Ok, so here's my gift to you this festive season: it's an article about saying thank you. I hope you like it. Please say if you've already got one; I've kept the receipt and you can always swap it for, say, a few hundred words on recycling turkey or New Year's resolutions. Oh, and I wasn't sure about the size, so I went for a sort of medium length. I could make it a bit longer if that'll fit better. Or shorter. Or funnier. Just say. Actually now that I look at it again, I can already see that I've got it wrong, because it's supposed to be about how you receive gifts, not about how you give them. But then, of course, the two are closely related.
The paragraph you've just read is a fairly accurate representation of the way many people, my lovely mother included, give a present: wrapped in apology with a shiny ribbon of guilt squeezing all the pleasure out of it.
Don't for one moment fall for that, "Tell me if you don't like it" nonsense. Do so, and you might as well stab them straight in the heart, because they knew it was wrong, just knew it, and they're kicking themselves for wasting your time as well as their own money. This sort of negative gifting requires not just a thank you, but a reassurance.
"Oh my goodness, it's perfect. How could I possibly already have one? It looks unique to me. I did once see something similar, though nowhere near as good, and would have run into the shop and bought it there and then, but it seemed somehow, you know, too good for the likes of me. It's a gift fit for a king. It's a marvel. You shouldn't have." Nothing less will do.
At the other end of the spectrum is the casual, less-is-more approach to thanking. This is the one favoured – until I drummed it out of him – by my equally lovely husband. You unwrap the present, you look at the contents, you raise an eyebrow, smile and say: "Brilliant. Thanks." Which should suffice, of course, if the present has been handed over in a similarly casual, confident manner. But the latter type of response to the former type of giving is a deeply uncomfortable juxtaposition, take it from me.
Before I re-educated him in this matter, never a Christmas or birthday passed without my stomach clenching as my mother handed over her parcel, her apologetic preamble colliding head-on with his laid-back response. Before she'd even completed the ritual of fishing the receipt from her bag and proffering it to him so that he could swap what she now believed to an evident pile of crap for something a human being might actually want, he'd have opened it, thanked her and helped himself to another chocolate truffle.
It was to avoid more of this sort of social trauma that I tried, when our children were younger, to teach them the art of adequately thanking. Their birthday parties at Clown Planet (or some other bleak netherworld of primary-colours, Wotsits and vomit) are a dimly remembered blur to me, as I passed each one sitting in a corner with a notebook compiling a database that would connect each child guest to the gift they'd brought with them. This was, of course, so that my children's subsequent thank you cards could be as detailed and personal as possible. Because, let's not forget that the very word 'thanking' is etymologically tied to 'thinking'. How you thank someone connects deeply with how they think of you.
It was when I discovered an entire stash of these bread-and-butter letters crumpled at the bottom of my son's school bag some months after his birthday that I realised that all his friends' parents clearly thought of him as the ungrateful product of a mannerless mother anyway, so I might as well chill out about the whole thing.
Naturally, I consider my own thanking style to be flawless. I won't, however, say that that I haven't had my challenges. One of the greatest was when our son was a few weeks old and my brother bought his first-ever Christmas present as an uncle. Described on the box as a "fishy friend for bathtime fun" it was – I now see – a googly-eyed plastic goldfish. Indeed, if you held it the right way up, it looked like a googly-eyed plastic goldfish. Unfortunately, I opened it the wrong way, so the present I thought my brother had bought his baby nephew was a blood-red, wild-eyed, scrawny-necked, flayed severed head; a frankly terrifying friend for bathtime or any other conceivable type of fun, except perhaps the sort that you might find on some arcane, special interest websites. How do you say thank you for a gift like that?
Fortunately, I could honestly say that we didn't already have one, that it was really... unusual, and that we wouldn't be taking it back to the shop – I wasn't planning to go within a mile of wherever the hell that came from. But he could tell I was hedging. I saw his face fall. He knew I hated it, and he couldn't see why. He was baffled. I was frankly a little disgusted. Christmas was frostier than anyone could have anticipated. Perhaps I should have thanked him profusely even if I did find his choice of gift repellent.
A friend's grandmother reputedly always expanded on her thank yous by adding a demonstration of the myriad uses for whatever she'd been given. So if she received a scarf, she'd put it on her head and say: "You can do this with it", then put it around her neck, then around her waist, her wrist, her ankle, finding increasingly improbable uses for this fabulously versatile new item. Maybe that's what I should have done with the bug-eyed death's head.
The fact is that no thank you is ever going to be right. Too little and you sound spoilt; too much and you sound like you're taking the mickey. Maybe we should do away with them altogether and carry out both the giving and receiving of gifts in private, featureless cubicles like they have in sex clubs... apparently. It's not an ideal solution, but it's the best I can offer, so I hope it'll suffice. Do say if not. I can always change it. Oh, and there's no need to thank me. Really. No need at all... What was that? Oh, you didn't. Honestly, some people are SO ungrateful.
"This is one instance in life when lying is critical," explains Liz Wyse, etiquette adviser at Debrett's. Disguise all disappointment.
Send your note within a week of receipt. "Start by saying 'Thank you for...' then follow up with a comment that will convey your enjoyment of what's been given you," Wyse suggests. Failing that, use generic platitudes: "Such a lovely thought" or "How kind of you to think of me".
Always send a note – "No matter how small and unliked the gift". Unless, of course, the giver handed you a present in person and you opened it in front of them, in which case this would be vulgar over-elaboration.
If your children are too small, write a note for them. But as soon as they're old enough to pen a sentence, get them to write it themselves. "You need to get them into the habit as soon as they're competent."
Beware re-gifting. In theory, recycling is to be encouraged; in practice you must think carefully about the provenance of the gift. "Do not re-gift within similar social or family circles. This is an atrocious faux-pas".
By Charlotte Philby