise and learn how to apply its principles to everyday giving.

Great gifts, like feedback, are unexpected as I wrote here.

Enjoy the art of giving.

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