When cringeworthy gifts are worse than inconsiderate

Sometimes a gift that seems sensible is no more beautiful than a stocking full of coal. Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com
Have you ever wondered why your mom bought you this inexplicable thing? You're not alone.
I did consumer research related to gifts for years. In my field, conventional wisdom suggests that gifts that the recipients do not like are accidental. But I've found that people sometimes give bad gifts on purpose.
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My personal interest in this dynamic is based on a gag gift my father gave me as a child. When I unpacked his box into a box in a box, the anticipation grew as the boxes got smaller. When I found that the last box was empty, it knocked me down. He thought it was funny. (In my father's defense, this was on the April Fools joke, an occasion on which we had no tradition of giving gifts.)
But I could never shake my urge to know why someone would give such a lazy gift.
Study my gifts
The total cost of unwanted gifts is high, both in dollars and in damaged relationships, as I found in my research.
Unwanted goods returned to US retailers (excluding fraud cases) during the 2015 holiday season totaled $ 84 billion. This amount of course leaves out the many unwanted gifts that are returned, ignored, sold, donated or thrown away.
There's no data on how many gifts are cruel, but this problem is affecting brands, retailers, marketers, and consumers at a time when the National Retail Federation predicts Americans are spending an estimated 8.75 billion a year on gifts .
Depending on whether you have similar stories of suffering, you may (or may not) be surprised that many people purposely give gifts without caring about the recipient's feelings.
While it seems nonsensical to give someone a gift that harms rather than strengthens a relationship, some people do just that on purpose.
Not only are these returns a liability for businesses, they also damage friendships and frayed family ties.
To conduct a study of common gifts, the first of its kind, I conducted in-depth interviews individually with people in 15 relationships. Every interview with a member of these couples began with the question, “Can you tell me about gift giving between you and your partner over time?” In these interviews, couples often talked about gifts that were exchanged within their families.
To broaden the study, I searched the Babycenter.com website for family-oriented message boards with the keyword "gifts" and analyzed the 400,000+ relevant results.
It turns out that people really enjoy talking about gifts.
They talk about great gifts and terrible gifts online. They seek help from others to find out what went wrong. They like to complain when they suspect someone has purposely given them a terrible gift.
5 kinds of reckless gifts
After reviewing the data, I identified five categories of reckless gifts.
Confrontational. The first are gifts, which are essentially personal insults. One of my personal favorites is the pregnancy test that a woman gave her childless daughter-in-law for Christmas.
I was also shocked by this other example, which is purely aggressive rather than passively aggressive: a woman bought her adult son a book about Christianity knowing that he had given up the belief and did not appreciate it, at his disapproval Mother to be reminded.
Selfish. "To-you-for-me" gifts benefit the donors more than the recipients.
A sports-loving man in my study embodied this category by giving his wife a big screen TV for her birthday, just in time for the Super Bowl, which she didn't want to watch.
Aggressive. Sometimes gifts are intended to explicitly offend.
For example, after a man in my study gave his wife lawn furniture for Mother's Day, she told him she hated the pattern and asked him to return it. Instead, a few weeks later, he bought her more furniture for her birthday.
This category of lousy gifts signals a deteriorating relationship. In fact, this couple divorced not long after these incidents.
Mandatory. It is always difficult to choose gifts if the giver doesn't know or particularly care about what the recipient wants.
Often exchanged and opened in front of groups, these mandatory gifts are not malicious gifts. You should just tick a box. If everyone gathers around a Christmas tree is giving each other something, maybe you feel more secure giving a completely random thing to your Aunt Sally, even if you have no idea what she would like.
A woman bought her husband's birthday clothes even though she knew he would give most of them back. When asked "If you knew he wouldn't like it, why did you buy it?" She replied: "Probably just so that he would have something on his birthday." She felt the need to give a present, but her husband didn't have to please.
Competitive. Gifts given for boastful rights are meant to be "given" to someone else. A common example of this is what happens when someone gives their grandchild a gift that the child's parents specifically told not to buy.
One woman in my study reported that her parents competed with her in-laws to give their children bigger and more extravagant gifts about their objections - and then post about them on Facebook.
Of course, these categories can overlap. Badly conceived gifts can be both aggressive and competitive, and "for you - for me" gifts can also be confrontational.
Typical Americans buy 15 presents this holiday season. If any of you sound like they fit the mold of these crappy gifts, there is still time to relieve the suffering by not going through your plan to give someone a cruel gift - or at least apologizing if it does is too late.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
Continue reading:
How advertising shaped Thanksgiving as we know it
Gift taboos that aren't as bad as you think
Some graduation gifts really are better than others
Deborah Y. Cohn does not work for, or consult with, any of the companies or organizations that would benefit from this article. She has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.

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