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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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  • Ian Campbell

    I used to have the same feelings about gifts, but I’ve largely overcome them by focussing not on the gift (which of course may not be useful, the right size etc), but on the intentions of the giver – the thought that went into the gift, the time spent choosing it and wrapping it etc. Then I can give genuine thanks for the trouble that the giver went through and I don’t need to think much about the gift itself. Try it!

  • Senshin

    I had no clue others felt like this too. No matter how much I appreciate a gift I always feel that my response sounds fake. In order to be really happy about a gift, I think it’s expected that your response is louder and visibly more excited than my natural one would be. If I get really excited about something I often get quiet, because I feel overwhelmed, so I must seem very disappointed to everyone not living in my head.

  • Nakul

    I don’t like celebrating my birthday just because I don’t know how to react. I prefer to stay alone at home just replying to the wishes on social media.

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  • I can relate! After my baby shower I had to go lie down for a few hours, which given that many people drove 7 hours to be could have been a bit of a problem. But I just said the doctor said I had to. Given that I was having twins no one questioned it too much. I don’t get to use that excuse anymore though, LOL. My husband doesn’t even open gifts until about a week later!

  • Liz

    I absolutely relate to this! I hate being the center of attention in any situation, and hate having to fake my reaction to something as it never comes off well. My bridal shower many years ago was a nightmare for me! I think I actually broke out in a sweat!
    I am not an excitable person to begin with, so even if I love the gift, my reaction doesn’t express that, so the gift giver thinks that a) I don’t like it, or b) I am unappreciative. Often I have taken that person aside and explained how much I truly love their gift. Their reaction is usually, “well, you sure didn’t look like you did when you opened it!” So I feel that either way, there is no winning in this situation.

  • merry one

    Thank you for this article.

  • merry one

    Just for future reference, the word needed was discreet. Discrete is a different word and meaning.

  • Rodrigo Bahia

    This is so perfect… I usually turn on “perform mode” and describe rationally the value / benefits of the gift, giving back much less than my true appreciation – that will only happen a few days later..!

  • Robyn Wells

    I hate opening gifts in front of people. I’m a teacher and I dread holidays when students bring gifts. I usually tell the students I will open them at home as to not hurt the students feelings who didn’t bring gifts. Then I send a thank you note to their house.
    The gift giving thing is stressful. I’m a terrible gift giver. I’d rather do gift cards, money, a donation or just have a nice meal together. This Christmas my extended family did away with gifts at our celebration. It’s the first year I’ve enjoyed this dinner in a long time.

  • Danni Eldred

    Great article! It’s been stressful my entire life when my mom gives me gifts. She expects a BIG emotional response, but I am not built that way!

  • Jean Edwards

    Lara, thanks for sharing your experiences and views on your relative (dis-😄)comfort level with being the recipient of gifts! Very cool. I can relate to the uncomfortable feeling of being on display. It’s also like putting on a skit… That I didn’t want to be in!
    Funny, these days I so often get gifts I can’t use or don’t want. It may be because people simply don’t know me well enough to get me a useful or enjoyable gift. Or, because I am in a minimalist, decluttering phase in my life.
    At any rate, I know that I am somewhat introverted, while being very social, and wanting to be sincere.
    Your article is certainly food for thought. Thanks for adding enjoyment and interest to my very low energy Saturday afternoon.
    Oh, and Happy Birthday, belatedly-and a wish with no gift-opening required- ha ha… Have a wonderful year.

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  • Danielle

    This is partially why I hate having birthday parties. I have gotten used to planning something that doesn’t really allow for a sit down open presents spot or the time for it.

    • I made in image of me which doesn’t react to most things, gifts included. So even saying thanks and giving big smile and a few seconds to it and moving on, I think, should suffice for them. They’ll not expect much next time and so on. May be its rude, but those who know you will understand. As far as parties go, I think we think too much. Even we don’t remember how each one reacted to ours.

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