WASHINGTON — In this season of generosity, you want to give the perfect present, right?
Or maybe, you don't.
Research by Deborah Cohn, a marketing professor at the New York Institute of Technology, describes what many recipients have long suspected. Some people purposefully select gifts with the aim of sending a message. And when their gift is a dud, it's not just a gaffe.
A mother-in-law might give her new daughter-in-law a 12-piece cookware set with a card that says, "I know you can't cook, so thought this might help."
A husband might buy his wife a big-screen television for Christmas knowing full well it's really for him to watch during the Super Bowl party he's already planning.
Cohn's research paper, "Thanks, I Guess: What Consumers Complain About When They Complain About Gifts," puts an authoritative spin on why the holidays come with so many returns.
"One out of every three gift recipients in the U.S. returned at least one gift item during the 2013 holiday season with the total dollars of returned gifts estimated at $262.4 billion (not including fraudulent returns)," Cohn writes. "This figure does not include unwanted gifts that are not returned but kept in a closet, regifted, sold, donated or thrown away."
By combing through online message boards and conducting in-depth interviews, Cohn identified five categories of premeditated present selection that result in bad gift giving:
• Threats to self-concept. "This is when someone buys a gift to try to change someone," Cohn said in an interview. "But you are threatening who they are."
For instance, one wife told Cohn she hated the way her husband dressed.
"I buy a lot of clothes because he has horrible taste. I bought him burgundy pants, really dark burgundy pants and a silk shirt, which was really nice, and he's worn it twice because I forced him."
Really, that's what she wanted, for him to resent his gift?
On one message board, a woman complained that her mother-in-law repeatedly gave her pregnancy tests for Christmas. "She was telling her, not so subtly, that it was time to get pregnant and be a mom," Cohn wrote.
Another woman had decided to be a stay-at-home mom, but her mother, clearly disagreeing with the choice, kept buying her business suits.
"These types of gifts are not a good idea," Cohn said. "The recipients get angry. They get frustrated. If people don't want to waste their money, they shouldn't do this. Think about who they are and not who you want them to be."
• To you, for me. This would be the category for the big-screen TV husband.
You know you are buying the gift so that you can enjoy it. And you are not fooling anyone.
Although I must confess, I nearly did this just last week. I saw the most adorable Christmas-themed boxers. I was like, "Ooh, my husband would look so cute in these."
Then I imagined his response. "Um, not a chance."
I didn't buy the boxers. They were for me. (Saved myself $11.)
• Aggression. There are times when you are buying a gift and you know the person isn't going to like it. "Spiteful gifts are a symptom of a deteriorating relationship," Cohn writes in her paper.
Just before Christmas, a mother and her teenage daughter got into a fight. The mother gave the daughter a pocketknife and a Hershey bar along with a card that said: "Good luck in the wild."
"People are interpreting your gifts," Cohn said. "When you give gifts, people are asking, 'Why did I get this? What's the meaning behind it?'"
• Ritual and obligation. A lot of people fall into this category. There's no mischief intended but no thought given either.
Let's say there is an office gift exchange. You feel obligated to participate. But "you just get anything so that there is something to open at the event," Cohn said.
• Bragging. These bearers of gifts really get on my nerves. Their intention is to show off.
"In the case of bragging, gifts are given to provide the giver with the ability to brag or 'out-gift' another giver," Cohn writes.
This issue can blow up when, for example, grandparents ignore the wishes of parents who don't want their children to receive lavish gifts, especially because these presents often come with bragging rights.
Before you give, think about your motive, Cohn says.
Don't give out of spite or selfishness. Don't use a present to try to change someone or make a statement about the person's life choices.
The holidays can already be full of a lot of drama. Don't add to the tension by intentionally giving a bad gift.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at SingletaryM or Facebook at facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.