I’m an expert in diplomatic gift giving. Here are my 5 top tips for the best Christmas present exchange


As we get closer to Christmas, your family will probably have some kind of gathering. You will reunite with people who you might not see any other time. There will be some awkward small talk, everyone will start off on their best behaviour, there will be too much food, and presents will be exchanged.

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, there are mismatched or underwhelming gifts that can lead to subtle tensions, which persist throughout the day.

But there is a field of academic research that can help with your gift giving. “Diplomatic gift studies” blends material culture studies with history and sociology. It considers gifts being “lost in translation” as they move across cultural spheres. It can explain everything – after all, what is a Christmas gathering if not a type of diplomatic mission?

Here are five things you can keep in mind to smooth things out and help you have the best gift-giving experience this Christmas.

1. Understand the group’s traditions

Picture this: it’s the first time at your in-laws’ Christmas. You bought a playful Secret Santa gift just perfect for your own family – a large box filled with a packet of prunes, toilet paper rolls and yesterday’s news.

Turns out, the gathering you’ve just walked into plays by a whole different set of rules. Awkward, right?

This happened to a friend of mine who was unaware of his in-laws’ tradition of thoughtful heartfelt gifts. Instead, he had chosen something that worked with his family custom of joke presents.

These situations are the most common with people who are – like my friend – newcomers to a gathering. They didn’t grow up with the same kind of Christmas you had and don’t have the same traditions.

Make sure you brief anyone who is new to your gathering about what your family generally does. If you are the newcomer, ask what they typically do for presents.

2. Don’t assume presents based on someone’s age

Navigating the gifting landscape across different generations is like cracking a complex code. This is made more difficult if you don’t know the person well. To solve this, you might end up buying something you think someone their age typically likes.

As a teenager, a close friend once received a mini handbag from a distant aunt – a few years after they were popular. By the time the “cool” gift idea traversed the generational gap and reached the aunt, it was outdated.

Sometimes, our assumptions about different age groups can go awry. Ask someone who knows the person about what they specifically like.

3. Give a gift they want – not what you want

We’ve all unwrapped that one present where we’ve wondered where on earth it fits into our lives. I once received a large, ceramic bowl for Christmas. I had nowhere to put it – my husband and I didn’t entertain or hold dinner parties. It was way too large for the two of us and not suited to our tastes.

I thought about the person who gave it to me – did it match their own interests and preferences? In this case, they’d shopped from their heart, forgetting their taste didn’t necessarily align with mine, and had bought something that they personally liked and wanted. They meant well.

4. Think about value in the long term

Gift giving is ideally an equal exchange: you give and receive presents of the same approximate value. At the end of the day, when it’s time to go home, there is balance.

But sometimes the balance tips. You receive something more expensive than what you gave. It can make you feel like you are in that person’s debt, and you feel pressured to match their present the next time.

Before stressing, consider the bigger picture. What did you gift them last year? Or did you help them out in another way and they’re showing their appreciation now?

Sometimes, it’s about evening out the scales over time.

5. Reflect on the intentions behind a gift

One year, when I was 15, I received a set of shower products from a relative. Was this a subtle hint about my personal hygiene? Perhaps. Or was it a well-meaning attempt from someone who just didn’t know my style and bought something smelling nice, which a teenage girl could use?

It’s important to peel back the layers and understand the intentions behind a gift. Think about the person who is giving it, not just the present itself. That way, you avoid jumping to conclusions and appreciate the gesture for what it is.

End-of-year family gatherings can be a wonderful time, where we slow down and relax. We eat, drink and make merry with people who we care about. We give presents with the best of intentions, but some will probably miss the mark.

If this happens, remember it’s the thought behind them that truly counts.

Author Bio: Samantha Happé is a Graduate Researcher in art history and material culture studies at The University of Melbourne

This piece is for my late husband, Christopher Lee, who suggested my research could apply to Christmas gift giving. Miss you.