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The practice of office-wide gift-giving all but disappeared when we were working from home during the pandemic. Let's not bring it back. IMAGE: 123RF

It's Time To Stop Buying Christmas Gifts For Colleagues As A Social Obligation

I’ll never forget the first December I experienced in a corporate office. There I was, trying to clear a few projects before the holiday weekend began, when all of sudden, a colleague passed me a tube of festive Lindt chocolates with a gift tag attached.

“Merry Christmas!” she said, to which I stammered my thanks.

The gift-giving continued all the way up until the last day of work. Every morning, I’d find a new gift bag on my desk, with everything from sheet masks, to sweets, to Muji stationery. And these weren’t just from my teammates - at least half came from colleagues that I hardly interacted with.

And yet I’d prepared nothing. Horrors - I realised too late that giving Christmas presents to one’s officemates is A THING. Embarrassed, I swore to do better. So every year thereafter, I spent the days leading up to Christmas classifying my colleagues into the following categories:

  • Category 1: Deserves a gift because I’m friends with them/actually want to gift them a gift
  • Category 2: Deserves a gift because it’d be weird if I got this other person a gift, but not them
  • Category 3: Deserves a gift because they buy me one every year even though we’re not that close
  • Category 4: Not close, didn't give me a gift, no need to buy them anything

After deciding what to get for each person (or each group of people - Category 1s would get personalised gifts, while Category 3s would all receive the same gift), I’d make a mad rush to Daiso for cute baggies or spend my nights shopping that didn’t look like obvious mass-produced junk. Which is a little nuts because in hindsight, aside from the personalised gifts, most of the gifts from officemates - candles, Ferrero Rocher, trinkets from Typo - would end up stuffed in a junk drawer.


And yet, I’d make the effort every year not because I actually wanted to give everyone on my list a present, but because it felt like I had to do it, like it was an unspoken-yet-essential aspect of corporate culture, akin to the inescapable Singaporean office lunch. Chalk it up to our implicit impulse to reciprocate, but to sweep a desk full of presents into my bag, without giving any in return, felt fundamentally antithetical to the spirit of Christmas.

Then the pandemic struck, it all changed. With all of us shuttered at home, obligatory gift-giving went out the window. After a decade working, I could finally enjoy the season in peace, with a less cluttered junk drawer and a higher budget for giving gifts to loved ones, now that I wasn’t spending hundreds of dollars on gifts for my coworkers.

Now that we’ve mostly returned to the office, I’ve observed mass gift-giving creeping back into our workplaces. Call me a Grinch, but the practice belongs in the pre-COVID era, and I know I’m not alone in thinking so. In a poll conducted in our Telegram channel, we found that almost half of voters said that they buy Christmas gifts for “only a select few” colleagues, while more than 30% said that they only buy gifts for officemates when it’s compulsory. Twenty percent of voters answered “absolutely not” to buying gifts, while only 6% answered with an enthusiastic “yes”.

Running the poll over Instagram yielded similar results - the majority of people indicated that they buy gifts for only a few colleagues, with most others voting that they don’t buy gifts for colleagues at all.

While the sample size might have been small, the kindred responses suggest that very few of us actually enjoy buying Christmas presents for the whole office out of the goodness of our hearts. (I suspect that even fewer of us actually enjoy partaking in mandatory office gift exchanges, which is another topic for another day.)

It also suggests that our colleagues might be less judgmental about non-gift-givers than we think. While some might say that it’s better to give than to receive, gift-giving is stressful enough over the holidays without factoring in coworkers that you’re not even close to. If you belong to a family that celebrates Christmas, then you’ve probably already spent a bomb on presents for your spouse, children, parents, in-laws, siblings, and your siblings’ children. On top of the financial spending, choosing individualised presents, wrapping them one by one, and writing cards requires both mental and emotional labour - a recent survey from YouGov showed that 28% of Singaporeans begin their holiday shopping 3-4 weeks in advance.

And while your in-laws or your beloved nieces and nephews might remember if they didn’t receive a gift from you, your colleagues probably won’t. Maybe a few will, which means they won’t give you anything next year. Meaning that the cycle of reciprocity will end and you'll no longer have to give each other gifts. Doesn’t that sound liberating?

There are also way too many dynamics involved in office gift-giving. One year, I wanted to give my entire team the same gift, but my team consisted of five women and one man, meaning that I either had to get them all the same gender-neutral items, or I had to specially find something that my male colleague would use, and yet that was of equal value to what I was giving the women. A few years later, I found myself in a team full of people I'd gladly spoil with presents, with just one teammate I couldn't stand - but social decorum dictates that if I buy something for most, I have to buy something for all. (As I learnt that year, the only thing worse than having an annoying colleague is having to buy presents for said colleague.)

At another workplace, I was close to two people in a team from another department, so I figured I’d only buy gifts for those two people, but that entire team ended up buying gifts for me…so uhhh, would it be rude of me not to buy gifts for all of them? And would it be weird if I gave the long-suffering IT guy a gift, but left out his teammates, who are nice enough, but who never have to put up with my forgotten passwords?

There is also the eternal question of what’s appropriate to buy for your bosses. Surely I couldn’t give my Birkin-toting team lead the same $10 Tonymoly hand cream that I was giving to all my other teammates, right?

Also, isn’t it sad that our ever-reliable office janitors often get left out of the gift-giving?

Here’s my proposal: If your office adheres to the “mass gift-giving” culture, and you’re not in the 6% who actually enjoy buying gifts for everyone, it’s time to grow thicker skin. Buy gifts for the one or two people you genuinely want to buy gifts for, say thank you to the people who are giving you something while receiving nothing, and trust that in the spirit of Mariah, that they don't want a lot for Christmas.

I know I certainly don't, which is why I'm spending this week blissfully working from home. If any of you spot bags of candy on my desk, please pass them to the IT guy - he deserves them way more than I do.

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