best gift for someone you don’t know very well

The Best Gift for Someone You Don’t Know Very Well?

Are you seeking advice on the best gift for someone you don’t know well? Is this a kid’s gift or one for an adult? 

Maybe it is someone or a situation you deem risky if you get it wrong, such as a boss, an in-law, or a client. 

You won’t see a list of clever gifts here organized by gender, occasion, culture, or category. There are plenty of those to be found on Google already. We at The Appreciation Company see the world through a different lens. We see ourselves as a step apart from the big-box, commercialized Amazon Prime world of gifting.

I want to open you up to a new mindset and way of thinking about gifts for others. 

This approach will work 100% of the time – whether for a close friend, a colleague, or someone you don’t know well, such as a teacher, a coach, or a nurse. It works for adults and, in some instances, for kids – It can certainly work for teens. 

It is all about context. Let’s hit this home by asking a question:

How well do you know this person? 

Rarely do we know a person all that well. Rarely do we know the person well enough to give them an appropriate and meaningful gift. That’s because great gifts are deeply personal and require us to know a lot about a person. 

For example, think about typical categories of gifts: 

  • Food
  • Personal care, including beauty
  • Clothing and apparel
  • Decor
  • Experiences

Now, within each category, think of the person you have in mind and do the following:

  • Name 5 foods they eat regularly. 
  • Name 3 products in their bathroom.
  • Name 4 brands they regularly wear.
  • Name 5 books on their shelves.
  • Name their 6 top experiences they do in their home city. 

It is hard, isn’t it? 

See, those lists of Google search results for the Best Gift for [fill in the blank] are not for you. Those lists are there to serve the person writing the article. Those articles are about SEO rankings, garnering your attention, and making someone money. 

We have a saying at our company – Follow the Money Trail. Why would anyone be incentivized to create a top 25 list of anything unless there was some $ for them somewhere? 

How am I any different? Do you see any links or calls to action? Am I selling anything? Nope!

Be different!!!

This is a call to be different and think different. 

!! Most people buy gifts that they themselves like and would want to receive. 

!! Most people DON’T think deeply about what the other person wants, needs, or would appreciate. 

Are you ready to dive in? 

It is time to open your mind a little. 

Perspective Test: How well do you know the person? 

When advising on the best gift for someone you don’t know very well, I always ask that question to understand the context and details of the relationship. 

We ask this before seeing to understand the occasion or reason for the gift. 


The relationship’s context is the most crucial factor in whether a gift received will be great or a bomb. So, unless you are the rare bird that doesn’t care how a gift lands with the recipient, start here first. But you wouldn’t be reading this if you were that bird.

Here is another test: Think of the person you are about to gift for and answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to these questions:

  • Have you been to the person’s house?
  • Do you know what is in his cupboard and refrigerator?
  • Do you know what’s in his bookcase or on the coffee table? 
  • Do you know what’s on their bathroom surfaces?
  • Do you know if they have any allergies? 
  • Do you know the brands in their closet or drawers?
  • Do you know what is in their garage? 

Context questions like these should provide sharp clarity to realize how well you know a person or don’t. From this clarity, you can begin the process of selecting a gift. 

If you said ‘yes’ to any question above, dive in and name 5 to 7 items from that ‘yes’ category.

Simply thinking about the answers to these questions will help guide your understanding of how well you know the person you are getting the gift for. 

What if I have a ‘No’ for every question above? 

If you answered no to everything above, don’t worry.

Don’t worry; a KEY piece is missing in the puzzle that must be revealed. 

Here is a little behavioral science for you: 

The extent to which you know an individual is called CONTEXT. The more you know about a person, i.e., the more yes answers to questions like those above, the more context you have about that person. 

The amount of context we have about a person falls along a spectrum from zero to 100%. Zero being that you don’t know the person at all. 100% is full context, and you know the person completely. 

This is the key: Typically, in order to give a great gift, you have to know someone really well. 

Or, you have to have a shift in mindset about gifting. 

Are you ready for a transformation? Do you want to set yourself free from an unnecessary burden?

Here it is:

Give yourself permission to give a low-context gift. 

Your relationship is already low-context. Be honest. 

Now, low-context doesn’t = bad gift. It just acknowledges that you don’t have enough information about that person’s life particulars to give a gift deemed high context.

I’d suggest that there are great low-context gifts out there. 

Here is one example from my own life – when I was 13, a person that I never knew gave me a pocket knife – a really nice pocket knife. He didn’t know ME per se, but he knew what a 13-year-old boy would love. 

Perspective: How do I think about low-context gifts? 

High-context relationships are typically family members you live with. Also, your closest 3 to 5 friends, a parent, or someone you’ve been dating for a while are likely high-context across most categories of gifts like food, clothing, personal care, and home decor. 

On the other hand, relatives like aunts, uncles, and cousins are typically lower context. Lower still, generally speaking, are people from work or church and your kid’s teacher or coach. 

Here is the good news about low-context… if the person knows you don’t have context, they won’t expect a high-context gift. 

You are already off the hook. 

Now, your mindset shift requires empathy.

That pocket knife, to a 13-year-old boy example, requires empathy to know what any 13-year-old boy would dig.

Here are some ridiculous 13-year-old examples to prove the empathy point: keys to a Porche 911, a BB gun or bow and arrow set, and a rocket launch set. Anything that a responsible and safety-conscious mom would roll her eyes on. 

If these examples seemed obvious to you, that’s great! You already have the tooling for empathetic gifting to give the best gift for someone you don’t know very well.

Start with the obvious for a teacher, a coach, a nurse, a boss or a colleague.

But wait, there is more…

As you think of the obvious, consider what everyone else would first gravitate to. Let me explain.

Every teacher already has too much apple-themed ‘stuff.’ I’m told repeatedly that they don’t need another mug with an apple on it, a desk organizer, socks, a scented candle, lotion, or even chocolate (shocker).

This is because most people think of the ‘teacher’ as a ‘teacher’ and not a whole person with bills to pay, laundry to do, and a life of her own. Empathy requires understanding the PERSON. The real-life human being and her needs and wants.

Understanding the Person as a Person

Likely, you already have some very specific information about the individual. This includes,

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Marital status
  • Income rage (even for volunteers)
  • Geography/city where the person lives
  • Number of children

This is a TON of information about the person already.

So, thinking about the teacher example, what would a married woman in her early 30s, with two children making about $40,000 living in Memphis, TN, appreciate as a gift?

What would a single volunteer rec soccer coach who is in his late 40s with three boys living in Bakersfield, CA, appreciate at the end of the soccer season?

I’ll tell you what he doesn’t want – another insulated mug for his work truck. Or agility cones, a whistle, or a clipboard.

Here is a final example, what would the 50-year-old doula of your best girlfriend appreciate after helping with the birth of her 1st child?

Here are a few gifts that could go a long way in low-context situations:

  1. A heartfelt note – either as a standalone or to accompany another gift. A heartfelt note expressing appreciation to the person about who they are, why they are important in your life, and what they do that matters goes a long way. 
  2. Organic, Pure Vanilla Extract from Lagrima – It doesn’t matter if the person cooks or doesn’t cook much. This is an incredible and beautiful alternative to wine or alcohol for a boss, hostess, teacher, nurse, etc. Basically, everyone LOVES amazing vanilla. 
  3. A really useful knife sharpener. This one is so simple and effective. I’m actually shocked it is a new product on the market because the design is so intuitive and simply makes sense. The engineer in me thinks… Duh!!!
  4. A gift card BALANCE – not a specific gift card because you don’t know what the person needs or wants (definition of low-context). So instead, contribute to a balance that the person can convert. This is the one selfish plug for The Appreciation Company, BTW. 
  5. Offer your time – one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten was someone helping me in my yard for a few hours. Examples of offering time: washing and detailing a car, yard work, a shopping run/errand like groceries, and Costco (even if it is their own money).
  6. Take the person to a meal: breakfast, lunch, coffee, or dinner. “Quality Time” is often a love/appreciation language. 
  7. Flowers are almost always acceptable. Just consider allergies (people’s and pet’s). They don’t take up too much space for long and will never add to the clutter.

A special case #1: Are you giving to an individual or a group of people? 

It is common to be on the hunt for a gift for a group of people. If this is your case, here are some alternative context questions for you:

  • Is everyone the same gender? 
  • Is the group size five people or less? 
  • Do they share a common interest? 

If you answered yes to these questions, a single high-context gift could be the right fit. 

If you answered ‘no’ to some of the questions above, then the context approach here is straightforward. The lowest-risk system is to assume a position of low context and only offers low-context gifts. 

We say this because the probability of selecting a single item perfectly relevant to each person across a divergent group approaches zero as the group size increases. 

If you don’t know the person that well (low-context), you can give yourself permission to be free of the obligation implied by a high-context gift. 

A special case #2: Is the responsibility solely yours, or does it include others? I.e., are you giving a group gift? 

We ask this question to understand if you are the sole decision maker in the gift or are acting as facilitator or champion of a group gift

If you are playing that role for a group gift, we’ve created a fantastic guide that puts you in the driver’s seat of facilitator and helps take the emotion out what coming up with “the best gift” or “how are we going to decide?” 

First and foremost, we want the following for you and your group:

  1. For everyone to get along and be strengthened by the process. The last thing we want is to hurt feelings and diminish the experience for anyone. 
  2. We want the recipient to know and feel the impact of the gift. This is what it’s all about, right?

Let’s introduce the Gift Giving Effectiveness Matrix

This incredibly effective resource considers your effort (time and money) with the impact you want to land with the recipient. Much like the high and low context relationship example above, we take this a step further to consider high-effort and low-effort as well as high-impact and low-impact. 

Most people we work with, across most occasions, are seeking low-effort yet high-impact gifts. That is the sweet spot of gifting, right?!?!

It is an odd situation where someone is seeking a low-impact gift. That’s because a low-impact gift, where you put in the high effort (or a lot of money), is inefficient (to say the least). The gift was superficial if you put in the low effort and got low impact. So most people aren’t seeking this either. 

Here is what the matrix looks like before you turn it into an exercise for selecting a gift: 

The point is that items you are thinking of giving can be classified as either high- or low-effort and high- or low-impact. Then, based on the combination of that scoring, the gift you are thinking of can result in effectiveness as described in the four boxes on the matrix: 

  • Inefficient (high effort x low effectiveness): Given the effort or cost, the gift doesn’t achieve the intended impact. For example, custom items, something out of context, or items in poor taste, given the recipient’s circumstances. 
  • Superficial (low effort x low effectiveness): Likely both the gift giver and recipient know this is a superficial gift. Examples include coffee mugs for someone with plenty of mugs, a candle, or a trinket.  
  • Profound (high effort x high effectiveness): gifts here profoundly impact the recipient. Likely the giver knows the recipient well, and the context is proper. Examples include hand-made items or ones that are expensive and relevant. Profound gifts are one-time gifts specific to the individual.
  • Profound and Efficient (low effort x high effectiveness): This could be a sweet spot for gift giving in a busy world or on a budget. Ideally, items here are scalable for groups of recipients, such as all the teachers at a school or coaches in a league. Cash for someone in need fits this category but isn’t always appropriate.

Download our free Effective Gift Planning Resource and walk through the simple exercise. It should only take a few minutes as a solo or group activity.

A special case #3: Work context can be tricky 

There is a wonderful business book by Gary Chapman, the same person who write The 5 Love Languages. Gary applies his knowledge to the work environment in this book and produces four safe languages of appreciation. 

  1. Words of Affirmation – letting the person know they are valued for who they are, not just what they do.
  2. Quality Time – this can be ‘hanging’ out but also includes real, intentional time spent with a person. 
  3. Acts of Service – usually, offering to setp in and take a task off someone’s plate.
  4. Gifts – material things and experiences purchased for a person. 

Here is what is crazy – gifts are the thing people want the least. Check out this table from the book:

Primary Languages of Appreciation by Age Group
Younger Employees
(<29 years old)
Older Employees
(30 years and older)
Best gift for someone you don’t know very well at work – by age.

So, in a work setting, whether to a peer, someone who works for you, or your boss or leader, words of affirmation (a note or spoken) are the most appreciated. Gifts are a distant 4th on this list. 

Conclusion: The Best Gift for Someone you Don’t Know Very Well Requires a Low-Context Mindset 

So, here we are at the end. A reminder is that a mindset shift is how I’ve approached finding the best gift for someone I don’t know very well. 

I know in my heart, and I’m honest with myself, that I don’t have enough context about the person in most cases to give a specific gift in a specific shopping category. I could get lucky with something or be intentional about not relying on luck. 

Therefore, I rely on the data, empathy, and understanding that most people want to be seen and heard for who they are and what they do. They want to know that they matter in this crazy world we live in. 

If the gift comes from a group, find a fun and constructive way to hear everyone’s suggestions and ideas so that the approach includes diverging perspectives. Our gift planning resource built from the Gift Giving Effectiveness Matrix might be helpful. 

Also, when the gift is FOR a group of people, it is okay to offer a low-context gift that guarantees universal acceptance and positive impact.

The Appreciation Company was founded around this last point. Our research shows that teachers, coaches, and everyone in a group setting desire two things:

  1. To know they are appreciated and their work has a purpose through an impact made in someone’s life. A written note is the best way to do that. 
  2. The cash equivalent, in the form of a gift balance, allows them to choose the item they most need and want. 

The point is the card is what matters. The gift and the monetary amount are always secondary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *