How to Say Thank You for an Unexpected Gift

opening a gift

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Have you received an unexpected gift before? Odds are, the answer is yes, considering the multitude of occasions in which this may occur! As Tami Claytor of Always Appropriate Image and Etiquette Consulting notes, there are many situations in which you may receive an unexpected gift: following a work promotion, on a first date, before or after a surgery, to acknowledge a business referral, or after a recital, to name just a few instances.

If you find yourself being given an unexpected gift in the future and don't know how to best respond, we're here to help. Etiquette experts chime in with tips about being a gracious recipient, even in instances in which you're ultra surprised!

Be Sincere

Your first reaction may be that of surprise, but saying a gracious thank you goes a long way, notes Lisa Gache, the etiquette expert behind Beverly Hills Manners. "People give gifts from the heart and they are excited to share them with the receiver," she says. "Similarly to a compliment received, we never want to negate such a gracious gesture." Not sure what exactly to state? Gache offers a few default replies that you can keep in your back pocket. "Verbal expressions of thanks include, 'Thank you. How sweet of you to think of me. What a thoughtful gesture, I truly appreciate it,'" she says. And of course, a grin doesn't hurt! "Make sure to smile and be fully present when receiving a gift to convey your deepest gratitude," Gache adds.

Keep the focus of the interaction on the thoughtfulness of the giver.

Jodi Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting echoes these sentiments and states that gifts do not have to be opened on the spot. "You may also ask the giver if you should open it right now or wait until later," she says. "Either way, your reaction should be one of appreciation." Whatever you choose to do, though, keep one major no-no in mind. As Smith says, "This situation is about the giver’s kindness. It would be extraordinarily rude to make this about you." This means avoiding phrases such as, “'I did not know we were exchanging gifts' or 'I don’t have anything for you.' Keep the focus of the interaction on the thoughtfulness of the giver."

Send a Thank You Note Promptly

Even if you graciously thank the gift giver in person, you still should take the time mail a card that once again states your appreciation for the gesture. "Nothing is as gracious as the written word. It takes a special effort to put pen to paper," Gache says. "Writing a well expressed thank you note shows you appreciate the effort the gift-giver expended." If it's been some time since you've mailed a thank you card and you need a bit of a refresher, Gache is here to help. "A proper thank you note always consists of three parts: saying 'thanks' at the beginning and end of the note, naming the gift, event, or act of kindness you are acknowledging, and including a unique detail or high point to describe your thanks," she says. What not to include in your correspondance? "Never reference the monetary value (whether small or large) of the gift," Claytor says. "Remember, it’s the thought that counts." Oh, and be timely—Gache advises mailing out your thank you note within 24 to 48 hours of receiving a gift.  

thank you note

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Don't Feel the Need to Send a Gift in Return

Before you rush out to the store, consider Gache's perspective. "You are not obligated to give a gift in kind," she says. "This can come across as disingenuous, especially if the gift given is from someone outside of your normal social circle." Simply move forward with a written note or take action in another way, she suggests. "If you feel inclined, you can offer to treat the gift-giver to a special meal or activity in exchange for their kindness." Don't feel the need to go overboard, though. As etiquette expert Colleen Rickenbacher says, "Just be careful that your gift does not top the gift that they presented to you, and now they feel it necessary to start the volley back and forth with gifts!"

Keep Your Relationship With the Gift Giver in Mind

In a business setting, your response may be a bit different than it would be when accepting a gift from a family friend. "You could tell the person that you have always wanted a beautiful pen set, a professional looking portfolio, and desperately needed the briefcase," Rickenbacher says, giving an example of a gift one may receive in a professional context. Then you could thank the person profusely." She adds, "Make sure that the thank you note is sent immediately to the office address of this person and not the home address."