• Keeping Friends

When Exchanging Gifts Feels Awkward

Published: December 27, 2020 | Last Updated: December 27, 2020 By | 3 Replies Continue Reading

During the pandemic, even exchanging gifts with friends can feel strange when everything else seems to be topsy-turvy. 


Hi Friendship Doctor, 

For several years, I’ve been exchanging Christmas and birthday gifts with an old friend. Our gifts are rarely anything over the top — just thoughtful and reasonably priced. This year, I bought a Christmas gift for my friend, as usual, and she told me, with some embarrassment, that she hadn’t purchased any holiday gifts for her friends this year, due to the pandemic and shopping limitations. 

Her birthday gift to me, a few months ago, was less than she used to give in the past. She has recently retired, and seems to be cutting back, which I certainly understand. I am not offended, and that is not the reason for my writing. 

This friendship remains close and I sincerely doubt the change in gift giving is a sign of something wrong. But I want to proceed in the most comfortable way — without looking like I’m miffed at the change. Since my friend skipped Christmas gifts this year, I am thinking this might be her way of reversing our gift-giving habit. 

My mother used to tell me that it’s a good idea to follow the “tone” set by others when it comes to exchanging gifts. So I wonder if I should pay close attention to the message my friend might be sending.

Her birthday is coming up in late January. Would it seem too obvious or mean-spirited if I simply send a nice card on her birthday and leave it at that? Or should I continue to give her gifts as usual? Should I bring up the subject and see how she feels? I suspect a discussion like that might embarrass her. Any ideas?

Signed, Lindsay


Dear Lindsay,

You sound like a thoughtful friend—and you have the wisdom to not take your friend’s cutting back on gift-giving personally, or misinterpret it as reflecting negatively on your friendship. 

As you suggest, given your sense of your friend’s situation (and your mother’s sage advice,) you might want to scale back on your own gifts so that she doesn’t feel obliged to reciprocate in kind. However, that doesn’t mean you have to stop gift-giving entirely.

Especially during the pandemic when there’s so much doom, gloom and social isolation, it’s nice to find any excuse for a celebration, and to create small “surprises” for good friends. Perhaps, when her birthday comes around next month, you can send her good wishes along with a small and less expensive gift than usual—of course, with no expectation that she is required to give back. You might even send the gift at some other time, when it’s least expected.

Since your friend hasn’t told you she feels uncomfortable about exchanging gifts, I probably wouldn’t raise the issue directly. As you suggest, it might make her feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. 

Like so many other people, your friend may feel depleted of energy right now and gift-giving may simply be low on her agenda. Retirement is a big adjustment, too, especially during a pandemic. So even before her birthday, it could be nice to call her, check in more often, and see how she’s doing.

Hope this is somewhat helpful. 

Best, Irene

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Category: Friends and Money, KEEPING FRIENDS

Comments (3)

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  1. Nancy Polderdyke says:

    My two cents….I once received a $100 cash gift and thank you note which came from someone I was the work support for. I left it back on her desk with a note stating that I really appreciated it but it was too much and I was just doing my job. She came to me and said that she gave it b/c she wanted to and that my doing my job helps her do her job (and commissions). So from that day forward, I always tell people that if someone gives a gift it is usually b/c they want to and not b/c they expect something in return. So long story short, if you want to keep giving your friend a gift you should.

    • Irene says:

      Thanks for sharing that story. Gifts are often as valuable to the giver as to the recipient.
      It was a nice way of your co-worker to show her appreciation for your efforts.

  2. Amy says:

    I had this come up with a friend though she was good enough to tell me ahead of time she didn’t want to do presents. Seems like the friend could have prevented an awkward situation that way. I debated whether or not to give her something anyway but wanted to respect her boundaries. Then I saw something perfect for her in November. She had been feeling down and it was inexpensive so I sent to her as a thinking of you. I told her it wasn’t a Christmas gift and nothing was expected in return.
    In LW’s situation, if I wanted to give a gift I would and I’d say that I didn’t want anything for my birthday but always enjoy the special cookies (or something she makes or knits or whatever) she bakes. I’m not above asking for homemade goodies if I know friends who like to do it for people as I’m incompetent in that area.

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