There’s a reason December 26th is one of the busiest shopping days of the year: Everyone’s taking back all the weird stuff they unwrapped on December 25th. Even with tags and gift receipts, returning gifts can be a relational (and retail) minefield. So how can you get through the holidays without an accidental detonation and without adding yet another set of elf footie pajamas to the stack in your closet? Here’s what the experts told us.
First up: Give good gifts yourself
Remember, no one wants to have to go exchange a gift for store credit, so put real thought into the gifts you give — this will (hopefully) inspire and encourage the person you’re swapping gifts with to do the same. According to Julie Albright, marriage and family therapist and lecturer in applied psychology at the University of Southern California, the best way to do this is to consider your relationship with the recipient.
“A gift for a co-worker shouldn’t be the same as one you would buy for a lover or spouse,” says Albright. “Like the thoughtless gift, an inappropriate gift stands out like a sore thumb.”
You should make sure you consider the “circumstances, lifestyle and taste of the recipient,” explains Albright, to decrease the likelihood of your gift being returned. Above all, “The gift should reflect something they want, not necessarily something you’d want.”
Next step: Receive gifts graciously
“Part of the etiquette around giving and receiving gifts is receiving gifts well,” says Daniel Post Senning, co-host of the Emily Post Institute’s Awesome Etiquette podcast. “Thank people for making the effort and the thought — do that genuinely and sincerely. That’s not patronizing someone.”
Remember, this is true even if the gift is terrible. “Be sensitive to the feelings of others when opening your gift in their presence — sometimes, ‘it’s the thought that counts’ really rings true,” Albright says.
Of course, when someone who does know you still gives a gift that’s all wrong, it can feel personal, like “a failure of paying attention and a failure of the relationship,” says Rachel, 33, who has been giving, receiving and returning gifts with panache for decades. Sometimes it’s hard to say that to someone who’s genuinely trying, but such honesty may be worth it in the long run: If you put the effort into a gift-giving re-education program, you can prevent years of hurt feelings on both sides down the line, in Rachel’s experience. “Let’s all be clear with each other now so no one wastes money and items don’t become junk,” she suggests.
And now, the hard part: Returning it
If you do have to return a gift, Albright recommends you do it “discreetly, so as not to hurt the feelings of the giver.”
If you want to be more open about it, though, you could let the gift-giver know what you got instead, as long as it’s relationship-appropriate. For example, let your mom know you took the duplicate blender back and “got that third knife in the set you’ve been waiting to fill out for years,” Senning suggests. This, he says, is a good way to “continue to honor the relationship and the intent behind the gift. One of the cornerstones of good etiquette is honesty, [so] behave in a way you can feel good about.”
It’s important to make sure you do the returning yourself, however, rather than asking the gift-giver to swap it for you, says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol. Swann recommends that all gifts should be given with tags or gift receipts when possible, and in the original packaging, as a courtesy to the recipient. But, she continues, if there’s no clear indication of the gift’s source, you can try approaching the gift-giver with something like, “I love this sweater so much but it’s so itchy. I was thinking about exchanging it — where did you get it?”
In the case of expensive, personal gifts like jewelry from a significant other, the conversation may be difficult but necessary, and Swann advises, “You should always preface it with the fact that you’re so grateful and happy they thought of you.” She also suggests turning the exchange into an activity you do together as a couple. Offering to go together to pick out something else, “doesn’t take away the gift factor” and can turn the awkward moment into a bonding experience.
In terms of the return itself, Rachel has some golden advice for when you hit the store: “Treat the person [working there] as if they’re doing you a big favor. If you’re bringing back an ugly sweater without tags, charm them and make it feel like you’re in cahoots: The two of you against the sweater.” If you’re trying to return something stained or worn, though, Rachel believes the main thing you need is a “robust sense of entitlement,” which she admits is not for the shy or faint of heart.
Alternatively: Consider regifting
As far as regifting a bad gift goes, Senning says that, “You absolutely can,” and unless an item is “monogrammed, personalized, customized or handmade,” you shouldn’t have any qualms. Adds Rachel, “Unreturnable gifts go into a drawer full of things I plan to regift to other people I don’t care about.” When a gift is especially terrible, in fact, she takes some satisfaction in the secret delight of passing on a “spite gift.”
Failing that, there’s always the office white elephant party.