Gift Exchange Price Limits

sketch-1545085241739The Christmas holidays are here, and with them, the ubiquitous gift exchanges. You see them at work, friends groups, and they always tell you how much to spend on a gift. “Get a gift for $x or less”.

That statement of how much to spend has always confused me. What if something is $x + 1 ? If I find it on sale, do I go by the original value or the amount I paid? And, in the U.S., is that before tax or after tax?

But now I think I’ve worked it out. Mind you, this is what I’ve gleaned from my social circles. YMMV.

When they say “don’t spend more than x“, that doesn’t mean that the amount you spend should be less than or equal to x. In fact, in most cases, you should spend more than x. But there’s not some formula, like “spend 20% more than the stated amount”. It’s more complex than that.

They look like formulae, but they’re more like categories. A “less than $15” gift is a category of gift. A “no more than $50” gift is another category. There’s not a “less than $17.50 gift” because they’re categories, not numbers.

So how do you use this information? If you’re looking at a mediocre gift below x and a cool one above x, get the cool one. If you find an OK gift right at x, keep looking. If you find the perfect gift right around x, add a small box of chocolates or something. Consider the value of the gift, not its price, combined with how cool it is to be opened in front of others

So this year, I’m going to think of the number as a category, but still try to spend at least that much. Hopefully that will get my mind off the price of the gifts so I can pay attention to the right thing — having a pleasant time with my friends.

Hearing No

The Japanese word for yes is hai. The Japanese word for no is — well you don’t really use the word for no in Japanese. The Japanese still say no. They’re just not crass enough to use the word no itself. 

It’s like that in English, to a lesser extent. People will say no in various ways, usually without using the word no. An important part of nonverbal communication is understanding what people are really saying, especially when they’re being politely indirect. Specifically, it is our responsibility to hear it when people tell us no politely. 

Saying no is an important part of boundary setting. In fact, most boundary setting is learning how to say no to people. To set proper boundaries, we must tell people when they’ve crossed our boundaries, and even when they’re getting close.  

However, using the word no is often impolite. So people will use other phrases, like, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure about that”. Or people will give reasons for why the answer is no and leave it to the listener to make the connection. They are still saying no, just without the actual word no.

I used to not pick up on when people told me no, especially if they didn’t use the word no. I’d think we were discussing the merits of different alternatives. We’d bring up reasons for and reasons against, to help us make a group decision. 

The people I was talking to saw it differently. They saw it as they were saying no by bringing up objections, and I was shooting down all those objections. In the end people would get tired of fighting me and just agree with whatever I was saying. 

I’d leave the conversation thinking we had made a collaborative decision. 

Tending Relationships

Having recently moved from the United States to Europe, I’m trying to figure out how to retain friendships across an ocean. I’m realising that you need to spend time on relationships, especially time when the other is not present. 

I had a large group of friends, but I only saw them at parties and events. The events included week-long camping events, so I got to know them very well. But I never made the time to go do things with them between events. Now that I’ve moved to another country, if I don’t figure something out, all those relationships will just fade away. 

In the end, the answer is simple. Maintaining any type of relationship is all about spending time on it. Time together, doing things, sharing stories, philosophies, life goals, and such. But also time when apart, thinking about the other person, planning things, buying gifts and even just thinking about what they’ve said to you. 

I never really thought of it that way. I was reactive to what was right in front of me. The people I saw every day got my attention. If I attended an event, I would interact with the people there. But when I left, I didn’t reach out or really think about them or about what we had discussed. Buying gifts was very hard, because it definitionally involves thinking about people when they’re not present. 

So I’ve made a list in a spreadsheet of everyone I want to tend a relationship with. I need to spend time every day looking at that sheet, thinking about the people, and thinking about things I could or should do. I also list the last day I contacted them, so I can send them a quick “what’s up?” message if it’s been too long. 

In elementary school I would always get poor marks in “Uses time wisely”. I think this is what they were talking about. I’m trying to not be reactive, but to consider how I’m using time to tend my relationships. Hopefully, that will be a wise use of my time. 


Conversation has always been difficult for me. I’ve studied up on how to have better conversations, but I missed the most essential point: What is the purpose of the conversation? Once you learn the purpose of a conversation, everything gets easier.

My main goal in conversation had been to not appear socially awkward. So when I studied conversation it was with an eye to appearing to have social grace. I learned about listening more than I talked, about paraphrasing back what they said, and about starting a conversation with small talk. But only to appear normal.

I never thought about the purpose of the conversation. If you think about why you’re having the conversation, the rest falls into place. You’re always trying to accomplish something with your conversation. It’s never only conversation for conversation’s sake.

For example, If your goal is to make a new friend, then your purpose is to “trade information to find common interests.”1 Conversations with existing friends usually are to deepen your relationship. For that, you should get to know each other better.

I used to focus only on keeping the conversation going. So while the other person was talking I would be thinking about the next thing to say. I viewed the sharing of stories to be the aim, so I didn’t really think about what stories meant. I often would leave a conversation without remembering what had been said.

In high school my friends joked that I was like a cassette player. I would pop in a tape, and tell a story in the exact same way I’d told it last time. Same words, same gestures, same tone. I wouldn’t remember who I’d told it to, and I wouldn’t customise it for my audience. My friends started numbering the tapes, so they could say, for example, “oh, this is tape 16” when I started a repeated story. I was forgetting that I needed a purpose to share the story.

1The Science of Making Friends: Helping Socially Challenged Teens and Young Adults by Elizabeth Laugeson


Attention Sufficient

Since I’ve been on ADHD meds, I’m capable of noticing nonverbal communication and feedback on social behaviour. But I spent the first forty-some years of my life not learning social customs.  So they’re not ingrained.

I’ve found that if I sit down and study social behaviour, I can learn it. Even now, when I’m better at noticing feedback, some things I just need explained to me in clear, explicit terms, similar to how neurotypical people study for school subjects.

This is my journey, learning more about social customs through intentional study, more about ADHD through the contrast of where I was and where I am, and more about people in general. I still have ADHD. But in many ways, my attention is now sufficient

Executive Function

My ADHD medicine, atomoxetine, is different from other ADHD medications. Atomoxetine, marketed under the brand name Strattera, is not a stimulant, like other ADHD medicine. Rather, it increases executive functioning. It goes at the heart of the problem.

“Executive function” is that part of the brain that watches the rest of the brain. It’s where you get time sense, and ensure you’re still on track, and in general keep track of what you’re thinking and doing. ADHD is, fundamentally, having less executive function. Atomoxetine is proven to increase executive function.

All my life, my mother has told me that when I’m looking for something I lost I should think of the last place I saw it. This never made sense to me. I’d think, “Where was the last place I saw this?”, and I would answer myself, every time, “I don’t know”. Then, about two weeks after starting Atomoxetine, I was looking for something, and I thought about where I last saw it. A little voice in my head said, “Your daughter had it in the back right seat of the car yesterday.” And that’s where it was. That little voice was my executive function.


Despite people occasionally complimenting me for being nonjudgemental, I’m actually something worse. I call what I am “unjudgemental”.  What’s the difference? Nonjudgemental is when you choose to not treat people worse because of your judgements of them. Unjudgemental is when you don’t even make judgements of people, not even in your head.

For example, let’s say someone is a malicious gossip. A judgemental person would shun them. A nonjudgemental person would still treat them with respect. They just would not tell them any secrets. An unjudgemental person wouldn’t even notice that they were a malicious gossip, and might even confide secrets to them.

It’s like ice skating. Once you get to a certain level, you will categorize everyone on the ice. Based on their level, you consider what maneuvers or mistakes to expect from each skater.  There’s no maliciousness, but you are judging each skater’s ability.

So I’m working on being nonjudgemental. I’m trying to consider and categorize people, but in a benign, fair way