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The Best Gift Can Be Not Having to Open One

Quiet Revolutionary Lara Vukelich’s Story 

My birthday was last week.

I received two thoughtful gifts from two dear friends. I was grateful they thought of me. They were kind to commemorate my latest trip around the sun.

But here’s the thing: I am a bad gift opener. I have literally practiced my gift-opening face in the mirror with the type of acute examination that should be reserved for preparing to evade a lie detector test. If I put my eyebrows up too high to show surprise and elation, I look…how can I put this?…totally insane. If I focus on crafting a perfectly casual smile, I am convinced I look insincere. I prefer to open my gifts under cover of darkness or, at the very least, alone in my living room.

Gift exchange games aren’t my Super Bowl; they are my metaphorical firing squad. So, yes, I was the only person not to participate in my company’s White Elephant celebration last year. If you’re not familiar, this is the game where everyone brings a wrapped item and then each person, one at a time, chooses a random box to open. In front of everyone. As in, lots of people stare at your face as you unwrap a gag t-shirt or pair of Star Wars socks. If another party-goer steals your gift, you get to relive the fun (read: horror) of publicly selecting and reacting to a new mystery package all over again.

How does one decline to participate in such an event? If you’re graceful, you probably approach the party-thrower discreetely beforehand and let them know you have chosen to abstain for a myriad of reasons. You forgot; you got a flat tire on the way to the store; your debit card got stolen. If you’re me, you wait until they are selecting the order in which people will open their gifts and then say, “I DIDN’T BRING A GIFT, THIS IS TOO MANY PEOPLE” at an octave just north of appropriate.

Look, gift givers are excited to see my reaction. I get it. When I choose a fun present for my friends and family, I too gaze upon their faces with hopeful anticipation. I want them to love it! But as an introvert, being on the receiving end of such a gaze makes me feel like I am putting on a performance. Even when I really love a gift and I’m not mustering an artificial smile, the Spotlight Effect is in full force.

Post my White Elephant debacle, I started asking myself how to embark on a future filled with stress-free gift openings and devoid of the anxiety currently associated with trying to master a “love it, mean it” smile.

Here is what I’ve come up with. It may not be foolproof, but it’s a start.

Step One

Start saying: “Thank you so much! How thoughtful, I will open this later.” See how that goes. If it gets you out of unwrapping said gift with an audience, always follow up with a meaningful mail/text/phone call to offer specific gratitude (“I can’t believe you remembered I wanted a Bill Murray candle!”).

Step Two

Be better prepared for possible gift opening situations. I always forget it’s my birthday and am therefore unprepared for being handed a gift bag. It’s not the best strategy.

Step Three

Avoid White Elephant parties with more than 10 people. Maybe drink a glass of wine before gift opening begins.

Being a bad gift opener doesn’t make me an unappreciative one. Nor does it make you one, fellow attention-loathers. If all else fails, we can always keep practicing our reaction faces in the mirror. Hey, practice makes improvement. 

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