Coworker Gift Exchanges and the Aggressively Generic Present

Photo credit: Ewen Roberts, CC BY 2.0.

I spent my early 20s working in a variety of settings, none of them the types of places where coworkers gave gifts. I got a candy cane out of a box from a colleague who was handing them out, I might have written a card or two, but there were no official or unofficial office gift exchanges. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a good thing.

When I started my current job two years ago, I shared an office with two other people—and they were friends who had been working together for ten years. Though I was the odd person out, the three of us ended up getting along well; still, I was surprised when they each brought in wrapped, medium-sized gifts for each other and for me. I felt a little ambushed, and ended up purchasing them last-minute gifts (beautifully designed but otherwise ordinary mugs from Starbucks that I bought while I was getting my own latte; they came with pretty boxes that didn’t even require wrapping paper!) to feel like I was reciprocating.

I will say right now that I dislike the institution of the coworker present exchange. It has nothing to do with my coworkers, who are clearly thoughtful and delightful and wouldn’t really be that upset if I chose to avoid buying them gifts. Instead, it has everything to do with the gray area people in your life, and how to treat them during gift-giving occasions. You know who these people are: they aren’t too distant to need a gift (ex-spouse’s new girlfriend) nor too close to avoid a gift (moms, best friends). The gray area people are great folks, but they certainly make it hard to know how much, if any, money you need to spend on them.

Coworkers are a particularly stark example of this. While my coworkers and I are friendly, I live out of town and have never spent time with them after work hours; we cooperate great and get our jobs done and share joys and sorrows occasionally, but I don’t consider them friends. It’s a nice thing, being a pleasant coworker, but we have little in common that would prompt us to do a gift exchange. I sort of wish that my coworkers had been sly about their gifts to each other that first year and just left me out of it, though I understand why they wanted me to be included.

Since I often don’t know these gray area people well enough to give them something I know they’d really like, I always end up resorting to AGPs, or aggressively generic presents. These are things like candles and coffee mugs, the latter emblazoned with something that you know about the other person, like a dog if they like dogs. I try to spend only between $5 and $10 on these gifts. When possible, I spend zero dollars on them, because if you can swing it, an AGP you receive from a gray area person in your life is perfect for regifting to a completely different gray area person.

I’d prefer to hand $10 to my coworkers rather than give them these gifts. (I wonder if they’d prefer the cash as well.) Instead I have to invest in an industry that, after a little while, is just a junk generator. I’ve got half a dozen candles around my house that are not new (so I can’t regift them), but they don’t smell good and thus don’t merit being burned. The same is true of the coffee mugs; I don’t need this many mugs!

I will, however, continue to give gifts to this particular set of coworkers because it is a language they understand; my coworkers feel loved when I hand them a tea towel with a silly saying on it, and who knows? Maybe they do need a new tea towel. As with so many purchases, what I spend my money on is not necessarily the functionality of the item, but the sentiment: in this case, “I like working with you.” As much as it makes me cringe to fuel an industry of things people probably can live without, for now I’m not extreme enough to reject it.

If I were in charge of an office, I’d vote for either a White Elephant or Secret Santa model. Random gifts or random pairings. This way, everyone only buys one thing and they get to make it a little less generic. You get all the warm fuzzies that my coworkers get from gifting, but you don’t contribute to the landfill of “I Hate Mondays” coffee mugs that must exist somewhere.

Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. Read more of her work at Messy Mapmaker.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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