4 etiquette tips for returning holiday gifts

Unless you’ve surrounded yourself with real-life Leslie Knopes who give incredibly thoughtful gifts, you probably ended up with a few duds over the years. Perhaps they’re sitting at home right now, collecting dust in your attic. There’s not much sense in holding onto bad gifts, but how do you go about tossing them?

We asked etiquette expert Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting company, for tips on how to deal with the awkwardness of returning a gift.

Give it time to grow on you

Whether it’s a gift from a clueless relative or a random present from an office exchange, you may have dismissed the gift because it doesn’t suit your taste. That’s fine, but don’t let first impressions sway you.

“The first thing people need to do is look at the gift and say, ‘This gift is not perfect for me right now, but could it be in the not-so-distant future?’” Smith said. The item could end up being something you love or find useful. “Don’t be quick to run back to the store,” she said. “Sometimes you need to give a gift a little bit of time to show its true worth and meaning.”

Assess the situation

If the gift included a receipt, don’t worry about returning or exchanging it, Smith said. The giver probably knew you might not like the item and would want to return it. If it didn’t come with a receipt, however, you’ll need to be a bit more thoughtful.

“If you have a very open, stable, mature, communicative relationship with the giver, you can ask them for the receipt,” Smith said, but “you want to do this in the kindest way possible.”

Here’s something you can try: Don’t ask for the receipt, but set the person up to offer it. Start by thanking him or her for the gift and say what you like about it. Then offer an honest explanation as to why it’s not right. The giver may offer the receipt so you can get an exchange or mention where they purchased the item so you can get a store credit.

The secret, Smith said, is reading the person’s expression. If they seem disappointed, let it go. And if you want to avoid the topic entirely, figure out where they got the gift and politely ask for an exchange.

Choose your battles

Perhaps the gift came from someone who really wants you to use it. “If this is somebody who is expecting to see this gift used or displayed in your home, sometimes you need to keep it for a year or two,” Smith said. “Once they can see it a few times, you can pass it off.” Make an effort to show your appreciation, and after you’ve made use of it, do what you want. If the person asks, be honest but kind.

“I don’t like lying, but I am all for protecting people’s feelings, so if Aunt Sadie asks me about the large yellow afghan that she hand-knitted…I’m going to say, ‘Aunt Sadie, we loved that afghan, but I think during the last full house clean that we did it had seen enough love, so we decided to donate it,’” Smith said. You should focus on showing gratitude and sharing memories of the times it was useful.

Do what you want (but say thank you)

Ultimately, it’s your decision how to handle an unwanted gift.

“Once a gift is given, it is owned by the recipient and it is up to the recipient what they want to do with it,” Smith said. She personally suggested people not discard things others can use, so selling or donating a gift is fair game. If there are family ties, consider letting other members take it off your hands.

Even if you hate the gift, try to find some redeeming quality in it (or its sentiment) and send the person a thank-you note, Smith said. Then do with it what you please and spend the next year letting that person get to know you so you don’t have to keep exchanging their gifts.

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