Never give a gift again: a how-to by Derrida

Some people believe that the best form of gift-giving is to give and expect nothing in return.

This does sound noble. 

The philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that in order for a gift to truly be a gift, there can be no benefit to the giver.

There can be zero benefit to the giver.

None at all.

The receiver can’t say thank you or even acknowledge that a gift has been given. The giver can’t feel a warm feeling inside, let alone consciously give a gift

So if I buy a Rolex, leave it on a park bench and think that it’ll make someone’s day to have it, that’s not a gift. But if I walk down the street in my gym clothes and someone sees me and thinks ‘Wow, I feel inspired me to go to the gym’ That's a gift.

If I say to myself ‘I must remember that Bond Street tube station is closed’ and someone randomly overhears me and thinks ‘Thank goodness I know that golden nugget of information – I can find an alternative route’ then that's a gift.

There are obvious wins with Derrida’s theory and I will name three.


If you don’t know when you’re giving a gift, you could, theoretically, be giving gifts all the time without knowing it which is a lovely thought.  Maybe the universe will reward you for this. 


It’s a very cost-effective theory. You can’t buy anything intended it to be a gift.


It encourages the giver to not be materialistic or conceited.

There are also some very obvious problems:


If you want to give a gift to a specific person, you can’t.


You might give undeserving people gifts. 


You can't enjoy the feeling of giving.


You’d be a pariah at birthday and Christmas parties.

Your dad: What are you giving mum for her birthday?
You: I am consciously giving her nothing. I might be giving her something unconsciously. I’ll never know.

Gift giving ideas inspired by Derrida:

  • Be kind
  • Make good choices

But don’t think about it.

Throwback Thursday: Dwarf-giving

While searching online for hairstyle inspiration, I came across noblewoman Isabella Clara Eugenia. 

She was born on the 12th August 1598 to Philip II of Spain (known as Philip the Prudent) and his third wife Elisabeth of Valois.

She appears to have been an intelligent and practical person, able to translate court documents for her father and nurse him on his sickbed.

But she also gave dwarves as gifts.

Dwarves - as in people of short stature.

Further research proves that she wasn’t the only one! Dwarf-giving was a thing. At one time, it was considered the gift for aristocrats who had everything.

Once a dwarf was given, it appears they were accepted into court life. In her article ‘Inventoried Monsters’, art historian Touba Ghadessi suggests that the gift-giving process had a metamorphic effect on the way dwarves were perceived. They went from ‘objects to subjects’. 

However, the historian Janet Ravenscroft argues that dwarves were already perceived as special and intriguing. In fact, in Egypt during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods, dwarves were treated with extreme reverence. Their rarity made them the ideal gift. 

Isabella gave a dwarf to Philip IV of Spain. His name was Miguel Soplillo and he became the king’s close companion for over 40 years. 

Here is a picture of the two together:

Miguel Soplillo | Laughing Heart

Perhaps having such power over a person, the power to alter their destiny, move them around socially and dominate them physically must have made both the giver and receiver feel God-like. I read Philip’s hand on Miguel’s head as hinting at that. 

With whatever reverence dwarves were treated, however good their lives became through closeness to a monarch, exchanging people is a troubling occurrence in the history of gift-giving.

Being treated in certain way because of your size must have grown old, fast.

I remember being on the London Underground with a colleague, Emily, who is over six feet tall. A man stood next to her said: ‘You’re tall’ as though this was brand new information. 'Yes,' she said, 'I am'. 

Emily said it happened all the time. It was annoying but that was the extent of it. Emily was able to pursue and select a career of her choice, pick her company and didn't live in fear of being acquired, gift-wrapped and sent to the Queen. 

Dealing with ingratitude

‘There always will be homicides, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, ravishers, sacrilegious traitors: worse than all these is the ungrateful man.’  - Seneca

It hurts when someone is ungrateful.

Story time: I gave an ex-boyfriend's mother some chocolates on meeting her for the first time. I thought long and hard about what to give her and then lost my mind. I ended up spending two hours and  £40 on chocolates from Fortnum and Masons (I know this is ridiculous, I was young and my mind wasn't fully developed)

When I handed the box to her she said: 'Oh, God. I really don't like these!' and then handed the box back to me

I could've cried. I can't remember if i did actually cry, but i do remember that hot burning feeling at the back of my throat, the kind of feeling you get before you're about to weep yourself into dehydration. 

She was (and still is presumably) exceptionally rude, there was no doubt about that. 

I couldn't change her behaviour, but I could certainly change mine. 

I came up with a tongue-in-cheek series of questions to help me deal with ingratitude. I will share them with you:

1.   How good was the gift?

The gold-standard of gift giving is donating an organ

The silver standard of giving a person is something they want

The bronze standard is giving someone something useful

Does your gift win any medals?

2.    Can I change the way I present gifts?

If you give gifts with great theatrical fanfare and make a spectacle of it, then it's likely that any response will disappoint you. If you give in a sensible, humble and quiet way, you are more likely to be satisfied by the response you get. 

3.    Should I stop giving this person a gift?

Know when to cut your losses. It’s difficult to know when to strike someone off your present list. Sit down and work out whether you have, on balance, spent more thought on them (in life, not just in the gift-giving arena) than they have on you. If that’s the case it’s not good enough! Cut them loose! 

If you feel that you have to give them a gift, asking them what they actually want could benefit you both.

And my final thought:

Don’t ruminate on ingratitude

After you’ve figure out your plan of action to either improve your gift-giving game or to cut someone loose, don’t think about the past. If you think about any negative past events too much, you’ll become depressed. Focus on the future. 


Cycling Sindy and the Christmas of invisible tears

When I was a little girl the only item that I remember really yearning for was the Sindy doll which came with a little white walking dog, called Gogo.

When adverts for the Sindy and Gogo doll were shown on TV, my heart soared. It was the most brilliant and technically-advanced toy ever created.

I knew that if I brought Gogo into school, I would be, for at least one glorious day, the popular girl in the playground.

I'd been direct with my parents. I wrote them a note requesting this particular doll and nothing else. I wasn't really into dolls, but this was something special.

When Christmas Day came, I made a bee-line for the Cindy and Gogo-sized box. I unwrapped it and inside I found Cycling Sindy and 'Fun Bike'. For the first time, Sindy's perma-smile repulsed me. 

It was a terrible moment.

How could my parents get it so wrong? I had been so clear. 

I didn't dare show the torment that I felt. It was acute.

As I unwrapped the gift fully, I honestly remember thinking that I’d better make the best of it.

So I played with Sindy and her silly dangly broken-at-the-knee legs and the bicycle which was pointy and sharp. I played until I could bear it no longer. Such a martyr.

Tell me about your biggest gift disappointment and how you managed to stay strong.

Step-by-step guide to managing gift disappointment:

  • Receive the gift with both hands
  • Thank the giver. Even before you tear off the wrapping. It's nice that they thought to give you anything at all, so say that.
  • Think of one great thing to say about the gift. If I'd had a bit more wherewithal, I would have said 'Mum, Dad, thank you. This bicycle is so intricate.'
  •  Put the gift somewhere safe, or on display for the afternoon. Don't leave a gift on the floor (unless it's a table or a bed).

Knives (and spoons) as gifts: investigating the superstition.


Giving a knife as a gift is supposed to be symbolic of cutting the ties of friendship.

People have been known to give a coin to the giver in return so that it technically isn’t a gift.

It occurred to me that I’ve been given three knives in my life which, after typing that, sounds like three too many.

I believe enough time has passed for me to conclusively state whether knives foretell the demise of a friendship.

1. Kukri

laughing heart gifts | knives

This Nepalese knife was a gift from my friend Ben (who also features here)

Ben lived in Kathmandu for a couple of years. I asked him why he bought it, expecting to hear some profound reasoning but he just said that it was one of the finer generic gifts from Nepal. He added: ‘I used one to cleave bubble wrap from a mattress and it was one of the most pleasurably visceral experiences of my life.’

State of our friendship: Solid.

2. Robert Welch steak knives

 These were a wedding gift from a school friend.

State of our friendship: Very poor. At the wedding, the individual got so drunk that the got caught up in my dress, tore it and photobombed pictures of me with my family. There are some actions that fall into the category of unforgivable. On reflection, perhaps there are only two:  treating a wedding reception like a night at the student union is one. Ripping someone’s wedding dress is another.

3. Cake knife

A wedding gift from friends of my husband’s parents.

State of our friendship: Unchanged. Our friendship level has remained completely constant because we rarely see the couple. Also, cake knives aren't designed to have the hewing strength, of say, a meat cleaver, so if knives are a symbol of cutting off a relationship then it would be a very soft friendship for a cake knife to do damage.


My findings are mixed. I conclude that you shouldn't worry about it. If you want to give a knife, give a knife.

Hopefully your friendship is stronger than superstition but if you want to ask for a penny in return, go for it but just make sure you do it in a safe environment where your intentions cannot be misconstrued (i.e. don’t brandish a knife and demand cash).

Before purchasing a knife, consider a spoon. An elderly couple (in their nineties) who live in the village where I grew up and have known me since I was a baby, gave me a Welsh love spoon when I got married. It’s lovely.

While typing this, I realise that our friendship has been the longest lasting of them all.

'I think this belonged to your ex...'

I went on a few dates with a Norwegian which happened to fall over the Christmas period. On the night before returning to his homeland, he called at my flat with red glitter all over his pale, chiselled, Scandinavian face.

On my doorstep in the cold and dark he presented a gift wrapped in red glittery wrapping paper. It was a very sweet scene. I welcomed him into my living room where my two flatmates sat, eager to find out what was in the package.

I was reluctant to open the gift with an audience, but he told me to open it, so I did. It was a copy of the collected plays of Henrik Ibsen.


What’s wrong with that? I hear you ask. Nothing. But when I flicked through the book, there was something tucked between the pages: a photograph of the Norwegian. And his ex-girlfriend.

I thumbed further through the book, it felt as though there was something else. Yes, yes there was! The stub of a plane ticket which belonged to her.

It had once been her book.

My two flatmates and I looked down at the floor. The Norwegian looked away. I must say that he recovered it well. Early the next morning, he posted an Moleskine notepad through my letter box, with a card which read: “No nasty surprises in this book. Fill it with your poems.”

The Norwegian was a recycler of gifts sure, but he was also a good guy with a sense of humour. It wasn't meant to be between us but he wins the award for the best recovery.

The riddle of the mug

I went out with a really strange person, just as I was finishing my degree.

He was good-looking, charming. Not my usual type. We went on a few walks, went to the cinema, held hands. I went to watch him perform as an extra in a play. I heard some stories which made me suspect that he wasn't being entirely honourable but he was just good looking enough that it was possible to ignore them.

He turned up at my birthday party, a beach party, with a gift. A mug wrapped in a plastic bag.


It was a porcelain mug with a table of imperial to metric conversions printed on it.

Because I had no confidence at the time, I was polite and grateful when it was presented, but I thought privately: ‘Why did he give me such a rubbish, thoughtless gift?’ After all, we talked about the arts!

On serious reflection, maybe it was I who talked about the arts. He just swung his head melodramatically from looking brooding and quizzical to looking pensively into middle distance. Maybe I'd misinterpreted him.

Back to the mug.

Giving me the gift of a mug was puzzling, but giving me a mug with a numerical table on it was completely inappropriate.

He left the party early. My friends and I huddled around the mug, passing it between us, trying to work out what it meant.

It was £7.99 the label told us - he could have bought a book for less. Or a beaded necklace. Or a pretty notebook. We knew that he'd bought it from a shop in the middle of town, and, from later investigations, I learnt that this range of mugs was displayed on the top shelf of a dusty cabinet at the back of the store. He must have searched for a while. He must have passed all of the other slightly more interesting gifts en route.

But then, in the spark of imagination which is only experienced by an English literature student looking for meaning in the apparently meaningless, I realised he'd given me this gift because I was the mug.

The mug was his way of saying that the relationship was over.

Perhaps a doormat would have been more appropriate.