The art of receiving well

Christmas. My favourite and worst time of the year. I almost always end up tearing my hair out looking for the right gifts for people. But giving a gift is only half the exchange: receiving is equally important, and sometimes the very hardest part.

There is an art to receiving a gift, whatever form it may take — something tangible or simply an act of kindness or generosity. Emily Post, ancient doyenne of good manners, has dictated the etiquette: You will be gracious; you will be grateful; you will remember to say “thank you.”

But there is more to good receiving than rules. The art of receiving requires craft.

A good receiver not only expresses liking and gratitude, but can make the giver feel more thoughtful and good about themselves. Being a good receiver requires genuine caring — and sometimes, some acting ability. As you open a gift you must never let your expression stray from delighted surprise, or even hint, “Why the hell is she giving this to me?” or “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?”

The real test for a receiver is getting a “bad” or unwanted gift. That’s when you must turn your attention to the giver. “You are so thoughtful.” (Obviously the giver had some thoughts about this item, if only you could figure out what they were.) Or, “How nice of you to think of me.” (It is always nice that others think of us.) If the gift is handmade you can always appreciate “the time you must have spent.” (Even “bad” gifts made by hand represent an investment of time.)

But etiquette and strategy cover only a part of receiving a gift well. What about the deeper difficulty in receiving — really allowing yourself to be given to?

The big test is whether you can accept a gift without feeling that you have to give one back. This is hard for many people. I have a few friends for whom this is like a badge of independence. You offer to take them to a concert or to pay for dinner and their first response is to reach for their wallets: “What do I owe you?” Grrrrrrr!

But I too have been guilty of this in the past, especially at this time of year. For a while I used to keep a spare set of Christmas cards handy, just in case I received one from someone I hadn’t thought of. But that could be equally ungracious.

What if you allowed the giver to simply give?

There’s something to be said for allowing another person to be the sole giver. You honour them by receiving their gift, rather than evening the score by handing back a pretty package of some generic item that is intended only to make you feel less guilty over their generosity. Sometimes the nicest thing we can give someone is to let them be the thoughtful one.

Receiving well is actually a kind of generosity. This year I’ve decided that, when required, I will allow myself to be given to, and give the gift of receiving well.