Yes, my relative was a shopaholic, a strange one, but a shopaholic like me.
I would have loved it if he had sent me generic gifts. There is always a need for more or less generic gifts, such as gifts to people we do not know well; housewarming gifts; and “hostess gifts,” the old-fashioned term for gifts given to people when we arrive at social events they are hosting. That is what I mean when I say generically that something would be a terrific gift. It is assumed that possibly the party-throwing recipient may not be crazy about the heart-shaped bottle of pimento olives, but that it was given on a guess that someone who likes to give cocktail parties will find a way to use olives. That is why nobody should ever expect gifts to match their specific fantasies of what they would like to receive.
However, my relative’s behavior is a warning that conversely, we shopaholics should not use other people as excuses for us to buy them what we would like to receive.
Putting it plainly, to do so is nothing but using other people in order to satisfy our compulsions. Yes. That bad.
I am not specifying whether our gifts should be cheap, expensive, or moderate; I am only saying that the specific nature of the gift should be aimed to suit to the general style of the recipient, not that of the giver.
At an obvious level, you may love to bake, but don’t give a box of homemade sugar cookies to a diabetic and say, “Just one a day won’t hurt you.” You may love books about baseball statistics, but don’t give them to someone whose interest in sports is limited to tennis.
On a more subtle level, do not give people objects they might enjoy but in a style you like, on the excuse that you are “broadening their taste” or “giving them some contrast to what they already have.” It’s a temptation particularly in regards to the fabled “people who have everything,” but fight it, because it’s insulting. It’s insulting to suggest that the life of someone who likes Fra Angelico is incomplete without a calendar of works by John Singer Sargent, or the reverse.
And if you notice that someone owns a lot of something, probably it’s best to give them something else. Either they are big collectors or heavy users who have a very specific idea in mind of what they will need (such as a keen photographer or cyclist, whose next purchase is likely to be a piece of equipment you have never heard of) or they are getting a whole lot of what they don’t want or need, and aren’t using it (such as an artist I knew who had an immense collection of unopened bath products in shrink-wrapped gift baskets).
And when you need a more or less generic gift, let it not be conspicuously ill suited to the recipient, or requiring too specific tastes. Think before you give someone a doily you love or some wine of a vintage you esteem or, indeed, many of the items I have touted on this blog as good gifts. These may be excellent gifts indeed, but only for the right people. If you find a set of wine glasses that you think are wonderful, they may be a very fine wedding gift — but not if you know the groom’s first wife was a big drinker, because maybe he is marrying a teetotaler this time around!
If it’s too hard to figure out what a recipient would like, give a Good Card charity card, which lets them choose a nonprofit to give it to. Better to be a vague giver than to indulge your shopaholism by giving an item that will not be enjoyed, that burdens the recipient with its disposal, that is a waste of money.
The gift-giving season should not be a cover for the sneaking pleasure of purchasing what we covet for ourselves. If we want something deeply enough, we should get it — for ourselves. If we want it that badly, we should either make a place in our lives for it, or give up our fantasies about it. We need to be honest with ourselves about our longings and what we can accommodate in our lives.
When we choose gifts, we should not be pursuing our own pleasure in making the purchase; instead, we should be seeking to optimize enjoyment for our recipients by choosing what they would enjoy themselves. We should not be choosing gifts thinking “What would I most enjoy receiving?” but, rather, “What would the recipient enjoy receiving?”
Our gifts should not circle around about ourselves and the gravity well of our bottomless shopaholism. What we should be seeking to express through our gifts is not how we feel about the things we give, but how we feel about our friends and family.