Nearly everyone has had the experience of opening a totally unsuitable gift. It might have been a piece of clothing you'd never consider wearing, something that's a tad inappropriate, or simply an item that shows the other person didn't put much thought into their choice.

Less-than-ideal gifts are inevitable, and you really can only control how you react to them. So as the holidays approach, you may want to consider practicing your best fake smile (or at least keeping your expression at neutral) for those moments when you open a box containing a much-too-flowery scented candle, or the latest novel from an author who bores you to tears.

Two people look shocked opening a present.

You don't want to give gifts that provoke this reaction. Image source: Getty Images.

The gifts that keep on ... getting returned to the store

Still, it's worth remembering that a bad gift often isn't a thoughtless one. A person who loves super-warm novelty socks might consider them a great present, and somebody who collects teddy bears may have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to recognizing that they're a pretty odd item for one adult to give to another.

Many bad gift-givers, however, are repeat offenders. According to a recent survey conducted on behalf of, a company that sells gift cards, "45% of respondents said the person who gave them their 'worst' gift ever gave them bad gifts on more than one occasion."

And what were those worst gifts? By category, 39% were food and household items. That was followed by clothes (28.4%), accessories and toiletries (12.3%), and books, toys, and games (7%).

When it comes to more specifics bad gifts, survey respondents came back with a broad list of responses. Decorations led the way at 11.4%, just edging out "socks and underwear," which was named by 9.4% of respondents, and household gadgets at 9%.

A list of what people think the worst gifts are.

Data source:

But if there's any obvious takeaway from the chart above, its that the wide array of selections on it shows that people don't really agree about what makes a gift good or bad. So if you find a lot of people on your list challenging to shop for -- and have come to realize, based on what you've received in past years, that they may feel the same way about you -- know that you're far from alone. And realize that there's a strong chance that someone's attempt to be thoughtful next month will still be disappointing.

Start with the gift of honest communication

Adults tend to be quiet about what they want because it's seen as tacky to have a wish list once you're too old to write letters to Santa Claus. But giving and getting suitable gifts requires communication.

In most cases, you know who'll be trying to figure out what to give you -- it's not a bad idea to help them out by talking in broad terms about what you might like. If you feel the need to be subtle -- fine, use a third party to relay the information. But the easiest way to avoid having to plaster a fake smile on your face in December is to be less embarrassed about giving the people in your life some better hints during November.
From your position as the gift-giver, there are two basic strategies to avoid disappointing people. The first is to remember that gift-giving is rarely about what you like, it's about what they like. And figuring that out can require doing a bit of homework.
The second is that you'll be doing them a favor if you flat out ask for some guidance, at least in broad terms. What would be a mildly uncomfortable conversation for the recipient to start will be less so if you as the giver broach the subject. And putting in that effort will help save you from wasting your money now, and spare your friends and family members from having to feign delight later.