Welcome to The FAQs of Life, R29's new advice column. Each week, Colette will offer her sage wisdom on modern life and all its stumbling blocks. If you've got a query you'd like her to take on, send it to FAQs@refinery29.com or leave it in the comments.
THE Q: At what age are we no longer required to buy birthday presents for our friends? A casual friend’s 27th birthday is fast approaching, and I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to go scavenging through some department store to buy her an overpriced gift that I’m not even sure she’ll like.
Normally, I wouldn’t even give this a second thought, but the friend in question brought a wrapped present to my birthday last year, even though I didn’t expect or ask for gifts. Do I have to? — Ungifted With Gifts
The A: Don't get her anything.
Not to be esoteric and annoying, UNGIFTED, but the answer lies within your question: You’re only thinking of buying something because you want absolution from guilt. That’s not a gift, that’s a payment. If you were genuinely and deeply invested in this friend’s emotional barometer, you would’ve bought her a present already, because you would’ve wanted to buy her a present. But, you don't want to, so don’t. Remember: It’s the thought that counts, and if you haven’t put any thought into this gift, it might as well not exist.
That might sound a little harsh, but it’s true. (This is what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real — The Real World: Friend Zone.) I have no doubt that you would liquidate all of your assets and exchange all your Bitcoins to make your best friend smile on an average Wednesday. You would give until the Giving Tree looked stingy. Yet, you — who could one-up the Giving Tree — don’t feel compelled to buy a gift for a friend’s upcoming birthday. That's OK! While you should treat all people in your life, both the protagonists and the Glen Cocos, with respect and empathy, you have to be discerning when it comes to devoting your nonrenewable resources (both emotional and financial) to other living human beings.
It may seem like I’m ascribing too much significance to one measly birthday gift — I mean, it’s not like a clutch from Forever 21 would break the bank — but I think it’s important to negotiate boundaries for ourselves and remember that we don’t have to be everyone’s everything. Acquaintances are different from friends, who are different from close friends, who are different from baes. All are integral to your life and valued, but there have to be different levels of investment. They don’t all know what you really did last Saturday when you were allegedly having a “quiet night in.” They don’t all get gifts. I know that in elementary school, you had to give one of your cute Ninja Turtles Valentines to every kid in class, even the mean girl who called you “fat,” because that’s how little kids were taught not to be terrifying, id-ruled monsters, but the rules change once you get to adulthood.
I understand that this friend bought you a present for your birthday, and your sense of decorum dictates that a reciprocal gift is in order, but that’s bullshit. When it comes to birthdays, buying a gift is voluntary and paying for a round of shots is highly encouraged. (Only scream-singing “Birthday Sex” in a public venue is mandatory.) Gifts don’t require gifts. Gifts should have significance; they should be born of generosity and love. If you’re only giving someone a gift out of obligation or debt fulfillment (who are you, a Lannister?), the exchange is deflated and sad.
There are a ton of legitimate and necessary gift exchanges. In some situations, if you don’t show up with a gift, you’re in danger of instigating a real-life blood feud. I’ve given passive-aggressive gifts, Required by Familial Law gifts, gifts that were more apologies than gifts; I’ve given gifts to babies on their first birthdays and, like, I didn’t even know those babies.
But, a relationship between two adults isn’t modeled on an old-timey general store on the Oregon Trail: It isn’t about bartering and trading until you get what you are “owed.” A friendship shouldn’t be a running tally of who gave what when.
“There's no hard-and-fast rule to birthday presents,” says Jung Lee, co-founder of the event-planning firm Fête. “I always believe that giving a meaningful, thoughtful gift is more important than how much you spend.” If you can’t stomach the idea of showing up to a birthday party empty-handed, bring along a small treat that, while not as formal (or expensive) as a wrapped present, will still demonstrate your thought and well wishes. “Some flowers or cookies from your favorite bakery and your presence at her birthday celebration should do the trick,” Lee suggests. But, as she points out, “good intentions” are more important than any gift card or box of Magnolia cupcakes, “so make sure [your friend] knows that you're there to celebrate her day — and, of course, buy her a drink!"
Honestly, UNGIFTED, your friend probably won’t even notice that you didn’t come to her party bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Or, the millennial equivalents: gift card, a bottle of Bath & Body Works lotion, and candles.) If she does notice your lack of gift and seems hurt by the omission, you have one of two problems: 1. She only bought you a present in order to set the stage for reciprocity on her birthday, or 2. She has a different perception of your relationship than you do, and in her eyes the two of you are a lot closer. If it’s the former, don’t worry about it; you’re both terrible, and you deserve each other. (Just kidding!) (Kinda.) If it’s the latter and she thinks you’re her bosom buddy, well, that’s a real problem that's not going to be solved with a single gift.
Your only real task is to be the ultimate birthday companion, UNGIFTED. Buy a round of Fireball shots if that’s what your friend is into, even though you know they contain a chemical found in antifreeze. Dutifully join the birthday girl when she tries to re-create Beyoncé’s iconic “Drunk In Love” floppy dance in the middle of the bar. Lift your friend up with your actions and exuberant presence. Give her the best gift that money can’t buy: Refrain from posting a single unflattering picture of her at her party. And, if you really, really can’t handle walking into the bash without a gift and avoiding the topic for the rest of the night, just lie. Thanks to the online-shopping boom and the simultaneous decline of the U.S. Postal Service, any gift — even one you didn't actually buy — can be "in the mail."