Etiquette expert: how to give the right gift

Giving is a beautiful thing – especially at Christmas. But you can also do a lot wrong. Agnes Anna Jarosch knows all the pitfalls. In an interview with "Profil", the head of the German Knigge Council explains what matters when it comes to gifts in both professional and private life.

Interview: Florian Christner, Editorial Office "Profil
Photo: Agnes Anna Jarosch

Mrs. Jarosch, why do people give gifts to each other?

Agnes Anna Jarosch: There is the beautiful saying "Give and take" – and giving is giving made visible. It is a sign that we are thinking about a person, that we have thought about what they might like, and that we are investing time and money to make them happy.

Do we give gifts today just as we did 20 years ago?

Jarosch: The basic need to give is surely as old as mankind itself. It is a natural concern for us to give something to close people and thereby make them happy. On a societal level, the culture of gift giving is definitely changing. Drivers are, for example, the stricter compliance rules in many companies, but also the Internet. Today we can order almost anything at any time via PC or smartphone and it will be delivered the next day. In addition, the Internet offers an unprecedented price transparency. The material value of a gift can be easily determined and compared. We did not have such possibilities 20 years ago. As a reaction to this, gift giving has also undergone a change in meaning. Personal, homemade things or time spent together are gaining value again, because these are gifts you can’t order with a click on Amazon.

"It’s worth writing down good gift ideas during the year so that you don’t forget them by Christmas."

Finding beautiful gifts is easier said than done. Which presents make particularly happy?

Jarosch: All those in which the giver was attentive and thoughtful. It is important to listen carefully to your partner or relative during the year. People who are close to us always send signals about what they secretly want or need. This can be an expression of regret because the old teapot is cracked, or an annoyance that can be resolved by a beautiful gift. It is worthwhile to write down such ideas actually and not only to note mentally, because until Christmas much is again forgotten. When giving a gift, one can then refer to the occasion. This makes the other person feel that the giver has really listened to them. That always goes down well.

Who was Knigge?

Adolph Freiherr Knigge (1752-1796) was a North German writer and enlightener. In the collective memory of the Germans, he is remembered above all for his writing "On the Manner of People", which first appeared in 1788. Knigge wrote in it about social strategies and rules of the game, in order to keep the friction loss in handling humans as small as possible, in order to avoid subliminal power struggles and senseless conflicts and to master all conceivable social situations sovereignly. Knigge received the reputation of an etiquette pope only after his death, because publishers posthumously edited his work on their own authority and added simple rules of decency to it in the following centuries. Knigge’s descendant Moritz Freiherr Knigge also writes about life-smart rules of etiquette and has published several books on the subject. He also runs a blog.

But you can also do a lot wrong when giving a gift. Which mistakes should be avoided at all costs?

Jarosch: There is a whole series of faux pas. For example, everyone has received gifts that they didn’t know what to do with. To simply continue to give them away would show a lack of appreciation. At this point, it is important to be open about where the gift comes from and why you have no use for it yourself. Gifts that are too personal are also a great danger. Perfume, for example, is something for your partner, but never for your colleagues, especially not from your boss. This would be very inappropriate and a boundary crossing. Nevertheless, such things happen again and again, even in private circles. In my student days, a fellow student told me that she had received underwear as a gift from her mother-in-law. It simply does not fit. Gifts must correspond to the degree of relationship one has with another.

What about presents that are intended to nudge the recipient in a certain direction??

Jarosch: I warn against gifts with missionary ulterior motives. If someone, for example, refuses to come to the conclusion that he should exercise, then there is no point in giving him a fitness subscription. That only makes for bad blood.

The range of products offered by Winzer Sommerach eG: If you don’t know what to give as a gift, delicacies or a good drop of wine are the best way to go.

If you can’t find anything suitable: Better to buy an embarrassing gift or give nothing at all?

Jarosch: Gift giving is a ritual. This also means mutual give and take. That’s why it’s important to have something ready for the other person. My tip, if you have no idea at all or do not know the other person well: it is best to choose a gift that can be consumed, that is harmless. Cooking and good food are a trend, so high-quality oils or vinegars or a special honey make good gifts. With a gin lover, a fancy gin variety is also a good idea. Such gifts convey joy for a while without putting the recipient in an uncomfortable situation. It should then but not the ordinary olive oil from the supermarket, but already something with style and level.

What do you advise if the recipient expected something else and is therefore disappointed??

Jarosch: The relationship between the giver and the recipient must not be damaged. The presentee should therefore thank despite his disappointment and find a few words of praise for the gift-giver, because he has thought about it. On the other hand, every good relationship should be able to withstand a certain amount of honesty. So if my partner always gives me the same perfume even though I can’t smell it anymore, an honest word is appropriate. If you openly state that you would have preferred a different choice, you enable the giver to correct his or her mistake, for example by exchanging the gift. Both parties benefit from this, because it strengthens a relationship that may have become somewhat fragile.

Even with children, the disappointment can be great if not everything under the Christmas tree is what was on the wish list. How should parents handle it?

Jarosch: Parents must have this in mind. If there are too many gifts under the tree, many children are completely overwhelmed. From there applies for them like also for adults: Less is more, if it with love were selected. Parents can control this by asking their child what the most important wish is. In the case of relatives, it is helpful if they consult with the parents. Before the child is given countless cuddly toys that no longer fit in the nursery, everyone can pool their resources for a joint gift that will last the child a long time, such as a new bicycle.

"Gifts of money are not bad per se, but the giver should think about how to use it."

With money gifts it is such a thing. When money or vouchers are suitable?

Jarosch: Money gifts or vouchers are per se nothing bad, but they want to be staged. Anyone who just hands over cash unkindly in an envelope is not making friends, because appreciation is lacking. Basically, the same applies to monetary gifts as to normal gifts: I have to think about what the recipient could use the money for, and present the gift accordingly. For example, if a young person is saving up for his or her driver’s license, it’s a good idea to hide the money or gift certificate in a model car or at least find a card with the appropriate motif. Then such a gift is also not silent.

Etiquette expert: how to give the right gift

Cash gift in sushi form: Cash gifts are okay if the staging is right. Photo: imago/JOKER

How is it with children with gifts of money?

Jarosch: It’s the same with adults: The production has to be right. In addition, such gifts are suitable to introduce the little ones to the topic of money and to promote financial education at an early age. The scope ranges from a small contribution to the piggy bank to a savings contract that lasts until the 18th birthday. The child saves regularly up to the age of 18 in order to finance his or her driver’s license. In this way, you also convey to the children the pride of being able to afford something of their own.

"Whoever wraps his gift invests time for the recipient and thus conveys his appreciation to him."

The packaging is also part of the presentation. Should you wrap gifts in colorful paper in any case?

Jarosch: The packaging enhances a gift. Those who wrap their gifts invest time for the recipient and thus convey their appreciation. In addition, the gift giver can exercise their creativity and show that they know the gift recipient. If you’re environmentally conscious, you’ll be happy to receive recycled wrapping paper or packaging that has its own value as a small gift. For example, someone once brought me a high-quality soap from vacation that was wrapped in a pretty cloth napkin. I had at least as much fun with this one as with the soap. By the way, the story I can tell about a gift is similarly important. Many cooperatives, for example, take care of social or ecological issues in their region. If I buy a gift from them, then on the one hand I support the cooperative and its goals, on the other hand I convey to the recipient that I have thought about something when making the selection. This aspect should not be underestimated and also applies to companies that are looking for a suitable gift for business partners or their employees.

A good keyword. Are Christmas gifts for business partners and employees still appropriate in times of strict compliance requirements??

Jarosch: If it’s about the gesture and the appreciation of employees and business partners, that’s okay even in today’s times. However, it should remain with a small gift with a symbolic character. Anyone who gives out expensive gifts is quickly suspected of wanting to gain an advantage. This should be avoided at all costs.

What can companies use as a guideline for the value of the gift??

Jarosch: There is nothing wrong with a bottle of wine at Christmas, a calendar for the new year or a nice box of chocolates. Also a gift from the professional context offers itself. Anything that supports employees or business partners in their professional life is well received and does not become a dust collector. As an upper limit, I would orient myself to the tax exemption limits. Companies can deduct gifts to employees and business partners of up to 35 euros per person per year as a business expense. This is a good guideline. However, companies should definitely consult their tax experts beforehand so that they do not get tangled up in the pitfalls of tax law when it comes to gifts.

When colleagues give each other a little something for Christmas, it strengthens team spirit. Gifts of up to 10 euros are appropriate. Photo: Neveu

Even among colleagues, it is sometimes customary to give each other gifts for Christmas. Is this a good thing?

Jarosch: Quite, because it can strengthen cohesion among colleagues. However, it makes sense to set price targets so that things are fair. Appropriate are 5 euro to 10 euro, maximally 20 euro, then the border is reached. Secret Santa can also be a nice thing to do: Everyone brings a gift of approximately equal value, which is raffled off among colleagues. This provides entertainment. The important thing is that everyone participates voluntarily. If colleagues feel oppressed by peer pressure, then it is better to find another solution.

Some companies forego Christmas gifts and instead donate to a charitable institution. What should they pay attention to?

Jarosch: Social commitment must fit in with the values of the company. Professional life is always about communicating values. That’s why every company should be clear about what it stands for before deciding on gifts or donations. It has to fit the image of the company. However, donating to a charitable institution is always a good way to present oneself as a responsible company.

Ms. Jarosch, thank you very much for the interview!

Agnes Anna Jarosch Is a founding member and head of the German Knigge Council. The interdisciplinary panel of experts is dedicated to the further development of manners in Germany. In addition, Jarosch was editor-in-chief of the reference work "Der grobe Knigge" (The Great Etiquetteer) for many years. Through her agency "Stilwunder" she offers seminars and trainings for companies and individuals on the topics of representation, communication, appearance and manners.

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