Topic: Society

The Ethics of Regifting

In a famous episode, the sitcom “Seinfeld” attached the term “regifting” to the practice of wrapping up a recently received gift and giving it to someone else. The word has entered the lexicon, and now we have a name for a much-derided act that has probably been around since a Neanderthal gave his neighbor a new club. “Seinfeld” took the traditional position that regifting was inherently tacky and wrong, an insult to the original giver and a form of deception toward the new giftee. ‘Tis the season for regifting, so the Ethics Scoreboard is obligated to answer the burning question: is it ethical to regift?

The answer, as in many ethical problems, is that it depends. The old cliché that when giving gifts “it’s the thought that counts” is true. Giving is a form of communication, and a gift is ethical if the giver’s message is both benign and true, and the giver’s intent is virtuous. But before we examine the ethics of regifting, let us consider the proper conduct when a gift recipient is placed in the situation that often spawns regifting: he or she doesn’t like or want someone’s well-intentioned gift. What is the ethical response?

The ethical response is to be gracious and thankful, not necessarily because of what the gift is, but because it was given. A giver should be accorded the presumption of good will and generosity. The gift may be useless, ugly, or misguided only because the giver is unoriginal, tasteless, or poor. Any and every gift, no matter how humble or ill-considered, should inspire a genuine expression of gratitude.

And how does one respond to the question, “Do you really like it?”

“Yes.” In the “Encyclopedia of Ethical Lies,” this one is near the top. The alternative answer “I hate it,” on the other hand, is featured prominently in the “Misanthrope’s Big Book of Unnecessary and Harmful Honesty,” along with, “Yes, dear, it makes you look fat as a pig,” “I did read your letter to the editor, and I’m frankly shocked they would print such drivel,” and “I may look the same as I did in college, but your bout with cancer has left you looking like Freddy Krueger.”

If the gift is clothing and it’s too small or too big, by all means say so; if you think you may exchange it for another color, be direct about that too. But if you are planning to sell the gift on eBay, leave it on someone’s doorstep, burn it, give it to charity or regift it, keep that information to yourself. You are not obligated to divulge every detail of what you plan to do with your own personal property, even to the person who just gave it to you and especially if that information would be hurtful. Just take reasonable precautions not to get rid of the gift you said you liked in a way that is likely to come to the attention of the giver. This was one of the themes in the “Seinfeld” episode. The giver of the gift you don’t want or need was presumably trying to do something nice; it’s wrong to reciprocate with a metaphorical slap in the face by openly dumping it.

Now we return to the act of regifting, the ethics of which depends upon the thought behind the act. Here is a simple reference list, arranged from most ethical to least ethical, for the aspiring regifter.

Ethical Ranking of Reasons for Regifting

  1. “Someone I really care about gave this to me, and I want to give it to you.” ETHICAL
  2. “I love this gift, but it struck me that it was something you really need/want/ will love even more.” ETHICAL
  3. “I’m financially strapped this year, and I just can’t afford to give you what I’d like to. But I can give you this wonderful gift, which was given to me.” ETHICAL
  4. “This was given to me, but it really isn’t my style/I already have one, and I know you will enjoy it more than I ever could.” ETHICAL
  5. “Everything went wrong this year and I had absolutely no time to shop. I looked around the house for something you would like, and came up with this, which was just given to me. The alternative was not to give you anything or give you cash, which is a boring gift. I just hope you like it.” ETHICAL
  6. “I was given one of these, and liked it so much I decided to get you one too. I actually found a better one, so I kept that one for myself. Here’s the inferior one.” ETHICAL (but just barely!)
  7. “I don’t like this gift I was given at all, but maybe you’ll like it more. This way I get rid of something I don’t want and get a gift out of the way. It’s worth a shot.” UNETHICAL
  8. “I don’t feel like spending any money on you, so I decided to pass along this gift I received. I have no idea if you like this sort of thing or not, but hey: a gift’s a gift.” UNETHICAL
  9. “I want to get credit for giving you a gift, but don’t want to spend any time, thought, or cash finding something meaningful, considerate or thoughtful, so I just wrapped up this gift that I would throw out anyway, and here it is!” UNETHICAL
  10. “I don’t want to look like a creep by not giving you anything, so I grabbed this pathetic gift that obviously was given to me for the same reason and I’m giving it to you.” UNETHICAL

What is the key factor in assessing whether a regift is ethical or not? It is whether you could honestly explain why you are regifting to the recipient without disappointing them or hurting their feelings. The first five reasons pass this test; the last five do not. As long as the act of passing along a gift still embodies generosity, respect and affection, there is nothing wrong with regifting at all.

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