ripped-open cardboard box
It's not what you give; it's the way that you give it.

What’s the worst way to give a gift?

According to a new study on gift-giving, there’s a good way and a bad way to give a gift. The bad way is to tell the receiver that the gift is intended to save them money. If you do this, they will feel patronized, embarrassed, and ashamed.

And the good way? Just give them the same gift, but tell them that you are giving it to save them time, not money.

The study, from the Ohio State University, consisted of several smaller studies. In one, participants were either asked to imagine how they felt when given gifts for different reasons. A more interesting version had participants go out and give away $5 Starbucks vouchers, and to make clear their motivation for giving it — either to save the recipient money, or time.

When you don’t have time, you’re perceived as busy and in high demand. There’s something high-status about that.

Money-saving gifts were poorly received. And after all, who wants someone to give them a $5 Starbucks voucher and then imply that it’s because they can’t afford a coffee themselves?

Years ago, a scruffy friend of mine was waiting for us in the street, drinking a takeaway coffee. He had wild hair, worn-out shoes, and a ragged tweed overcoat. A passerby dropped a coin into his coffee cup. You can imagine the embarrassment on both sides.

On the other hand, if the exact same gift is given in a different context, it makes the recipient feel important1.

“When you don’t have time, you’re perceived as busy and in high demand,” co-author Grant Donnelly told the Ohio State News. “There’s something high-status about that, compared to not having enough money, which is seen as low status.”

This is nuts. Time is precious resource, and being short of it usually means that you’re giving it all away to an employer. But that has nothing to do with this study, of course.

  1. Not the coin in the coffee, obviously.

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