Buying gifts for someone you don’t know very well can be a tricky endeavor. Not only is it hard to get it right, but it is all too easy to get it wrong! You can also run the risk of turning a kind gesture into an inconvenience or a burden. “As professional organizers, one of the most common items we come across in our clients’ homes are unwanted gifts that are hanging around because our clients feel too guilty to get rid of them,” Ann Lightfoot and Kate Pawlowski, authors of the book “Love Your Home Again,” say.
“Of course it’s the thought that counts,” Lightfoot and Pawlowski say, “but we recommend giving gifts that get used up or can easily be regifted.” Their gift guide motto is “Eat It, Drink It, Burn It, Spend It” because presents that fall into those categories, once used, don’t have to be stored.
Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, offers some general — and very modern — advice when picking out a gift for someone you don’t know very well. “If you don’t know someone very well, try to find out something about the person,” she says. “You can do this by asking a mutual friend or family member or by checking their social media pages (if they are on social).”
Ahead, with the help of Lightfoot, Pawlowski and Whitmore, are 29 gift ideas for someone you don’t know very well, and plenty of tips for avoiding a gifting gaffe. Need more ideas? Check out our favorite gift ideas for women, gift ideas for men, Nordstrom gifts, Amazon gifts and practical gifts.
Plants and home goods
$48 at Anthropologie
“Personal things like jewelry, perfume and home decor can be very hard to get right,” Lightfoot and Pawlowski say, “so we advise steering clear of those types of items.” A picture frame in a classic or neutral style, however, is an example of home or office decor that can be quite easy to get right, and makes a nice gift for someone you don’t know well.
From $40 at Nordstrom
While staying away from scented items altogether is one way to avoid a gifting faux pas, you could certainly opt for a high-end classic like the Diptyque Baies candle. It is a gorgeous berry-scented candle that makes a beautiful gift.
$68 $48 at The Sill
Small plants, such as this adorable Hoya Heart, are a great gift for someone you don’t know well. The Sill is a great place to shop for a plant for someone you don’t know well because they have a gift finder that allows you to sort by occasion and price.
From $30 at Horti
A heart-shaped plant may not be appropriate to give on certain occasions, or to certain people, but this Silver Dollar Vine plant is a safe bet for almost anyone.
$22 at The Home Depot
Plants of all types are lovely gifts, but orchids in particular feel special and elegant. They can also be quite pricey! The Home Depot may not be a place you think of when it comes to buying fine plants, but the brand has an excellent selection at just about every price point.
$25 at Etsy
“Avoid anything too personal,” Whitmore cautions, “such as perfume, body lotions, cosmetics or clothing.” One way to get personal without botching a gift is with monogrammed gifts. A tip: If you don’t know the person’s full name, opt for a single letter monogram.
$31 at Amazon
Whitmore suggests asking yourself these questions when picking out a gift for someone you don’t know especially well. “If you’ve met the person before, what did you notice about their home or office? Do they collect anything or have any particular hobbies or interests?” A travel book is a lovely choice for someone who displays souvenirs or photos from trips.
Useful and practical gift ideas
CNN Underscored Best Tested
$20 $10 at Amazon
A practical gift, especially one that you can personally vouch for, is a smart way to be a thoughtful gift-giver, even when you don’t know the recipient terribly well. This cotton sleep mask — our pick for best overall sleep mask — is one of those gifts people won’t know they needed until they have it.
$22 $18 at Amazon
As electronics proliferate, so do their accessories, and our bags sometimes can’t keep up with the clutter of cords and chargers. This tech accessories case solves that problem, which at this point is a fairly universal one, making this practical gift a safe bet for just about anyone.
$10 at Amazon
Another practical gift idea that will work for a lot of people is this super-clever car trash can. It has a lid to hide its ugly contents and a compartment for tissues or wipes, so it does double duty in keeping the car clean when dirty hands need a quick cleaning.
$22 $18 at Amazon
If the person on your gift list lives in a cold climate, or is a fan of cold weather activities, a set of hand and toe warmers will be a very welcome gift indeed.
$12 at Amazon
“Try to avoid ubiquitous items that are going to take up room in cabinets, such as mugs or water bottles,” Lightfoot and Pawlowski say. “Most people have enough of those!” Instead, think around those things to come up with a useful and thoughtful gift, such as this silicone tray that makes ice perfectly shaped for use in a water bottle.
$41 at Biom
Disinfecting wipes are here to stay — and they’re getting a makeover! Typically, cleaning products do not make great gifts, but an elevated example of the form can be something that is truly welcomed, such as this attractive hand sanitizer wipe dispenser kit.
$42 at Anthropologie
This gorgeously scented hand soap and lotion combo is another example of elevating an everyday experience — in this case, washing your hands — with a luxe version of a household item.
$24 $16 at Alo
Wet bags are incredibly useful things, and this version from the super-popular fitness brand Alo is an especially cool-looking take on the form. Wet bags can be used for stashing sweaty gym gear, toting a wet bathing suit or dealing with soiled kids’ clothes, and they’re great for travel, making for a gift idea that serves a lot of needs and interests.
Food and drink
$30 at Uncommon Goods
Gifts of food and drink are smart choices for someone you don’t know well, but there are some risks to consider. “Never assume that food or alcohol are always the best gifts,” Whitmore says. “Some people have allergies or dietary restrictions and can’t drink alcohol or eat sweets or nuts.” She suggests looking for gifts of specialty teas or coffees instead of alcohol to avoid a potentially awkward moment.
$40 at Blue Bottle Coffee
The experts we spoke to all emphasized coffee gifts as good choices for someone you don’t know well. Blue Bottle Coffee products is a favorite among our staff, and the brand offers a large selection of giftable items like this cold brew set.
$39 at Bean Box
“Even if you don’t know someone very well, you may still be aware that they love coffee,” Lightfoot and Pawlowski say. “We like to give smaller amounts of coffee with a couple of different options in case your recipient is particular about their morning brew.” They recommend this tasting box, which features four coffees paired with gourmet chocolate bars. “Coffee and chocolate — a match made in heaven!”
$16 per pound at Goldbelly
“Gifts from your home state or country” make great presents for someone you don’t know well, Whitmore says. Goldbelly is a perfect way to easily gift some of your hometown favorites, such as these pistachio macaroons from Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End (this author’s hometown favorite).
$49 at Amazon
Gifts of food rooted in a place, or places, make for good conversation starters with someone you may not know very well, when the occasion requires a gift, like this set of 10 chocolates from around the world.
$30 at Harry & David
“Gift baskets with a variety of foods are typically a safe bet,” Lightfoot and Pawlowski say, “because even picky eaters are likely to find something they like. They’re great for people who have families because everyone in the household will feel included. We’ve purchased holiday gift baskets from Harry & David for years and have never been disappointed!”
$32 at Sur La Table
When it comes to picking out a gift for someone you don’t know well, don’t overlook the wow factor that packaging can bring to the occasion. This set of eight pink chocolate truffles comes in a beautiful pink and gold box that is practically a gift on its own.
$30 at Food52
Chocolate gifts come in many forms, including this cheeky “daily dose of chocolate” boxed set of 30 bite-size chocolates. Pick from their four flavors (pink sea salt, 100% cocoa, oat milk or coconut milk) or the mixed set, which includes all four flavors.
$11 $9 at Amazon
Whitmore offered a very clever food gift idea: pet treats! If you know that the person has a dog, cat or another species of beloved pet, something for their animal companion is sure to bring a smile to their face!
From $31 at Etsy
Even in an increasingly digital world, paper goods can be a wonderful gift, especially because there is such a range of styles to choose from. For a younger or more creative person, we love this multicolored Junque Journal that has lined, dotted and blank spaces, because it’s a surprising take on an old standard.
$21 at Amazon
Of course, you can’t go wrong with an old standard when picking out a journal for a person you don’t know well, such as this classic Moleskine notebook that’s available in 22 colors, including basic black.
$35 $28 at Paper Source
Personalized stationery seems like a true luxury, but it doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank. This set of five notepads comes in three different sizes, and can be monogrammed with a single letter if you don’t know the recipient’s full name and monogram.
$14 at Etsy
While much of our correspondence is now done electronically, there are times that call for a handwritten note, or when you need a card for a gift. A small set of blank note cards is a surprisingly useful gift, and offers almost endless options in terms of motif and style, like these dragons.
From $12 at Etsy
“In some instances,” Lightfoot and Pawlowski say, “gift cards can be frowned upon. But the fact is, if you’re trying to give a present to someone you don’t know very well, a gift card can be the most thoughtful option.” They suggest making a gift card more personal by purchasing one from a local business such as a restaurant, an independent bookstore or a gift shop. A personalized card holder is a nice way to present a gift card.