"Open your gift!" some folks will say upon immediately presenting you with a brightly wrapped box. Some of us are happy to oblige, ripping off the paper with an exuberance usually reserved for cheerleader movies. Others, however, experience anxiety when presented with a present. "What if I won't like it?" they think, wondering if they'll have to fake some enthusiasm. "What if it's embarrassing? What if I already have it?" Such internalized questions can seriously stress a person out, even if it isn't obvious to the excited gift-giver.
Though the concept might seem foreign to some, it's actually quite common and understandable. "[Gift-giving is] a way of showing how we feel about one another. An actual tangible gesture," explains Dr. Ben Michaelis, New York City-based clinical psychologist. "So it makes good sense that this is a highly charged event."
When you add on the layer of a public opening, he notes, there is some level of "performance" required. "There's an expectation that you're going to say, 'Oh I love it, it's great, it's perfect!' Some people are very sensitive to that."
When You Have to Open the Gift
Sometimes, it's necessary to bite the bullet even if gift-opening is uncomfortable for you, for instance if you're the guest of honor at a bridal or baby shower. "In those situations, where the opening of the gift is an activity of the event itself, go for it," says Canada's Etiquette Guy Jay Remer. "People who are attending the event expect that whatever gift they give is likely to be opened. It's part of the fun." So, if you decline to open gifts, the attendees, who went to significant effort and expense, might wonder why they bothered.
Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore opts to put the decision into the gift-giver's hands. "Whenever I'm presented with a gift, I usually say, 'Shall I open it now?' If the giver says, 'That's up to you,' I go ahead and open it [because] if I present someone with a gift, I want them to open it so I can see the happiness on their face."
When You Can Defer It
However, there is some wiggle room for tentative gift-openers on occasions, like a large birthday gathering or other event the recipient is hosting, like a housewarming. "I would never expect the host to open [the present] right then and there," Remer explains. "If it's a hostess gift, opening a gift actually becomes a job. You don't want to add to the responsibilities of the host. So, opening a gift at the hostess's convenience is totally fine."
For those who wish to beg off opening, Whitmore recommends a line like, "How lovely of you to think of me. I hope you don't mind if I open this gift a little later." Most people will take the cue. If they don't, however, opening it becomes necessary because, "you don't want to put the guest in an awkward position," Remer says.
If you get caught in such a situation there are a couple of things you can do to minimize the discomfort. "Take a second before you open the gift and remind yourself of the social protocol. It's better to overdo it than underdo it," Michaelis advises, noting that it's fine to fudge a little extra enthusiasm. "White lies in this circumstance are OK. It's part of the glue that keeps us together."
In the rare instance when gift-opening turns super uncomfortable, such as when the present is inappropriate or embarrassing, resist the urge to make a scene or be visibly affected. "Don't give those situations any power," Remer says, suggesting a quick 'thank you' is enough to diffuse the situation and move on. "The response should be kept to a minimum," he adds. "You may be the only one horrified in the whole thing. Everyone else may think it's howlingly funny, so put it aside and grab the next present."