How to Surprise Someone with a Gift Even If You Suck at Gift-Giving

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One of the hardest things to try and understand is how to surprise someone with a gift. Gift giving calls for a certain panache sure to leave the recipient delightfully astounded. The catch is, there are lots of ways you can get it wrong, so much so that science has taken to studying the art and psychology behind gift giving. According to science, everything you know about gift giving is wrong. Folks with initials in front of their names will tell you that giving someone an experience is way better than a material item. Experiences strengthen relationships. Material items often wear out or become obsolete.    

Does that mean every time you’ve gone out to do some holiday shopping for your loved ones is a complete waste of time?

Not necessarily. It turns out that the kind of gift doesn’t matter that much. It is the thought that counts.

But there’s a small twist. For the thought to count, you have to give the recipient something they really want. Your friend won’t be too excited getting a Lego set if all he’s been talking about is a new phone. 

“Wait. If I give them what they want, won’t that take the surprise away?” You ask? 

Fair question. Being too predictable in gift giving can take the surprise away from the entire experience. You don’t want to be that friend who gives way too many clues to a surprise. Being too predictable takes the whole spirit of gift giving – a special gesture of gracious generosity with a tinge of surprise. If you do, then it’s not gift giving anymore. It’s merely order fulfillment. 

But you still want to be sure that the gift you’re about to get is the right one. You to find out whether that special someone will like it subtly. That means you have to find a way of how to give clues to a surprise without letting the cat out of the bag. 

That calls for some James Bond level sleuthing. Before we get to that though, let’s take a look at how not to surprise someone with a gift because that pretty much ruins everything.

How Not to Surprise Someone with a Gift

The art of how to surprise someone with a gift is learned. We are not innately born knowing how to surprise someone in the right way. Sure, you can hide behind the door of a darkened room, don on a mask and wait for your friend and scare the daylights out of her.

But that’s not the kind of surprise you’re going for when giving a gift. As a matter of fact, let’s put that down as one of the ways of how not to surprise someone with a gift. Even if it’s Halloween.

1. Don’t Give them Gifts They Didn’t Ask For

Don’t Give them Gifts They Didn’t Ask ForBelieve it or not, we don’t like surprises as much as we think we do. Surprise!

The same way you wouldn’t like too much if someone got into a scary get-up and frightened the life out of you, getting a gift that’s not on your wish list isn’t all that exciting.

Just think about it. If you have someone special in your life and they’re into vintage cars, getting them a fishing rod for their birthday won’t impress them. That’s not a gift for classic car owners

As much as you want to go for the surprise element, you want to make sure that the gift is both relevant and it’s something they want. 

The reason why we find it hard to find welcome and exciting ways of how to surprise someone with a gift is we always tend to go for unsolicited items. The breakdown between gift givers and receivers happens so often that almost every married couple has an anecdote about a wedding gift that was way off the mark. 

What does that tell us? First, being more considerate and going the whole nine yards to find the right gift can backfire. Being thoughtful involves disregarding the direct request or desires of the receiver. That’s how folks end up with fish bait hanging on the rear-view mirror of their 1969 Ford Mustang.

Although it’s the thought that counts, scientific research tells us that we shouldn’t put too much thought into gift giving. Just do as commanded. And it makes perfect sense when you think about it. What would YOU rather get? Something you’ve always wanted or an unsolicited surprise?

2. Beware of the Presenter’s Paradox – More Gifts Don’t Always Equal More Surprise

More Gifts Don’t Always Equal More SurpriseThe human brain is full of mysteries. We want to think that we operate logically, but most of the time, logic can never predict how you will act in a situation. 

If you come across a dead snake, logically, you shouldn’t be startled. It’s dead. There’s no way it’s going to attack you. But your brain’s first reaction is “Dead snake! Run and call the bomb squad!”

The brain applies the same weird logic when we receive a small gift bundled with a bigger present. You won’t say to yourself, “Ooh, goody! More gifts!” because the brain doesn’t add up stuff when estimating their value. Instead, it averages them out. 

That’s why if you’re shopping for gifts for nephews on their birthday and you bundle a $300 game console with a smartphone worth $100 because you’re too lazy to find which one they’d like better, your nephew’s brain will go, “These are like 200 dollars. Presents keep dropping in price the older I get. I hate being an adult. Birthdays suck!”

This is the Presenter’s Paradox. The ancient part of our brains, when perceiving a bundled deal, it tends to focus on the smaller parts of the bundle to downscale the larger parts. 

That twisted logic has its pros and cons. When your mom would punish you to an entire week of no TV and threw in an hour of solitary confinement in your bedroom, you probably thought, “She must not have been that mad at me. An hour is nothing!”

When you’re thinking of how to give a surprise gift to your girlfriend, and you find a beautiful diamond necklace, and get her a $20 Amazon coupon, she’ll think, “These diamonds must be fake.” 

In gift-giving, more is always less. Don’t expect a bigger surprise when you package smaller gifts with larger gifts.

3. Getting Them the Same Gift They Loved Last Year

Getting Them the Same Gift They Loved Last YearIf you’re about to throw yourself into the gaping maw of shopping hell during a holiday to get the same present you got your significant other last year because they loved it, stop. 

Nothing sucks like getting the same present previously. It not only shows how little, if any, thought that went into the gift, it also ruins the surprise. 

Nothing comes close to the sound of a breaking heart than the tearing of wrapping paper on a gift only to realize it is the same gift your uncle got you on your last birthday.

4. Don’t Be the Biggest Giver

Don’t Be the Biggest GiverThis might seem like an oxymoron but bear with us for a minute. 

You might think that being the biggest gift giver is the best way to surprise a friend or family member during a special occasion, but it often boomerangs on the gift giver. 

Here’s why.

There are tons of gift-giving faux pas, that will not only turn the receiver against you but also have everyone grimacing at you. Sure, not showing up with a gift at your niece’s birthday party won’t do you any favors or win any hearts over. That’s logical.

But remember, humans aren’t known for their logical thinking. 

If you show us with a pony while everyone else shopped at Toys “R” Us is a sure-fire way of making everyone uncomfortable, even your niece. Sociologists, another fancy name for folks who study human behavior, observed that people who are more altruistic than average often get the same treatment as stingy people. 

The same reason why some eccentric billionaire gets backlash for helping starving in developing countries often come into play when you go over the top in gift giving. You’re sort of reminding everyone else that you’re better than them. They will punish you for trying to show off. People in a group want other group members to tow the line and those that don’t get punished or exiled from the group. 

If you’re still wondering why everyone gave you the “eye” when you showed up with a pony for your niece’s birthday party, now you know. Going over the top in gift giving is a sure-fire way of ruining the surprise.

Now that you know how not to surprise someone with a gift let’s take a look at how to surprise someone with a gift.

How to Surprise Someone with a Gift All the Time

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1. Get them What they Explicitly Asked For

Get them What they Explicitly Asked ForNot much of a surprise here given that you already know people don’t like receiving unsolicited gifts. 

But how do you give someone a gift they’ve been dying to get without losing the element of surprise? They are sort of expecting (or hoping) you’ll get them that item for their birthday, aren’t they? Here are a couple of ways you can still surprise someone, even if they expect you to get them the gift.

2. Cash Always Seems to Be the Best Kind of Surprise

Cash Always Seems to Be the Best Kind of SurpriseAnother surprise, isn’t it? People seem to appreciate the lamest, unthoughtful, and most impersonal gift you can get them – cold hard cash. What does that say for that scientific studies concluded that it’s the thought and experience that count? 

No one did a follow-up study as to why money, something so material and thoughtless, goes against all the norms of gift giving. What we know for a fact is, getting a million dollars would be a bigger, and welcome surprise, than all the presents in the world wrapped up in one gigantic box. Researchers preoccupied with why and how money always makes up for a surprising gift regardless of the occasion uncovered some truly surprising things about humans.  

According to researchers, the love affair between people and money stems from the security it gives them. With money, you buy what you want, go where you want, and do almost everything you’d want. Money equals freedom. When you give someone a few hundred bucks on their birthday, you give them the freedom to do what they want. Maybe they’ll use the money to help with their tuition or pay rent. Money is a practical gift, and under the right circumstances, it shows you care about the person’s well-being.

There’s one caveat though when gifting someone money. If the recipient is not old enough to hold on to money or open up a bank account, money is probably the last gift they want. 

If you give your nephew $200 for their 8th birthday, someone is probably going to “put it aside” for them. That means while opening a birthday card with two folded $100 notes inside might give them a momentary jolt of excitement, they won’t be spending any of it on stuff they want.

3. Work on Your Delivery

Work on Your DeliveryWant to really surprise someone with a gift? Let’s say you’ve planned an engagement date for your girlfriend, and you’ve chosen the perfect engagement ring. She probably expects you to give her a gift on that special date, so that’s half the surprise gone. 

You can come up with creative ways to give a ring to your significant other by having someone give it to her. Try to make it so that you catch her off-guard. 

Plan and have the doorman, for instance, give her the ring when you’re leaving the restaurant. This will get you better results than having the waiter serve her a glass of wine with the ring in it. Movies have already turned this into a cliché. Now that will surprise her. 

Duping someone by delivery works in almost every situation. It doesn’t matter if it is your 5-year old son’s birthday party or your wedding anniversary. As long as they expect the gift to come from you, having someone deliver the present will always take them by surprise.

Don’t overdo it though, lest they become used to it.

4. Work on The Packaging or Location

Work on The Packaging or LocationIf you’re plagued with giving unsuccessful gifts, why not spice thing up with changing the location of delivery or the packaging. Here are several ways you can do this.

  • Take an otherwise bland packaging sure to disappoint the giftee and repurpose it into a gift wrapper for something really special. If it’s your wife’s birthday, you can hide an expensive necklace in a large cereal box. Watch the surprise on her face as she fishes out the necklace from the cereal box. 
  • Get a gift card and write down directions the receiver needs to follow to find their surprise gift. We all love treasure hunts, and this method is sure to work on both young and old recipients. Just make sure the gift is worth their effort though. 

Feel free to play around with these ideas of how to surprise someone with a gift. Add your unique twist, and every time, you can be sure a pleasant surprise on the recipient’s face. But whatever you do, don’t give into the temptation of dressing up in a scary costume to surprise that special someone in your life.

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