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14 Gifts That Might Send the Wrong Message

It's the thought that counts, but sometimes that intention can get misconstrued.

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Gag gifts

You can never be sure how a friend will react to a joke gift, so stick with something more heartwarming during the holidays. “A gag gift doesn’t feel personal,” says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “It feels like the joke is on you, and they don’t walk away with something that feels like a memory.” Send your friend a link to the crude mug making fun of his favorite politician, but wrap up a present he’ll genuinely look forward to using. If you need better gift ideas, check out these Amazon Prime gifts for everyone on your list.

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Bath products

There’s a fine line between sending a message of “treat yourself” vs. “you need this” when you’re picking out beauty products like soap, bath salts, and shampoos. If you do choose something hygiene-related, add a note with a sweet message. For instance, you might compliment your mom on how lovely she always smells and express your hopes that she loves this new fragrance as much as you do, says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. “With a beautiful written note, the sentiment and warmth comes through,” she says. “Express the warmth and heartfelt thoughts.” Another option: these 27 personalized gifts that really go the extra mile.

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Chilled wine

A bottle of wine is a gracious present to thank the hosts of a holiday dinner. Just make sure they know you want them to open it to unwind after the guests are gone, instead of implying you’d like to join in for a glass. “If you bring chilled wine, it seems like you want them to serve it,” says Gottsman.

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Chore tools

Giving a vacuum, ladder, or lawnmower could imply that your partner needs to do more around the house. “In other words, ‘You need to do more honey do’s on your honey do list,’” says Schweitzer. Replacing those tools is a normal part of your marriage, and tying a bow on them won’t make them seem any more heartfelt. Instead, get some better ideas from the most popular holiday gifts ordered on Amazon.

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Extravagant gifts for a new partner

A longtime lover would probably adore a weeklong vacation or a gorgeous new necklace, but dropping a new romantic partner might think a sweeping gesture adds pressure to the relationship. “If you just started dating and you get something too personal like expensive jewelry, it’s like a commitment and you don’t know if you like them yet,” Gottsman says.

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Personal presents for your boss

Giving your boss cologne, a massage gift certificate, or clothing can make it seem like you’re closer than you are. If you want to give your supervisor a present, stick with cookies that could be shared with the office, or go in with your coworkers for a gift that’s more personal. “The best way to give a gift like that is to have an office pool so it’s not just coming from you,” says Gottsman. Just make sure to check your company’s gift-giving policy before you present it, she says. Check out these 26 thoughtful gifts for coworkers for $25 or less.

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iStock/Alessandro Di Noia

The same gift you gave last year

Dad loved when you gave him a sweater the first time. Of course he’ll love a new one every year! Not so fast. You might see it as a gift he’s sure to love, but giving the same present year after year feels like you haven’t bothered coming up with anything better. “You haven’t thought about it, haven’t made time, made a list, or preplanned,” says Schweitzer. “The thing is, the holidays don’t sneak up on anybody. They’re the same every year. It just takes a little creativity and a little planning.”

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Gym memberships

Gyms can get expensive, so giving an elliptical addict a membership would be a thoughtful money-saver, right? Not necessarily. Unless someone has specifically asked for a gym plan, you could be sending the message that the receiver needs to lose weight. “If you don’t ask for it and you open that, how embarrassing,” says Schweitzer. “You don’t want them to feel self-conscious while eating their weight in holiday cookies.”

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Tennis shoes

No matter how fresh those kicks are, sneakers could imply you think the receiver needs to spend more time working out. “Anything related to fitness, if they’re not a fitness buff, will send that message,” says Gottsman. “They’re hard to buy anyway because you don’t know their size.” Instead, check out these 40 cool tech gifts you’ll want to keep for yourself.

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iStock/Peter Hermus

Body control garments

Body control garments send the same message that the receiver’s figure isn’t good enough. You might love what Spanx do for your body, your friend won’t appreciate you trying to share that joy, says Schweitzer. Queen-size pantyhose, girdles, and tummy-control tops should all be avoided, she says.

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Religious items

Unless you know the person’s beliefs, stay away from anything faith-related, even during religious holidays, to avoid sending the message that the receiver’s views are wrong. “You don’t know their preference and you don’t know if they’ll use it,” says Gottsman. “You could put them in a position where it might not be their taste.”

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iStock/Matthew Hart

Slow cooker

You might think a slow cooker is a thoughtful way to give your partner a welcome escape from the kitchen, but that’s not the message it sends. “Giving someone a crockpot or a book on how to cook meals in the crockpot is as if their cooking is so bad that you want them to just toss things in a pot to make something edible,” says Schweitzer. “That’s not a present—that’s passive-aggressive.”

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iStock/Raisa Zwart

Gift cards

Cash and gift certificates could send the message that you haven’t given much thought to the present. If you do go the gift card route, make sure to add a note about why you think the receiver will love it, and pair it with something more tangible to open. “We love to open boxes and gifts,” says Gottsman. “A gift card doesn’t hold the same kind of energy and enthusiasm.” Send a mug with a coffee shop gift card, for example.

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iStock/Mercedes Rancaño Otero

Self-help books

Books on a dark backgrounddonatas1205/Shutterstock

Even if a loved one confides in you about depression or relationship trouble, don’t take it upon yourself to give a self-help book to give answers through the struggle. “Self-help books are very personal, and it has to speak to you,” says Gottsman. “What you think they need is not your concern. Leave that for another day.”

Next, don’t miss these 28 Secret Santa gifts anyone will love.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.

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