The yuletide season promises joy, eggnog, the warm embrace of those you love and utter disappointment. Some gifts will be great. Others will make your face screw up in a hideous rictus and make you think of the giver, "You don't know me at all. How could you get me this … thing?" Which, of course, will make the giver feel like reindeer droppings, and everything will get awkward – way to go, you've ruined Christmas. Thanks for giving everyone the gift of this needless but perennial drama, pal!
Spare yourself and everyone else this year with the following four-point plan of how to pretend every present is the best present ever. Based on cutting-edge gift science and our unassailable anecdotal evidence, this guide will help you fake it until you can go home and break it. (Or return it, whatever.)
They eyes have it
Step one, says Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire who has studied the microbehaviours that give away what we really think, is to remember it all starts with the eyes. Making eye contact is a sign you like the gift, but avoiding eye-contact means the item is making you uncomfortable.
"If you open a gift and you don't like it, then making eye contact with the giver you might be concerned that your facial expression is going to give away your true feelings," she says. In her research on people's reactions to bad gifts, Pine noted that when people are given something they don't like, they will tend to look more at the gift than the giver, probably because they think the look on their face will be a sure giveaway.
Time to 'smeyes'
Are you a good fake-smiler? If you're not, it's time to become one. As Pine points out, a genuine smile uses the eye muscles as well as the mouth muscles, while a bad fake smile – we've all seen it – only uses the mouth muscles. Also, fake smiles fade faster than the genuine article.
"They are two very different kinds of smiles," Pine says. With the fake kind, you look like you're biting down on a hockey puck. And you're not fooling anyone. Practise in the mirror. Think of something blissful, even if it's never having to look at this sweater or whatever it is ever again. As Tyra Banks would say, you need to smile with your eyes. She calls them "Smeyes." You go ahead and call them whatever you want, just do it.
Behold! I love it
Step three brings us to the moment of display. Make no mistake, this is key.
"If they're in a group of people and they open a present they really like, they kind of hold it up and show it to everybody," Pine says. "We called it a trophy gesture because of the way they hold it up." And with presents people didn't like? "It would often be rewrapped quite quickly or not taken out of the box or not interacted with." We've all seen this before. You buy someone a beautiful scarf and they wrap it around their necks and wear it around the house all day long. Or you buy someone a scarf and they make a bad-smell face and then they put it back in the bag. Hold your gifts up like a trophy, even if in your mind it's the winner of the Intercontinental Retail Ugliness Championship.
You always lose the name game
The fourth and final step wasn't covered in Pine's study, but she's seen it before, as have we all. The dreaded naming of the gift with a rising tone of voice. It's an uncomfortable sure giveaway. Let's say you've decided for whatever reason to get Aunt Sally a tracksuit, even though she has never expressed any interest in one whatsoever. If, when she opens it, she says, "Oh, a tracksuit," you know you've failed. Especially when her vocal pitch rises the way it does when you talk to toddlers.
Do not name the gift. You don't need to say it's a hat, everyone can see it. (How could they miss that hideous thing?) Just look at the person, smile warmly, and hold that sucker up like it's the Stanley Cup.
It may be better to give than to receive, but making the giver feel like they nailed it is pretty good, too.