Men, You’re Bad at Receiving Gifts. Here’s How to Be Better at It.

Getting gifts is awkward, but it can be less awkward.

November 8, 2021 5:30 am
A woman's hand holding a red-wrapped gift with a white ribbon
It doesn't have to be this way
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou

No offense, but if you’re a man, you probably suck at receiving gifts. Don’t believe me? Ask literally any woman who has ever attempted to bestow a gift upon you. 

“Awkward,” is all Cecilia, a 24-year-old New Yorker, has to say when I ask her how the men in her life have typically handled receiving gifts. “They can be really good gift-givers, but they hate getting them.”

Not only does a lackluster response to a gift make people think you “hate getting them” and thus less likely to give you stuff, but it’s also genuinely disappointing for the giver. As they say, ’tis better to give than to receive, but not when your intended recipient makes it super awkward. By failing to properly show appreciation for a gift, you’re robbing the giver of the joy they get from giving to you. 

To be clear, I’m not talking about the inherent awkwardness of pretending to like a gift you hate. But men, in general, have a disappointing tendency to react to gifts of all kinds (even ones they presumably like, though of course it’s hard to tell) in a way I’d describe as lackluster or flat. 

That said, it’s not exactly your fault. Many people of all genders feel a certain awkwardness around receiving gifts, and men, in particular, are grappling with an added layer of gendered socialization that may make it harder for him to find himself on the receiving end of a kind gesture. 

“What we’re up against are societal beliefs that giving is more noble than receiving. We might consider ourselves selfish to unabashedly receive a gift, compliment or kind word,” says Dr. John Amodeo, psychotherapist and author of Dancing With Fire. “To really let it in means being vulnerable. When we’re giving, we’re more in control in a certain way. Receiving requires us to let go of control and notice how we feel letting in the gift — perhaps a little awkward, shy or uncomfortable.”

You know who has historically been known to struggle with both relinquishing control and embracing vulnerability? Men. 

This tracks with what the awkward gift recipient in my own life — a man so uncomfortable with receiving gifts he once waited an entire weekend for me to leave his house before opening a birthday present — has to say for himself. “It’s not necessarily that we’re awkward. It may come across as being awkward, but I think for some men it’s a vulnerability issue,” he admits. “Men want to maintain some sense of bravado: ‘I’m the man, traditionally it’s my job to protect and care for the woman in my life.’” That air of “bravado” risks falling apart, it seems, “if you shed a tear when you open a gift.”

Cecelia also chalks men’s typical failure to receive a gift in a non-awkward way up to their socialized discomfort with expressing feelings of any kind in the first place. “I think it’s because they aren’t as connected with their feelings,” she says. This means, she theorizes, that even when a man is touched by a gift, “they get very emotional, which causes them to be awkward about it” because they have limited experience processing and expressing deep feelings. 

Then there’s the fact that men are socialized not only to avoid showing emotion, but also to be the “givers” or “providers” in a relationship. “I think men are more likely to embrace an image of being independent rather than interdependent,” says Amodeo. “They’re more likely to believe that being ‘strong’ means not needing or wanting anything.”

Unfortunately, all this “bravado” and supposed selflessness in the face of a kind gesture actually just makes you look like kind of a jerk. Someone who is giving you a gift isn’t trying to control, demean or emasculate you. They’re just trying to give you a nice gift you’ll enjoy, and to be honest, you’re kind of ruining that for them. 

The good news is that there are ways to become less bad at it. It’s not a crime to feel awkward about receiving a gift — again, many people of all genders do. The trick is to work through that awkwardness and find a way to reach a place from which you can access and express genuine gratitude — or at least some approximation of it. 

Get in your feelings

According to Amodeo, the first step to working through any awkwardness that may come with finding yourself on the dreaded receiving end of a kind gesture is to simply acknowledge your discomfort and sit with it for a while. 

“The first step is to pause and notice any discomfort without feeling obligated to say anything right away,” says Amodeo. “Can you allow yourself to be present with your awkwardness or discomfort without judging it? Or do you quickly push it away. Even saying ‘thank you’  too quickly can be a way to sidestep your discomfort.”

Analyzing and understanding feelings in the moment is key to processing them and responding appropriately. “You honor the giver by taking a deep breath and noticing how you’re feeling in your body when you receive a gift or compliment. Is your stomach tight or chest constricted?” says Amodeo. “Your discomfort might be a doorway to receiving the gift graciously. Feelings tend to shift when we welcome them in a friendly way.”

Don’t overthink it 

It can be easy to get swept up in all the social conventions and expectations we have around gift giving. You may feel anxious about how your response comes off, wondering whether you should’ve gotten them a gift too or how yours will compare. Amodeo’s advice? Let it go.

“Some people immediately think they don’t deserve the gift, or wonder if the gift-giver is expecting something in return,” he says. “Try to let all that go and just allow yourself to relish the gift. Get out of your head and be present for the present.” 

Consider the giver 

Even if you’re someone who identifies as a “giver” and would much rather give a gift than receive one, remember that the person presenting you with a gift probably feels the exact same way. As a giver, the best thing you can give them in this situation is a genuine display of appreciation. 

“It’s a gift to the giver to be genuinely touched by the gift; they will delight in seeing a smile on your face,” says Amodeo. “Allow any verbal expression of gratitude to come from that warm place of appreciation and delight to receive the gift.”

Meanwhile, for those of us on the giving end who may be disappointed in the recipient’s response, etiquette expert Diane Gottsman has a few notes as well. “Everyone has different comfort levels, and it would be impolite as a gift giver for one person to judge another person when it comes to their behavior,” she says. “We all must realize that giving and receiving gifts comes from the heart. Watching someone accept a gift and expecting a certain response puts pressure on both the giver and the receiver.” 

Look, receiving a gift is an almost universally awkward experience. Unfortunately, that’s just how society works. We’ve doomed ourselves to this awkward pageantry of compulsory generosity and gratitude, and it’s too late to change it now. What we can do, however, is chill the hell out and just accept the present with grace and appreciation (even if you have to fake it a little). It’s really the best gift any of us can give.

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