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Auntie SparkNotes: Present Imperfect

Auntie SparkNotes: Present Imperfect

Hey Auntie!

So this isn't exactly a serious problem, but more of a social-etiquette question: is there any acceptable way to tell someone that you want to return the present they got you (if it's not clothes)?

There was this one thing (a makeup thing, in particular. I know, I'm a girl!) that I really, really wanted for Christmas. It was one of the only things on my list this year. I told my stepmom beforehand that I wanted this, and she said no problem! I literally jumped in the air out of pure joy and spent the whole week being extra nice to her because I was so happy.

But when I opened presents, alas, she didn't get me my special makeup-thingy but a different makeup thingy, one by a brand that I don't like that much. I really hate writing this email because love my stepmom a lot and I love the fact that she took time out of her life to get me something, I mean she's been really stressed out lately from work and it's so nice that she spent time on me! I hate feeling disappointed in what I got, but I can't help it, and I feel kind of like an ungrateful jerk. I'm just (and I told her this) VERY particular about what I put on my face, I have wanted this thing for a long time, and I really trusted my stepmom to get it right. Is there any way I can tell her nicely that I want to return what she got me to get what I wanted?

The short answer to your question: there is, indeed, a nice way to tell someone that you'd like to exchange their gift. But before we go there, I've just got to ask: do we need to? As in, are you completely, utterly, one-hundred-percentedly sure that you don't want to use what she got you—or if not, that you can't just make the exchange quietly, privately, without ever having to tell her that you did?

Because in the protocol for Gracious Acceptance of Not-Quite-Right Gifts, those are steps one and two—since the best possible outcome of poor giftery is one in which the giftee gets what she wants, and the gifter never knows that he missed the mark*.

*Exception: if you're in a long-term relationship with someone who repeatedly gifts you with things that you hate, some gentle correction (along with some concrete examples of things you would like to receive) is both acceptable and necessary. (Or in other words: "Darling, I love the thought you put into getting gifts for me, but I'm not actually the biggest fan of chia pets made to look like the characters from 'Twilight.' Or chia pets in general. But I do love cheese!")

So, basically, if you can skip the part where you complain about your gift and simply exchange it, offstage, for the thing that you'd asked for, please do so.

But if you can't do that, then do this:

1) Stop assigning so much meaning to the fact that your stepmom got you the right gift but the wrong brand; this isn't about her trustworthiness or her ability to listen to you; it's about her being stressed out and strapped for time to shop. Or maybe she remembered the gift but forgot the details. Or maybe she's one of those people who just doesn't grasp the importance of brands, period. (We exist!) And unless this ends up being the first in a long line of gifts that miss the mark, there's nothing more to this disappointment than a simple, common misunderstanding.

2) And now that you're not bringing a bunch of emotional baggage to the conversation, tell your stepmom that you're thrilled with your gift, and that it meant so much to you that she went out of her way to get you something you really wanted, but that—and say it's your fault—you forgot to mention that you can really only use x, y, and z brands of makeup because your skin is extremely sensitive. (Yes, I know, you told her the particulars already and the part where it's your fault for not mentioning it is a total lie. Say it anyway.)

And there you have it: a nice and non-blame-assigning way to say that you want to exchange your gift, and a valuable lesson in handling awkward holiday ish like a motherfranking adult. And also, maybe, a chance to bond with your stepmom while you both get quickie Sephora makeovers on your way to make the big switch.

Have you ever been disappointed by a gift? How'd you handle it? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at

Related post: Auntie SparkNotes' Budget Gift Guide

Topics: Advice
Tags: etiquette, auntie sparknotes, gifts, makeup, presents, stepmothers

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About the Author

Kat Rosenfield is a writer, illustrator, advice columnist, YA author, and enthusiastic licker of that plastic liner that comes inside a box of Cheez-Its. She loves zombies and cats. She hates zombie cats. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr @katrosenfield.

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