Gifts for People You Hate 2014: The Almost-Generic Edition

Hey, someone on MetaFilter found my gift-giving advice posts and linked them! This is both exciting…and made me realize I needed to get a move on for this year’s helpful gift shopping post. Thanksgiving was really late and I was sort of surprised today to realize how little time left there is.

So, to recap: sometimes, you have to give gifts to people you dislike, because your family dynamics or unwritten workplace rules require it and not handing over something wrapped up in a box or gift bag would be a THING, and it’s worth spending some money (as little as possible, of course) to keep the peace.

The basic principles are the same every year. (1) Cheap, but untraceably cheap; if you buy them some bad wine, it can’t be Charles Shaw, because everyone knows that was only $3. (2) Minimal effort; should be something you can buy on your other errands or order online with everyone else’s gifts. (3) Something you might have plausibly thought they might like, since if you wanted to be confrontational you could have just refused to buy them anything.

As always, I want to note that I don’t shop for anyone I don’t like — this annual series came out of hearing a lot of friends talk about the annual trauma of buying something for their obnoxious BIL or their least-favorite coworker they somehow drew for the office Secret Santa. If I do give you a gift, and you hate it, I swear it was accidental. The vast majority of bad gift-giving is accidental, which of course is the cover you need for your deliberate bad gift.

This year’s theme is “Almost Generic.” Even more common than the “I really don’t like this person” problem is the “I really don’t know this person all that well” problem, which is why every store from Walgreens to Macys is loaded up with the sort of generic gifts that satisfy a general recurring need in some way, or accomplish some common yet specialized task in a more-efficient way. (Key chain fobs that will talk to your smartphone and tell you where your keys are! Freezable wine chilling tubes!)

Gloves, Scarves, Hats

If you live in a cold climate, you probably go through a fair number of gloves, hats, and scarves, because this stuff gets lost a lot. It also gets dingy over time. Some people like to have multiple sets in various colors to coordinate with outfits. (I care about color only in that I’ve started buying all my gloves in pink whenever possible, because Molly won’t borrow pink stuff.)

Here is a very inexpensive “cashmere feel” acrylic scarf that can be dropped into a gift bag and presented to just about anyone who doesn’t live in Miami as a perfectly acceptable winter gift. Available colors include traffic-cone orange and a shade of purple that will only appeal to people who truly love the color purple. This scarf is cheaper and available in some really unappealing moss greens.

You could also give these budget-priced leather driving gloves” which, according to the reviews, will fall apart within days. They’re also available in a women’s style; these are better reviewed overall aside from not fitting people with adult-sized hands. (Note: you can’t actually order these for this Christmas; they’re shipped from China and won’t come from January. However, low-quality leather driving gloves are available all over. If you’re trying them on in person, you can pick some with a scratchy tag and a stiff feel.)

For a hat, look to Land’s End. Usually, they’re a source of high-quality merchandise, but the reviews for their fleece hats complain vehemently that they are too small for adult heads.


Slippers are a classic Christmas gift. Who doesn’t like a nice pair of slippers? The thing is, most people have some fairly strong preferences, first among them clog-style vs. NOT. Think about the shoes and slippers you’ve seen your recipient wear in the past. If they’re full-coverage, go for clog style slippers: men’s women’s.


Wallets are one of those “you had one job!” items. You carry it in a pocket or a purse and it’s supposed to hold your credit cards and cash so they don’t fall out. This one is apparently oversized and made of unattractive materials (but one of the reviewers will also assure you that it’s “manly,” so no worries about the “purse” bit in the description.) This one is apparently put together in such a way that if you don’t fill it up, your stuff will fall out, and if you do fill it up, the clasp won’t snap. (Alas! You won’t be able to get that one for Christmas this year — it’s shipped from China and they don’t appear to have a “priority shipping” option that would get it here in time.)


I have a friend who fixes watches for a living. He will tell you that a Timex is better, in the sense of accurately telling time, than any expensive watch; expensive watches are mechanical, cheap ones use a battery, and battery-powered watches keep better time. (The purpose of a Rolex isn’t really to tell time, obviously.) Anyway, you’re obviously not going to buy an expensive watch for someone you don’t like. But you could totally buy a fancy-looking watch for less than $10 (or this manlier-looking model for under $15.)

You could also give someone a watch that requires you to tap the screen before it actually tells you what time it is, or this weirdly badass-looking model which claims to be water resistant, totally looks like it ought to be water resistant, and according to reviews, is not even remotely water resistant. Finally, this one is outside the usual price range I shoot for, but if you’re willing to budget $40, you could give someone a world of frustrationwith an alleged smartwatch that arrives with poorly written instructions badly translated from Chinese, that relies on an app that may or may not actually exist, and has been known to break after two charges. (Note: go to the “other sellers” and find someone that’s offering it with Prime Shipping — if it ships from China, you won’t get it until after Christmas.)

Finally, for a watch that’s super fancy looking yet frankly useless to the vast majority of people in 2014 there’s the pocket watch. These are terrific for people who do Steampunk cosplay or who enjoy being extremely retro. For most people, though, if they want to pull something out of their pocket to find out what time it is, they pull out their cell phone. And they definitely don’t want a pocket watch in their pocket because it might scratch the screen. In fact, apparently most people my age don’t wear watches at ALL (I find looking at my wrist more convenient than pulling something out of my pocket, but I also get a newspaper delivered to my house every day, even though I’m only 41.) Anyway, the other thing about a pocket watch is that if you actually do use it regularly, it will die quickly because pocket lint gets in there.

Heated Travel Mugs

Who doesn’t need a travel mug? (A few years ago, during the after-Christmas sales, I discovered a pile of gift-boxed travel mugs at OfficeMax that had been marked down to $3/mug or something like that. I bought six. I’m down to one. I am pretty sure I lose more travel mugs than gloves.) For the passive-aggressive bonus, gift a heated travel mug that will plug into the car outlet and keep the drink warm except that this one, according to reviews, will break almost immediately.

External Phone Charger

If you have a smartphone, you could totally use a compact external rechargeable battery. Unlike most of the products I suggest, I have actually owned this one (not a gift — I bought it for myself) and can personally vouch for it being a complete piece of crap. (It looks like you can spend $7 more and get a very similar item that usually works instead of one that usually doesn’t work — so if you’re giving to multiple people, you could give nearly identical items to the people you DO like, which seems like a passive-aggressive grand slam.)

Gift Cards

People who dislike gift cards describe them as being like given an errand. So make sure, if you give someone a gift card, to pick something that really is an errand. For example, you could give someone a gift card for an oil change. Or a gift card for a set of car washes (you’ll need to buy that one locally to you). A gift card for a dental cleaning is probably more than you want to spend, but it definitely says, “I care!” while at the same time offering up a genuinely unpleasant experience. Office supplies are one of those things everyone needs (printer supplies, if nothing else) but are always annoying to go get. (At least around here. They’re perpetually understaffed and so the wait for service is always too long.) Speaking of long lines, if the person’s crafty you could give them a gift card for Jo-Ann Fabric. (I’ll go there for other craft supplies if I’m near one and I need something, but I refuse to shop there for fabric; life is too short to stand in that cutting line. Ever.)

Passive-Aggressive Gift Giving Guides from Previous Years:

2010: Beyond Fruitcake: Gifts for People You Hate
2011: Gifts that say, “I had to get you a gift. So look, a gift!”
2012: Holiday shopping for people you hate
2013: Gift Shopping for People You Hate: the Passive-Aggressive Shopping Guide

Also, if you’re amused by my writing, check out my science blogging at Bitter Empire:

My (kind of low-volume) Twitter feed: @naomikritzer

Or my fiction that’s free online:
Bits (possibly NSFW)
The Good Son
Honest Man (downloadable audio)
Comrade Grandmother
St. Ailbe’s Hall

And if you like that you could consider buying:
Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories (short story collection)
Gift of the Winter King and Other Stories (short story collection)
My novels (there are five of them)


The new Android OS update broke my phone. Completely.

I have a Nexus 4. This is a somewhat obscure Android-based phone — I got it because it was reasonably priced and available without a contract. This was significantly cheaper in the long run because I could use a T-Mobile pay-as-you-go plan for $30/month that got me unlimited texting, 100 minutes of talk, and 5GB of data. It is an annoying phone for several reasons: it’s too big, and doesn’t fit easily into my pocket. Also, the camera’s not very good. But I love having a smartphone and overall I’ve been happy with it.

A week or so back, my phone downloaded the latest Android update, Lollipop 5.x. And bugged me about it constantly. I finally caved last night and went ahead and installed it. This morning, I was a little startled to see how much it changed the look and feel, but it seemed to be working fine. There was one really odd thing: Lookout phone security (this is an app I installed at some point) told me that my SIM card had been removed at 1:30 a.m. Obviously, no one in the house was messing around with my phone (let alone removing my SIM card) at 1:30 a.m., so I figured this was some weird quirk associated with the update and didn’t worry about it.

The first thing I noticed was not working: Words With Friends. I was using the old version because I’d found the new version incredibly irritating. I started trying to re-install the new version, and it didn’t work. I needed to get going so I didn’t worry about it too much; I figured I would troubleshoot it later.

I had a trip to the dentist this morning and spent a lot of time waiting in the chair (I was having a night guard made) and used my time to play with Facebook and Chrome. At one point, I tried to e-mail a link I’d found on Facebook to a friend, and when her address refused to insert itself, I sent it to myself. It didn’t show up, which was weird, but just then the dental person came back, so I didn’t worry about it. On my way home, I stopped and made a phone call; that worked fine.

When I got home, the message I’d sent myself was in the e-mail on my computer, timed-stamped properly, so I forwarded it on to my friend. When I went out again, I noticed that my phone was running extremely hot. I was having issues with this a month or two back (in addition to providing me with an overly warm phone, this drains the battery like whoa), downloaded GSM Battery Monitor, and kept an eye out to see if there were specific apps that made it do that. Turns out WWF was a frequent culprit, so if I noticed it was running hot, I’d force-quit WWF. That seemed to largely solve the problem. Only today, the culprit initially was Google Play, which was super weird, and then later the Android OS.

When I got home a second time, I realized that I’d had a whole bunch of messages show up that hadn’t come to my phone. On closer inspection, sync was not working for any of the Google applications. I was getting error messages about verification issues, only when I tapped the error, instead of giving me a dialog box to put in my password or something, it just re-tried and gave me the same error. I thought maybe it was an issue with Two-Step Authentication (which I use) but when I pulled up my devices in my Google profile security page, my phone was still listed, plus according to Google, it had successfully accessed my account less than an hour ago. (And incidentally, I did receive the message sent FROM my phone even though it was refusing to show me stuff coming in.)

So THEN I tried some troubleshooting, using Google help. That was problematic because the help page wanted me to try to turn sync on and off a few times and the path to doing that does not appear to exist in Lollipop 5. I eventually got to the “try rebooting your phone” spot and thought, “oh, of course I should try rebooting!” And did. At which point Gmail stopped working COMPLETELY — I couldn’t even get it to load.

At this point:

* It has locked up repeatedly at the “enter your unlock code” screen when I try to wake it. Though sometimes it’ll do that, then work again 5-10 minutes later.

* It can’t decide whether it talks to the cell network, or not. I tried sending two texts to Ed. It told me it sent one, but not the other. In fact, it sent both of them twice.

* I have repeatedly gotten messages from Lookout telling me the SIM card has been removed. (I think this may be connected to the “maaaaaaaaaybe I’m a cell phone or MAYBE NOT!” issue.) I did, at one point, pop it out and re-seat it but this doesn’t seem to have fixed anything.

* The battery continues to burn like a fire built entirely out of crumpled newspaper.

* NOTHING RUNS OMG NOTHING except, curiously, Facebook. (So long as it’s connected to a wireless network OR talking to the cell network.)

On one hand, I’m pretty sure this update hosed my phone. On the other hand, I’m not sure how. I found other people in the Nexus 4 forums whose phone was rendered basically useless by this upgrade but they can all still make calls and send texts.

So! I guess this is all by way of saying, if you need to get hold of me? Don’t call my cell. Also, if you have an Android phone: FOR ALL THAT IS HOLY JUST SAY NO TO THIS UPGRADE.