“I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible need to give it.”


Audrey Hepburn


Ever given someone a gift and known, from their face, that it wasn’t what they wanted? 

Sometimes it is because presents – all presents – just don’t do it for the intended recipient.  

Gifts are complicated things.  They may be a genuine expression of the giver’s desire, out of love, to please the recipient which – however ill-judged the present – deserves to be appreciated.  They may also be a show of wealth which is provocative at worst or insecure at best, or a passive-aggressive sign of lack of affection.  Neither deserves any recognition.   They may be guilt-induced – a disguised apology.   They may be given out of habit, not from the heart.  It is not how much the gift cost but the intention behind it that matters.  The hamper from Fortnum and Mason may seem shallow next to the handmade card, the homemade jam, the child’s painting, or it may be have been bought with the widow’s mite.   The homemade jam from the housewife can be an improvised explosive device when given to the woman who works full-time.

And wrapping is all important (Oh, yes it is!).  What does a gift still in the shop’s plastic bag say except “I couldn’t be bothered to wrap it up”?.  But then again, the wrapping might say “Look how creative I am!” or “I still see you as a child” or “Aren’t you impressed that the present came from this shop?”.    It is a minefield.

As present-givers we may feel upset when our gift goes unacknowledged.  Apart from not knowing whether the gift has been safely received, we are missing essential information.  If our gift is heartfelt, the absence of a “thank you” leaves us with a hole in our stomach, wondering whether we got it all wrong and did not please.  It is not gratitude we want, unless the present was given for the wrong reason.  We comfort ourselves – the post never fails, the other person is very busy – but we do crave the acknowledgement.   

If our gift was an ill-intentioned assertion of power, then naturally we want to know it was felt.  There is a great deal of power in gracefully acknowledging an inauthentic gift with a beautifully crafted response. 

Those who are impossible to please may well be delighted if they receive a gift of a different sort – a task carried out for them, time spent with them, a hug, or praise.  There is more than one way to show love or affection.  It does seem to be true for all of us that we speak the language that we most want to receive.   

Gary Chapman calls these demonstrations of love – gifts, acts of service, time, physical touch, words of affirmation – the Five Love Languages.  I have tried and failed to think of any demonstrations of love that do not fit within his five categories.  Each of the series of Five Love Languages books contain a quiz (much more involved than the 30-second Assessment on the Five Love Languages website) to help you work out which language you prefer to speak, and which you least understand.  You will respond best to demonstrations of affection in your preferred language and typically will use this language to show your affection.  Equally, you will find it most difficult to offer love in your least favourite language and will misunderstand love offered in this way. Some time ago I got my husband and my children to answer the questions and learnt a lot from their responses.  My elder daughter, for example, responds best to quality time and acts of service, while my younger daughter loves physical touch and gifts.  I need to keep reminding myself of this. 

Try and work out why you like your language best.  Do you like acts of service because you are really stretched at work and home and need help?  Is it “need” that drives the preference?  Or is it the absence of a particular language either now or in our childhood that makes it addictively attractive?  Were we the younger child at home, and got more cuddles as a result?  Were you the uber-reponsible older child who had to take on lots of chores at a young age?  Did your parents try to buy your affection with gifts as a substitute for spending time with you?  Does your partner do this now?

I recommend the books, but especially the Men’s Edition because it has practical hints at the end of each chapter about how to learn to speak a language that you can only speak badly at the moment.

And next time someone just puts your present aside, don’t be offended.  Perhaps they want a hug instead, or for you to sit down and talk to them, or take the bins out, or tell them that they look wonderful.