The etiquette of re-gifting. Do it right or don’t do it at all.

Don’t get rid of this pile of gifts.
Don’t get rid of this pile of gifts.
Image: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi
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You spent all month and most of your money buying a bunch of presents for people you love. And all you got was this lousy t-shirt.

Still, before you toss that t-shirt back at your totally annoying aunt who does not have a clue what you want, or wrap it up for your friend with no taste, consider regifting more deeply. According to the Emily Post Institute on etiquette, politesse isn’t just about seeming to do the right thing but about honesty, integrity, and actually being respectful and respectable. So there are serious limits on what etiquette experts say you can give away.

Regifting, according to the institute, is “inherently deceitful.” You can do it but only if you can follow these two rules:

  1. Avoid deceit and hurt feelings.
  2. Be honest with yourself and others if you’re recycling presents.

“Honest in this case means being authentic and genuine, as well as not telling a partial truth,” the institute writes.

In other words, don’t wrap up that lousy t-shirt and give it to your friend pretending that you bought it for her—that’s rude and dishonest. But you can give your friend the t-shirt if you genuinely believe she will wear it and you don’t act like it’s a present, explaining that you received it and thought it might suit her.

If you do that though, make sure your friend and aunt do not travel in the same circles. Even if you’re honest with your friend, you must not hurt your aunt’s feelings.

Consider also that when you regift thoughtlessly, you send a signal to others that you’re not to be trusted—won’t your friend wonder what happened to all the t-shirts she bought you too, after you reveal you’re recycling?

There are scenarios in which regifting is appropriate, however. If you get two copies of the same book from two different people and have a literary buddy, give your friend the extra copy. But don’t pretend you bought it as a present. Tell the truth. “An unofficial gift of this sort isn’t wrapped,” writes the institute.

Similarly, if you’ve got a spare something and a friend in need of that spare, give it to them. Again, pretending you shopped for them isn’t cool—but giving a brand new coffeemaker to someone whose machine just broke while you are broke is sweet, and you needn’t be deceitful.

As for things you absolutely cannot give away, here are the etiquette experts’ rules:

  1. Never regift handmade items.
  2. Never regift personalized items (even if you share initials or a name with the recipient of the regift).
  3. Never regift anything used, or out of its packaging.

Most importantly, make sure that the gift you are giving away is something that someone else genuinely wants. In a culture with so much stuff, dumping unwanted presents on someone else is hardly a gift that is worth giving.