What a request for no gifts means.

I saw this tweet go past that said, “When a girl says she DOESN’T want a Christmas gift, she really does.”

To which I responded, “If a woman says she doesn’t want an X-mas gift, she means it.”

Strangely, this seems to be a point of controversy and I got responses such as, “Fellas, this is a trap. Occasionally the ladies try this,” and “Even if she means it, that’s not going to keep me from getting her one.”

Look… do we really have to have the “No means no” conversation again?

I mean, you do realize that this betrays your opinion that women are liars, right? Because, otherwise what it means is that your need to feel important  generous trumps respecting someone’s wishes.

Here. Let’s use an example from my real life for the purposes of illustration. I enjoy throwing dinner parties and work on getting the menu just right. Sometimes people will ask me if they can bring something, which is always a very kind offer.

I say, “No. Just your charming selves” and usually we’re all good. But sometimes, they ignore my request show up with a dish, or desert, or bread. Now, I suddenly have to deal with this thing — which represents an act of good will — but which I have to stop everything to manage.

This is not a gift.

I am, in fact, in full sympathy for how hard it is at Christmas when you want to be generous and give something to someone who does not want gifts. My grandmother is 107. She doesn’t want anything. My desire to give her a gift is really just because I want to have a tangible way of saying, “I love you and I thought about you.” So, I call her instead. I write her letters instead. I do not crowd her tiny house with things she doesn’t need or want.

My husband is a minimalist, and he really, really doesn’t want anything. I present him with certificates that he can redeem for things like “You may remove one item from the living room,” or for chores that I hate doing. One year, I had his favorite bag mended. Even with these, I’m aware of the fact that I’m cheating and that really, I’m catering to my own desire to be perceived as a nice person.

Sure, I’ve known a couple of people who play the social game of pretending not to want something that they in fact do want, but you know what? If that’s the case and you take their statement at face value then it’s their own damn fault for lying.

If someone says no, it means no. Don’t decide that you know what they want better than they do. That is not a gift. That’s selfish.


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22 Responses

  1. Kelvin Kao

    I have heard someone said that if you bring an extra dish to a dinner party, the host will have to work on setting it up so people can have it. They recommend bringing wine and then giving it to the host without calling too much attention. That way the host can decide whether to just stock it away or share it with the guests there. I am not entirely sure how I feel about that.

    As for me, I don’t really want more stuff. And if there’s something I want and I don’t already have it, then it’s probably a bigger purchase that I either cannot afford or am currently unwilling to spend money on. I do not expect someone to bring me that kind of gift. At my last birthday, I told everyone to just show up, and if they want to bring me a gift, just bring a joke to tell me, the cornier the better.

    My favorite of the night: How does Michael Jackson pick his nose? From a catalog! (Too soon?)

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      The bottle of wine falls into the category of a “host gift.” It depends on the culture you’re in if that’s appropriate. In some places, host gifts are insulting because it implies that the family is in need.

      In others, it is so much a part of the culture that the host will know that they need to account for some arriving. A bottle of wine is usually safe but one still needs to be aware of the host’s tastes and preferences. I’ve seen more than one bottle go into a teetotaler’s home.

  2. Vinnie

    I’ve known more than a few women, and men, who pull that kind of entrapment. Personally, I’ve learned that if someone entraps in small things (“No, I don’t really want a gift.” when they do) they’ll entrap in big ones. This makes them a dangerous friend and a worse partner.

  3. Bill

    As a con runner, I know we tend to get Guests of Honor gifts. What makes a good Guest of Honor gift for you? Some local one off activity?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      This is tricky because a lot of gifts are something that the GoH then has to travel with. Look for things that will make that trip easier or that are specific to the region. Personally, I don’t want anything, but understand the desire to be generous so when I’m asked, I usually try to tell the con-runner one or two things.

      Things I’ve received that were great were:
      A fruit and cheese plate waiting in my room when I arrived.

      A tiny travel manicure set — I don’t do my nails, but the number of times it’s come in handy are surprising.

      A bottle of scotch that I could share at the con.

      A couple of bags of individual chocolates for me to share at events.

      Local B-B-Q rub — not sauce — which packed easily.

      An eyemask and earplugs for sleeping

      A pack of fine tip sharpies in brown. (Someone paid attention to what color I sign my books in. AWESOME)

      Things I have enough of — water bottles, tote bags, note pads. Each of those was great the first time I got one, but everyone gives them now and so they’ve moved into the bookmark category of promotional items, if you know what I mean.

      Things that are specific to the guest, make their trip easier, and speak of the place that they are visiting are going to be more appreciated than generic gifts. By most people.

      1. Bill

        Next time I have to get you a gift basket for a DC area event, there will be Berger cookies to go with the fruit. I promise. Maybe even some Scotch.

  4. Donovan

    I struggle with this. I’m a big gift giver, but I’m a terrible recipient. I don’t believe that gifts need to be reciprocal. I get more joy from giving than receiving. That said, most people have what they want; so I like giving charitable gifts in their name. I’m especially fond of heifer.org. The concept of “giving a cow” to someone is fantastic.

    We aren’t having a registry for our wedding which I hope will not end in people failing their arms and bringing me blenders. I just want them to come and have fun and to be with the people I love.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Ugh. We were in the same boat at our wedding, and I decided to go ahead and register because I KNEW that people would buy gifts anyway. This way, I could at least avoid the army of toasters.

      Maybe you could ask people to donate to charities in your name?

      At a wedding, if you don’t actively say NO GIFTS and HERE’S WHY, people will still bring something. Even then, some people will anyway. So go ahead and pick out your thank you cards now, eh?

  5. Maggie

    I totally agree with you, but then there are times like when I went to a friend’s child’s birthday party. (A bunch of adult friends of the parents were invited.) We were told we not to bring gifts and I took them at their word. But then felt like an a*hole when everyone else brought gifts. :-/

    The thing on Twitter seems more insidious because it is making women out to be liars and manipulators, which is pretty offensive.

    1. Krissy

      When I have told people not to bring gifts and everyone does I generally feel like they are the @$$holes instead of the person who listened to me.

  6. Annalee

    This times a million. “She said x but meant y” is just one of a thousand little ways our society tries to discredit women as authorities on their own lives, bodies, and experiences. It isn’t just a belief that women are lairs (though it’s that too); it’s also a way of making women responsible for what other people think they mean/want.

    I agree with Vinnie that the kind of person who lays these traps is not the kind of person I want in my life. I have a policy of taking people at their word even if I suspect they’re being passive-aggressive. Either they learn to quit laying traps for me or they write me out of their lives for springing too many of them. Either way, I win.

    The flipside of that is that I also don’t want in my life the kind of people who think *I’m* laying traps. If they won’t take me at my word and respect my boundaries about small things, how can I trust they’ll respect my boundaries about big things? “Don’t get me anything” is not actually that far off from “don’t touch me.”

  7. Hel

    AH! Thank you for this. I hosted a fair number of dinner parties while in St. Louis and I always told people they didn’t have to bring anything (really, no matter what happens I will make enough food for everyone invited plus their extended families). But for whatever reason, I always felt bad telling people they shouldn’t bring anything so eventually I caved and said ‘Bring wine if you would like to.’ That made everyone happy and among law students, the wine never went to waste.

  8. Eliza

    My mother-in-law for years has been telling her children that all she wants for Christmas/birthday/etc. is them to come home and do something like sing a song or help with the dishes, or to send her pictures if they couldn’t be home. Her family would always tell her “I can’t give you those things–what do you really want?” and get her something else. When I married into the family, I told my husband that I take people at their words and that it’s a burden to give people gifts they don’t want, so we started giving her gifts of pictures when we weren’t there and gifts of service or songs when we were.

    Everyone seemed surprised at how much this touched her.

  9. Nephele

    Presents are definitely a tricky thing. For instance, I’m perfectly happy when a friend reads and loves a book and gives me a copy because they think I’ll love it, too. It’s so personal–a way of sharing something and also showing they know my taste–and it doesn’t matter a bit that I have a constant, overflowing to-read pile. But I hate having someone give me something out of some weird sense of obligation. There’s no reason. We’re adults, we can mostly buy what we need. That said, I do love buying things for friends and family if I see something that makes me think of them. But I try to keep in mind if they really would rather I not clutter up their lives.

    So much of our culture revolves around gift-giving. I was raised to never appear at a friend’s house for dinner or a party, etc. without some small gift or flowers, wine, etc. My mother would be mortified if I did otherwise, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who had this sort of politeness drilled into me early on. But that said, I agree whole-heartedly that you need to honor the other person’s wishes. If they request no gifts or additions to the meal, it would be rude to do otherwise. If they asked you not to buy something for them, you shouldn’t, and there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable if other people choose not to comply. That’s their problem, not yours.

  10. Meagen Voss

    I went through a rough patch in which I had a two-digit bank account. My friends were aware of this, and whenever I went to birthday parties, etc., they always told me that my presence was the gift and I didn’t have to bring one. But it was always awkward whenever everyone else brought gifts and I was the only one that didn’t (this happens a lot when you are poor living in a rich area). My feelings were bizarre mixture of shame, guilt and embarrassment, and I usually kicked myself for not at least making a card or writing some nice words about my friend. But not too hard, because I was at the point in which I was cutting back on food to make ends meet.

    That’s all over now thank goodness. And I agree wholeheartedly with taking people at their word when it comes to gifts. Guessing games benefit no one, and expecting folks to be mind readers causes unnecessary aggravation.

  11. Joe Zieja

    Well..hey, you’re going to get a box in the mail…just, um… you know. Return it. It may or may not be an additional side dish…wrapped like a Christmas present. Look, I’m not psychic, alright?

  12. Roger Suchy

    1) Tell them to make a donation to wateraid, or somesuch. That way, your beneficence spreads even wider.

    2) Interesting that you use the verb ‘manage’ with the object ‘bread’. I usually just slice it…

    3) In some cultures — since they’re referenced in the replies — it’s very rude not to turn up with something. In Korea, hold a party and you will be inundated with cake and fruit.