Earlier this month, Captain Awkward had a letter from someone whose crappy sister and brother-in-law was giving her deliberately bad gifts. Not in a “let’s exchange gag gifts” kind of way, either, they gave her a bunch of obviously used DVDs for shows she’s not interested in for her birthday.
I actually clicked on that with real trepidation — worried that this might be someone who had clearly read my suggestions and implemented them but for a perfectly nice person (the sort of person who reads Captain Awkward!) Fortunately for my own peace of mind, it was clearly someone who was adhering more to the “open declaration of war” approach. These were not subtly bad gifts.
But just to be clear: please do not use these suggestions to bully perfectly nice people instead of having an adult conversation that goes, “hey, can we just agree not to exchange gifts among adults? I would love to get together for the dinner and skip the present-opening, could we maybe all make a donation toward [some mutually agreeable cause]?”
No, this is a guide for people who have to buy a gift for the sister-in-law who refuses to make any vegetarian/gluten free/edible-to-you food at the big family Christmas dinner other than carrot sticks. Or for those who need a present for one of those Theoretically-Optional-But-Actually-Totally-Mandatory office events, and you drew the name of that person who puts microwave popcorn in the office microwave, enters the 4 and a half minutes the packages always claim it’s going to take, and then nips off to the bathroom. Or maybe you’re Tiffany Trump and shopping for your father. There are, let’s be honest, people who deserve bad presents.
Annual disclaimer: I don’t have to give gifts to anyone I don’t like; this list was inspired by the traumas of friends. If I’ve ever given you a gift that was terrible, it was genuine cluelessness on my part and I really was trying to get you a present you’d like. (This sort of cluelessness is super common, and provides everyone else with crucial plausible deniability when choosing gifts inspired by this list.) Also, if you give me presents, I promise I am not scrutinizing them for signs that you secretly hate me; I’m thinking “oh wow, a PRESENT.”
ON TO THE LIST.
Pointless Novelty Cooking Items
The optimal Bad Gift Novelty Cooking Item is some combination of the following: overspecialized, bulky, annoying to store, difficult to use, or difficult to clean — but cutesy. For example, this ketchup-dispensing gun. I mean, how fun! A squirt gun that squirts ketchup! Except, in order to use it, you have to transfer ketchup from the perfectly functional bottle it came in into a tiny, tiny little dispenser bottle. Imagine the process of transferring. Imagine the process of cleaning. Imagine, at the end of the party where it got used, having to decide whether you’re going to clean it out, or stick the whole little toy gun into the refrigerator and try to use up the ketchup inside tomorrow.
Here’s another one: a chemistry-themed spice rack. This one really knocks it out of the park. It’s designed to go on the counter, first of all, and it’s fragile, so if you have badly-behaved cats you’re going to have to stress about them shattering all or part of it. In order to use it, people have to conscientiously funnel bulk spices into teeny tiny flasks, which is a pain in the ass. Nine of the thirteen containers are test tubes with curved bottoms so you can’t put them down on the counter and have them stand upright. They have corks as tops so you need two hands to open them and there’s no shaker. Finally — this is really the icing on the cake — they come with cute chemistry-themed labels but while they look like chemical formulas they’re super wrong, like “Salt” is “Sa” instead of NaCl, so if your recipient is a chemist, it is guaranteed to annoy the hell out of them. This is bulky, difficult to use, difficult to store, and also just stupid for its intended purpose.
In the Kohl’s Man Gifts section (which had a bountiful number of bad gifts this year) I spotted a branding iron for your steak. I don’t have a good picture of it because a few weeks ago I dropped my phone and broke the primary camera, but there’s a whole selection of them on Amazon, some that you pre-order with a monogram and some where you get a sliding set of letters so you can brand your steak to suit your mood (except apparently the letters are fiddly and annoying, and it comes with no instructions.)
Also in the Kohl’s Man Gifts section: a whiskey barrel you can use to dispense whiskey. Normally, one stores whiskey in the bottle it came in, and dispenses it by pouring, and in order to dispense from the whiskey barrel you have to move it over to the whiskey barrel, but it did occur to me that if you’re using the whiskey barrel, you could buy the absolute cheapest rotgut out there, transfer it, and pretend it’s something else, so this is also potentially a subtle dig at their taste in booze.
Finally there’s a hand-held smoker. Like so you can infuse cocktails or single portions of food items with smoke flavor. This is one of those gifts that there are definitely people out there who’d be excited about but 90% of the people in the world will look at it in absolute bewilderment and stick it in a drawer.
(Do people know what I mean by the Man Gifts section? Most department stores have something like this, it’s not just Kohl’s. It’s a bunch of racks somewhere near the business-casual pants where they’re selling Manly Gifts for Men. It’s a mix of reasonably useful items like nice flashlights in fancy packaging; deeply generic items like desk toys; and stuff that’s basically Toxic Masculinity, But Make It Giftable. It’s intended to be gifts you buy FOR men, just to be clear; when department stores offer up really terrible but pre-packaged ready-to-wrap gifts for men to buy for women, they put those right at the front of the store so as to require as little effort as possible from the “hmm, it’s 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, guess I’d better go buy a thing for The Wife” set.)
The Worst Possible Slippers
Slippers are a classic holiday gift, because they’re useful and wear out regularly. There are a variety of styles and people tend to have their preferences. The kind that no one prefers: novelty slippers. Novelty slippers are amusing in photos but in real life they tend to have thin soles, so they’re simultaneously bulky and a trip hazard while also being not very warm. But you can downgrade even further by going for a one-size-fits-most novelty slipper that looks like a poop emoji (or, if that’s just a bridge too far, a heart-eyes smiley.) Novelty slippers come in a whole range of designs, though, so if someone has a pug dog or something you can get them slippers in whatever design tangentially relates to their interests.
(This is an example of a less-than-great gift I’ve given — I gave Ed a pair of Siberian Husky slippers as a gift many decades ago. They wound up not being completely useless because he once dressed as a sled dog team for a Halloween party. But they were not great slippers.)
The Poop Emoji slippers reminded me that the Kohl’s Man Gifts section also had a toy drone (?) shaped like a poop emoji (?!) for whatever reason. I look at poop emoji stuff and think that it’s probably a decent gift for a nine-year-old boy and probably no one else on earth, like maybe you’d enjoy a toy drone (they’re entertaining to play with) but you probably don’t want that’s shaped like stylized smiling poop unless you’re nine. I may be underestimating the number of adults who never grew out of fart jokes, though.
Who Doesn’t Need a Mug?
A mug is one of those semi-generic, always-acceptable gifts. I don’t know how common my mug problem is, but I suspect I’m not alone among adults in that I have far too many mugs — we don’t have space for all our mugs — but also I don’t have quite enough mugs in the size I prefer. (I like an oversized mug for coffee. Ed also likes oversized mugs for tea. Most of our mugs aren’t big enough, and yet, we totally have too many mugs.)
Anyway. The great thing about mug gifts for people you don’t like is that there are an incredible selection of mugs out there that are bonus levels of annoying. Like, got a gun nut on your shopping list? You could get them a mug with a pistol grip. Despite the statement in the item information, it’s neither dishwasher safe nor microwave safe and because of the giant-ass handle, it’s going to be a pain in the ass to store. Or maybe you’d like to gift them a mug that looks like a giant donut! Also annoying to clean, not dishwasher safe, and again, a pain in the ass to store. If those options just seem excessively tasteful to you, how about a golden toilet mug? This mug manages to be both bulky enough to be annoying to store and at 10 ounces, smaller than most adults with a coffee habit want for a coffee mug. Also, it’s shaped like a golden toilet. Finally, for tasteful-yet-annoying there’s a mug with a hammer as a handle, a fairly ordinary mug but with a special compartment that’s supposed to hold a donut (picture the process of wedging it in, extracting it, cleaning it, and ask yourself in what way this is superior to a mug and a plate? or even a paper towel?) and a mug with a handle on each side so as to look like a game controller.
When you give a mug, you often stick something inside. Like candy canes! Which are super cheap and indisputably seasonal. If you think your recipient might actually like candy canes, Archie McPhee created a line of candy canes in gross flavors, including kale. Kale-flavored candy probably breaks the “not obviously a bad gift” rule, so I’ll point you also towards the bacon-flavored ones.
For someone who likes board games, there are a lot of good gifts out there; we’re basically in a board game golden age right now. If you know what they like, and you want a good gift, you can go to your nearest game store, name a few favorites, and go home with a new recommendation. If you want a bad gift, you can order a wooden tic-tac-toe board that will look great on their coffee table and entertain no one other than possibly a six-year-old for ten minutes. There’s also a wood sudoku set that’s actually rather attractive but requires quite a lot of setup. (It does have some good reviews from some sudoku fans. Use your best judgement.) Finally, there’s an attractive wood Bingo set that’s probably only going to be fun for your recipient if they’re starting up a Catholic church. (I had a cheap Bingo set as a child and was confused as to why this was a fun game. Turns out the required secret sauce is GAMBLING.)
Twice as Impressive, Ten Times Less Useful
One of the many themes of the Man Gifts department store section are more-impressive versions of everyday objects. For example, the Word Clock. (Link is to Amazon but yes, they had this at Kohl’s.) It’s a clock that instead of having hands that point at 10:15, or digital numbers that just say 10:15, it lights up letters to spell out a sentence like IT IS FIFTEEN MINUTES PAST TEN. Here’s the weird thing about clocks: once you’ve learned how to tell time, you don’t actually have to put much effort into parsing out hand positions. Or 10:15. Parsing out “IT IS FIFTEEN MINUTES PAST TEN” is vastly more effort. But it sure is impressive!
There’s also the back scratcher that looks like a garden rake. It’s very impressive! Look at that rake, it’s as big as your enormous manly back! (You know, there’s probably an essay to be written about Man Gifts and what they say about masculinity, but that’s for another day.) I have a back scratcher that I bought at some point, one of the small extendable “bear claw” ones, and it is both more effective and more practical than the oversized garden rake kind.
From the Department of What The Hell, WHY
Friends periodically send me links to gift-idea lists that are not advertised as bad gifts but definitely have many really bad gifts. For example: a tissue dispenser that looks like an Easter Island head and you pull the tissues out the nose. If that strikes you as excessively tasteful you could get one where you pull the tissues out of a cat’s butt.
(Yeah, OK — I, too, know someone who would probably actually enjoy owning that.) Finally, there’s this one, which looks like a tasteful stack of books BUT the box of tissues won’t actually fit inside — to load it up, you’ll have to pull apart the tissue box, remove the tissues, and carefully transfer them over.
Also via a friend, did you know that it’s possible to get a portable home sauna that looks vaguely like a quilted tent and zips around the entire person except for their head and hands (so they can read a book while they have their sauna experience)? I guess it’s possible that this is a better gift than it looks like. It looks like it would be annoying to set up, uncomfortable to sit in, and not a very good sauna, but there are a whole bunch of these for sale (I picked the cheapest) so probably someone thinks they’re a good idea.
Experiences, Not Things
If you like the idea of embracing the passive-aggressive giving option but you’d prefer to avoid the problem of More Crap Into Landfills (where, let’s be honest, a lot of this stuff will inevitably land, even if they’re gifted to someone who actually wanted them), the “Experiences, Not Things” approach can in fact work just as well for bad gifts as it can for good. You just need to think about experiences your recipient won’t actually enjoy, but where the money is going somewhere worthwhile.
For instance: theater tickets! There’s a theater company in Minnesota called Ten Thousand Things that brings theater performances into prisons (as well as various performances for a broader audience throughout the year). They do interesting, worthwhile work and could definitely use the money you will spend on a gift certificate that will never be used by your uncle whose interest in theater begins and ends with Tony and Tina’s Wedding. Mixed Blood Theater does shows that explore race and sexuality and gender and disability and their “radical hospitality” program means that any show is “pay what you can” for people who need that (and they’ll even help pay for transportation for people who can’t easily get to the theater) — a gift card for two full-price seats supports a really worthwhile local arts organization. Even much smaller cities have small, creative arts organizations putting on interesting new shows that will make your conservative family members deeply uncomfortable. (I guess I would draw the line at tickets to a show that your conservative family members might actually noisily walk out of; I would hate to create problems for the cast, or other audience members.)
But there’s also museum memberships! Whatever your annoying relative most ought to get more exposure to — science, art, ideas that didn’t come from Fox News — there might be a museum in their area that would provide that broadening experience, if they ever went there. If they don’t, the museum can still pursue their valuable mission with the money from that unused membership.
You can also give a gift certificate to this person’s state parks, at least in many states. (Here’s Minnesota’s.) Can be used for a whole range of outdoorsy fun that some people would gnaw off a limb to avoid partaking in.
There are also gazillions of online subscriptions to various things you could offer up, from language-learning apps (bonus: will make them feel vaguely guilty and inadequate when they don’t use it to learn a language) to newspapers (bonus: supports journalism) to digital-only magazine subscriptions (ditto) to premium podcast subscriptions. Oh, hey, The Great Courses (you’ve surely seen their ads) has a subscription-based podcast! All of these are excellent gifts for some people, so choose carefully. The target you want to hit is the overlapping Venn-diagram circles of “I wish I were the sort of person who learned French/studied Ancient Greek Philosophy/read The Economist in my spare time” and “maybe today I will start binge-watching Cheers again.”
I used to routinely recommend animal adoptions through the World Wildlife Fund because you could subtly comment on the person’s personality via the animal you adopted for them, but I am no longer encouraging people to donate to the WWF because they’ve funded some really awful stuff. Fortunately, there are a ton of other charitable groups that provide that extra hint of passive-aggression without, you know, encouraging war crimes.
You could sponsor a “hero rat,” a rat who’s been trained to detect either tuberculosis or land mines, and if you think comparing a bad person to a rat is an insult to rats, no worries: you’re comparing the bad person to tuberculosis, or a land mine.
If you’d still like to adopt an animal, many zoos have that option, and the St. Louis Zoo will let you adopt any animal at the zoo, you’re not limited to the ones they have cute plushes of. So you could adopt a Bonnethead Shark, a King Cobra, or a Red-Kneed Tarantula.
For more animal gifts with negative personality implications, Oxfam Unwrapped has sheep, pigs, and chickens, and they still let you give people manure, toilets, and highly-efficient stoves (if you’d like some symbolic coal). You could also suggest that someone is not merely annoying but potentially dangerous by gifting a mosquito net to prevent malaria in that person’s honor.
Have You Considered Giving Someone My Books?
I HAD A BOOK COME OUT THIS YEAR! Catfishing on CatNet, which is a near-future young adult thriller and got stars from both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Cory Doctorow called it “an absolutely charming and incredibly gripping, superbly plotted YA thriller,” and when Amal El-Mohtar Tweeted about it she said “Do you know a queer teen? Are you a queer teen? Are you an adult who misses an internet that felt kinder & purer? Did you love the Hugo-winning short story ‘Cat Pictures Please’? PLEASE do your heart the gift of acquiring & reading this beautiful book.”
So if you want a good gift you could totally give someone a copy of my book. You could even buy a signed copy from my local independent bookstore! And just from Amal’s description you can probably figure out exactly which of your relatives this would be a bad gift for. I’ll note that there’s nothing on the book jacket that will give away, for example, the scene where the main character and her friends hack an instructional robot to provide accurate sex ed, so if you want to pretend ignorance later, your plausible deniability is covered.
My short story collection is also still available! You could also buy one or both for yourself; if you’ll be spending time this holiday season around highly stressful family members, there’s no escape like a good book.
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
Gifts for People You Hate 2014: The Almost-Generic Edition
Whimsical Gifts (for People You Hate) 2015
Gifts for People You Hate 2016 (the fuck everything edition)
Gifts for People You Hate, 2017
Gifts for People You Hate, 2018
My Twitter feed: @naomikritzer
And my fiction that was published online last year:
The only fiction of mine that was published this year was my new novel, but I’m super excited about it!