How to give a Surprise Gift with Skill and Common Sense



If you say you have a surprise for me, but you don’t say what it is, clearly you have no idea how human psychology works, and the nature of desire. If you remember only one thing from this post, let it be this: Don’t tell someone you have a surprise for them. Just surprise them.

It may be fun for you to watch me guessing, because you’re imagining the buildup of anticipation that will result in my being climactically delighted when I finally learn what the surprise is. In your mind, I hadn’t imagined your surprise would be quite as wonderful as this.

You underestimate my cognitive power. I thought it would be better.

I expect you’re better than I am at understanding what you’d like, yourself. It’s a rational logic that works both ways. If you say you have something for me, but leave it to me to guess, my imagination will think of something way better than yours did.

And then social politics and etiquette dances get thrown in.

I can’t just come out with guesses that say what surprise I’d find most delightful, because they’re probably incorrect (likely because they’re expensive, which is why I don’t already have them), and making such guesses would remove all the excitement from the experience as you realise that in comparison, your surprise sucks.

Awkward. We can’t have that. Obviously.

So I won’t say something I actually want. Like a 3D printer. Or Intuos Pro. Or three copies of Elements of Eloquence (one for lending, one for marking/highlighting, and a pretty edition for showcasing from a high shelf).

If you force me to guess, I’ll have to go one of two ways: Either I’ll guess something small, like warm socks or M&Ms—things that would be nice to have, but are unexciting and don’t put unreasonable expectation on the giver. Or I’ll make a joke, giving a guess so ostentatious that you understand it’s not actually imagined plausible.

(Note of Caution: If you’re ever made to guess a surprise, be careful when using the ostentatious response. It has backfired on me before, once, when the extravagant guess was actually correct. Then I felt ashamed because I’d both dampened the surprise element, and I looked like an entitled ass who actually thought ostentatious gifts were a reasonable expectation.  So I suggest, when choosing to use the ostentatious response, don’t make it every season of your favourite TV show on DVD. Make it a new car. Or a house with a moat and several secret passages.)

Dropping hints doesn’t help your cause, either. Hints don’t curb the inventive power of imagination.

“I have a surprise for you,” let’s pretend I say. “Something to do with pushing a red button. But don’t think of it now. I’ll tell you later.”

You will think of it now. You’ll think of how big it is. How shiny it is. How important it is. You’ll think of pushing it. You’ll see yourself pushing it. You’ll think the surprise must be some momentous and unalterable life changing moment, comparable to pushing a metaphorical little red button. How exciting!

Then I turn up with a mould-and-mount kit and a little red button from the jersey your firstborn wore home from the hospital, all those years ago. I expect you to be sentimentally excited about pressing it in the framed setting.

Just a button.

Sucks, doesn’t it? (Unless you’re into jersey remnants and sentimentality, I suppose.)

Thus, the key to giving someone genuine delight with your surprise, and to avoid the etiquette cha-cha, is to simply not give them a chance to imagine something better. Then your surprise is genuinely pleasant, because having it is better than not having it, which is the only state the recipient had known before.

So just surprise me. Forget the lead-up.


(3) Comments

  • Rebekah
    06 Nov 2016

    Haha, duly noted. But in my defence, there will always be buildup to Christmas presents. =)

    • Eve
      08 Nov 2016

      There is unavoidable anticipatory buildup regarding Christmas and Birthday gifts, yes. It’s what makes it such a stressful time for shoppers! But I haven’t known you to exacerbate the situation by asking me to guess a present.

  • Leanne Knox
    19 Nov 2016

    Oh no, I’ve just done this.

    I was so excited at having got my friend something she asked for, that I told her there was a Thing. I only see her every few weeks so the Thing has.sat here waiting for her.

    She has done as you suggeste and guessed Tupperware container (I didn’t ask her to guess).

    Now I feel bad for telling her there was a Thing. But today I get to give it to her.

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