Stop Hating On The Christmas Wish List

Research shows people are happiest when they get exactly what they ask for. So we shouldn’t be ashamed to do just that, even as adults.

In November, Deadspin published a highly detailed Christmas list by an anonymous 21-year-old woman that included links to everything she wanted with intermittent commentary about how some of those things were expensive. Deadspin called the list “insufferable” and “infuriating.” But that woman is actually doing her loved ones a favor. If you know people are going to buy you things, everyone’s better off when the receiver does what she can to help givers spend their money wisely.

Studies show that people would rather get something they’ve explicitly said they wanted than something surprising they don’t want — even though gift givers mistakenly believe that, well, it’s the thought that counts. In a 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Sciences, the researchers wrote [PDF]:

In gift exchange, gift givers may fail to pay close attention to what a gift recipient directly requests. Instead, they may believe that purchasing an unrequested item will signal a sincere concern for the recipient because of the effort they have made to identify a seemingly appropriate gift, thus rendering the gift more personal and thoughtful. Yet gift recipients may be frustrated when givers do not take note of their explicit suggestions.

Of course it’s hard to come out and say “this is the stuff I want,” because we don’t want to seem materialistic, shallow, or immature. But how does it elevate one’s character to deny that people are buying you gifts? The National Retail Federation reports that holiday sales will increase 4.1% this year, to $586.1 billion. And the average shopper will spend $749.51 on gifts, cards, and holiday decorations.

Yet we’re obviously not getting what we want. The NRF has also reported that 40 to 50% of people expect to return or exchange a gift. Another survey showed that shoppers plan to spend an average of $139.92 on presents for themselves, which they might not need to do if they just ended up asking other people for that stuff.

Then there’s regifting. Etiquette advisors tend to agree that the practice is fine — probably because we always end up with so much stuff we don’t want — but why go through this crisis of conscience at all? On occasions like weddings and baby showers, we have no problem telling people exactly what we want. We go to stores and register to make it easy for them. Should it be any less acceptable to compile some links to things you want, whether on Pinterest or in an email?

A recent survey of 3,000 women aged 18 and older who regularly use the Internet conducted by product review-focused social network SheSpeaks and marketing agency Lippe Taylor revealed one in four would use Pinterest to make wish lists. But 47% said they wanted gifts they’ve only hinted at wanting and require the giver to make “the final selection.” Only 12% said they want the exact thing they’ve said they want. So these women want gifts they actually want, but they still want the people giving them stiff to them to read their minds a little bit. Mind-reading, however, is an impossible task and an unfair thing to expect of the people closest to you. Set people up to succeed by not expecting them to read your mind about what you want.

If people are looking for things to buy you, it’s not materialistic or shallow of you to take the guesswork out of it for them. If my sister had a Pinterest board of gifts she wanted, I’d use it to shop for her without question and save myself an aimless trip to the mall to try to come up with something else. And if you really don’t want any gifts, ask family and friends to make a donation in your name to charity.

But don’t assume that just because you have a wish list on Pinterest, everyone who needs to see it will see it. “I cannot think for a second my husband is going to look at my Pinterest to see what I want,” Jessica Seinfeld told me recently at a toy drive for the Baby Buggy charity at an Alice + Olivia store in New York. Seinfeld, who admitted to being in a “deep, full obsession with Pinterest,” said that she and her husband don’t buy each other holiday gifts, but noted, “Men don’t use Pinterest, so you have to print it out and put it on their pillow.”

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