Most gifts are given with the best intentions. And of course it’s bad manners to be ungrateful. But if the holiday present from your mother-in-law is a gift certificate for six months of weekly house-cleaning services, should you feel paranoid—or maybe even insulted?

Just remember to consider the context. If she does that after visiting your new house for the first time, you’re probably right that’s she’s pegged you as a slob. But if the gift arrives shortly after you’ve given birth to twins, it’s probably a thoughtful gesture.


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Holiday gifts can say a lot—even unwittingly—about the relationship between the gifter and the giftee, says Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who has done research on the emotional effects of gift giving. A box of chocolates, for example, could be just a standard-issue gift. Or, if it’s given by your notoriously jealous sister, who knows you’ve just dropped 25 pounds, it actually may be a passive-aggressive act.

So does that mean you should never buy someone a gift that could be construed as controversial? No, but make sure your sensitivity antenna are way up, says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of the etiquette consulting firm Mannersmith. For example, if your partner has been saying that he or she wants to get an activity tracker as part of a plan to exercise more and lose a few pounds, consider getting a pair of matching Fitbits with the stated goal of exercising together, Smith suggests. That also sends the message that you’d enjoy spending more time together.

But there are some items that are too emotionally charged to ever be received graciously, according to Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist. “Buying gifts like an acne-treatment kit, tummy-control undergarments, or books on parenting advice may be well-intentioned, but just don’t do it,” she says. “Especially during the holidays, when people really don’t want to be reminded about the red bumps on their faces, their large behinds, or their shortcomings as parents.”

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.