Sometimes, depending on the gift in question, it’s hard to determine whether it’s better to give or to receive. And with the holidays around the corner, no one could be faulted for looking at the gifts they’ve amassed over the year and considering which ones would be more suited to a different home.
Re-gifting, as we’ve come to call it (in large part thanks to the seminal Seinfeld episode), has an aura of deception about it, but etiquette experts say it doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
“It’s not shady,” says Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert based in San Diego, Calif. “It’s about not being wasteful and knowing that it’s something the recipient would really enjoy.”
“Environmental responsibility, the desire to live a minimalist life and to be responsible with purchases are part of re-gifting,” echoes Lisa Orr, Toronto-based etiquette expert and owner of Orr Etiquette.
While you shouldn’t feel guilty about re-gifting something that doesn’t have a place in your life or doesn’t jive with your aesthetic, there are some rules of thumb to abide by to prevent any holiday awkwardness.
#1 Don’t give something obviously personal
Orr says the safest (and only) gifts that can be re-gifted are what she calls commodities. “Anything that anyone can go into a store and buy or easily return without the need for a receipt, like a bottle of wine at the LCBO or a tin of tea from a specialty store, constitutes a commodity,” she says. “These are gifts that can be received and exchanged.”
If it’s an item that someone put a great deal of thought into and you don’t know its backstory, like a scarf or a piece of jewelry, hang on to it. The person who gave it to you put effort into finding it, and you are not putting in that same level of effort when you pass it on.
#2 Don’t give something that’s been branded
If it looks like it came from a gift bag handed out at an event, don’t re-gift it. That includes sports team-branded T-shirts from a game, glasses with a company logo etched onto them and embossed notebooks.
“The only exception is if the gift could have extreme value to the recipient,” Swann says. “I once went to a conference where Oprah Winfrey spoke and the goodie bag had a gorgeous Oprah-branded key chain. I gave mine to my mom because she loves Oprah and I knew she would find it exciting. It was a special memory that I could share with her.”
#3 Don’t give something of no value
Gag gifts are never acceptable to re-gift, Swann says. For one thing, they usually hold little to no value. And for another, the gag may be funny to you because it was tailored to your sense of humour, but that won’t necessarily translate to another person.
#4 Make sure it looks like a gift
Before re-gifting an item, make sure it doesn’t have any tags on it with your name, an inscription (in the case of a book), or any lingering wrapping paper stuck to it. Ensure it’s in pristine condition — the packaging hasn’t been torn and it doesn’t show any signs of use — and wrap it up nicely, with new paper or a new bag.
#5 Don’t re-gift something precious
Gifts that are handmade or personalized with a monogram are definite re-gift no-nos. “Go back to the relationship you have with the person who gave it to you,” Orr says. “Would they be disappointed if they knew you were giving it to someone else?”
In the case of a family heirloom, pass it on to another family member, but not in the form of a gift. “Don’t wait for a special occasion,” Swann says. “Give it to them and say you want it to go to a better home.”
#6 Consider the chain
“Never re-gift an item within the same circle it came from,” Swann warns. That means don’t give the Christmas sweater grandma bought you last year to your cousin. “Because you will get caught.”
#7 Be organized
Swann suggests keeping a box or bin in your home where you can store any unwanted gifts. Label them with the name of the giver and the date received. “This helps you avoid falling into the accidental trap of being revealed,” she says.
#8 If caught, own up to it
“Be honest, immediately,” Orr says. Apologize and explain that while you appreciated the gift, you felt it would be better suited to another person.
#9 When in doubt, don’t do it
If you feel uncertain about re-gifting something because you think it would offend the person who gave it to you or the person who will receive it next, don’t do it, Orr says. “It comes down to relationships and if you think it could damage your relationship, it’s not re-giftable.”