The Thought Does Not Count

How many times have you told someone, especially Mate, It is the thought that counts.? I have a challenge for you. I say, The thought does not count. You up for a debate?


Why do you say it? What triggers this adage? How about a top three?

  • Your (birthday, anniversary, special occasion) was forgotten.
  • The job done for you rates a three on the ten-point scale.
  • The adage Close, but no cigar could be interchanged.


When you say it, are you…

  • wistful?
  • disappointed?
  • sarcastic?

 What else?

What are you leaving unsaid when you say it?

  • because you do not know what is appropriate.
  • because you did not find out what I wanted/needed.
  • because I do not want to hurt your feelings as much as you have hurt mine.


We are very forgiving of our children when they bring us the treasures they make from our prize flowers, ingredients from projects we have yet to begin and wildlife (either live or parts). For them, they were expressing their thoughts by associating the gift with the warm feeling of giving.

When we say It’s the thought that counts to them, we are appreciating their naïveté at choosing the appropriate gift. They do not have enough experience to understand gift-giving is an exercise in delighting the receiver rather than satisfying the magnanimity of the giver. After praising their effort, we must explain to them better solutions and how to arrive at them.

Adults Only

The well-packaged gift from an adult which in no way fits with our interests, lifestyle or desires does not meet with such forgiveness. The old adage often masks rancor. So, why is the blood boiling?

The adage is a classic example of irony. Irony is a word we toss around which, in this instance, Merriam Webster says means:

 incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result”

Gifts and kindnesses are not actions which happen in a vacuum. By their very nature, they must be tailored to the recipient. For instance, how many adults would be forgiven for the following gifts?

  • The drill press the giver needs to complete a power tool collection
  • The extra large box of Godiva to a starving person
  • A 3x T-shirt from a favorite band to a person who has just lost 100 pounds

The gifts were not chintzy in the way we scoff at things we merely do not like as a matter of taste. Instead, they show a deep misunderstanding of the part of the giver. Before committing resources to a gift, the giver failed to consider if the gift would be either beneficial or satisfy a need which overshadows it. Can you think of more personal examples?

What of the aunt’s gift in A Christmas Story? Or Winchester’s family tradition of chocolates in M*A*S*H? Have you ever been guilty of giving something because it would be what you wanted to receive but completely incongruous to the needs of your recipient?


Let’s step away from gift-giving for a moment. We have all been acquainted with the adage Actions speak louder than words. Many of us are intimately acquainted with it. When someone we love, who professes reciprocity, does something which hurts our feelings we will often tell them It is the thought that counts in order to spare them the guilt which is missing in their pride over their actions.

For instance, Mate comes home beaming with the story of dropping off money for the starving pygmies. In your head you are doing all the calculations to determine your child will not have his soccer fees tomorrow, the gas bill will be late and stretching the last chicken in the freezer into three days worth of meals will tax your imagination to its breaking point.


The thought does not count. Let’s call the spade a spade. If for one moment the thinker had been thinking, none of these situations would have arisen. Hence, the adage is deeply ironic. From the top, if you care about a person, …

1. …you make sure to remember the days which are important.

2. …you put as much effort into what you do for them as you would for yourself.

3. …you know the difference between what you like and what they like.

4. …you find out what is appropriate given the circumstances.

5. …you satisfy a desire or a need, rather than being concerned over the gratitude.

6. …you do not make the person you love suffer consequences for your perceived good deeds.


When in a relationship, be it friendship or a marital relationship, each person has the responsibility to consider the feelings of the other when deciding to do anything which will have consequences. Everything has consequences.

If the only consequence which interests you is the ego-stroking gratitude you expect for your gift or action, you are not responsible enough to give the gift or complete the action. The only thought you have put into the matter is what you will get out of it.


When placed into a position where you would normally spout It is the thought that counts, stop lying to the listener. Tell the truth.

  • This is inappropriate because…
  • I love this idea, however, it is (eight sizes too big/small, above my capabilities, useless in my situation).
  • This is what you wanted.

The bigger part of the challenge? Never put someone in the position to tell you It’s the thought that counts.

Is there ever a time when the thought really does count? How do you avoid being told or telling someone else It’s the thought that counts? What does the adage mean if you were to put it into your own words? Is it different as a receiver or as a speaker?

(c) Red Dwyer 2012
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  1. ok I see your point but it occured to me as I read over the questions that I see it different too… I have always heard it more as an admonishment to be grateful… mostly interchangeable with .. you coulda got nothing.. (although sometmes that is the preferable choice eh?) late birthday or anniversay cards.. late? well at least the thought was there… a gift that doesn’t quite fit the receiver becasue it was out of the regifted box to ensure that when it cam time to exchange anyone without would still have something to open.., thats a thought that counts in a way… so yea I guess to me it translates more to be grateful you got anything..they could have not thought about it.

    Kids are forgivable like you said.. i love the gifts they give me when they were little and have many of them in my hope chest.. which is probably a whole other matter huh? my 17 yo hit it perfect last year getting me a coffee grinder.. but the year before had failed miserably (dont tell him ) so I think that they are forgivable into their teens as they learn the art of giving a gift… room to fail.. who better than mom? My great gandmother had a mind like a steel trap until it was deprived of O2 for 5 long minutes.. she was an amazing example of someone who always knew exactly what to give..,, now well..its legendary for other reasons and it has given the family something in common and that thought counts. Husbands who buy their wives another piece of expensive jewelry AFTER being told that they would love dearly to have a sewing machine instead? Nope not at all…
    Oh and its the thought that counts as a continuous excuse to be late, with cards and gifts… eh… no
    Muchas Lovas
    Lizzie Cracked recently posted..This Space Intentionally Unoccupied (your mental moment)My Profile

    • My great-grandmother was uber cool, too. We do attempt to teach our children how to outgrow the ITTTC. You have touched on the other side of ITTTC…the admonishment. Makes me wonder something: Have we reached such a level of PC that something is always preferable to nothing?

      Hmmm…<3 Much love, Lizzie...I am curious.

      • that is a good question and on a personal level I say no in fact just the opposite.. as i get older I want nothing more than anything I can think of and I would rather have nothing then something else to do soneting with… as a giver I am much more discerning as well.. I have very little money and if what I have does not afford a gift that is thoughtful.. I would rather not giv than buy a trinket at the knick knack place.. As a society? I am not really sure.. he who has the most stuff when he dies wins right? 🙄
        Love ya
        Lizzie Cracked recently posted..Listen, Midnight Mental MomentMy Profile

        • I am with you. Scroll down to my response to Derek. I have been giving thoughtful, appropriate gifts for years. With as many people as I have on my list, it would cost the GNP of a small country if I did not do it appropriately. I want to die with the least amount of stuff someone will garage sale or throw away. <3

          • Ha! that is on my list as well – I read once about a lady who when she passed had only what would fit in one suitcase. I thought amazing – how coud that be possible, it was probably during one of my moves when I see all the I have been a t my parents for the last month and have nothing more that is mine but 4 sets of clothes that I wash every fifth day, 4 books, my computer my phone and two notebooks and a sketchbook and my purse ..oh the car is the driveway. , in the pasr when I came from a ling distance to see my folks for a lengthy period of time by the 3nd week or so I wanted to go home to my things – my books, my crafts.. I dwelled on my stuff… now I realized the other day that the only thing I want ir that I miss or feel like I need from home is my kitten George… I feel much least theoretically . So maybe I will get there to one suitcase and I know that my kids will thank me. I wish I could talk my mom into it.. 🙂
            Lizzie Cracked recently posted..Your Reflection Mid-Afternoon Mental MomentMy Profile

          • I will never be able to talk my mother into it. Fortunately, I know how to operate a bulldozer. 😉 <3

  2. I agree with the essence of your post’s sentiments. Though even in adults sometimes the situation calls for a “it’s the thought that counts” because frankly it does. I venture to propose you state clearly why ‘x’ gift was in appropriate, followed by a swift “it is the thought that counts though -thanks.” That way you are both assertive and sensitive to the other’s sentiments. Best of both worlds.
    Michelle @ Attraction psychology recently posted..Secrets To Pleasing A WomanMy Profile

    • I have been in these situations more times than I care to admit. However, I refuse ITTTC because in my mind (and as this post is frank about) it does not. I prefer to use the same technique I use with my children: I appreciate you wanted to give me something. It is far more accurate than crediting them with merely giving a gift without the recipient clearly in focus. I propose to you the same question I asked Lizzie…has society reached such a point of PC “something” is always preferable to “nothing”?

      Welcome to M3. Please go by and leave a link to your blog in the Green Room. I know a few of the M3 Readers who would really enjoy your space!

  3. Thoughts do count but an empty hand is like empty book of poetry..remember special dates remember small details nothing wrong.its just a matter of habit. i love surprises i love gifts..i love giving more..its so much fun 🙂
    Soma Mukherjee recently posted..Jungle,Bungle,Tungle,Gungle,A Pre-storyMy Profile

    • I am not a firm lover of surprises…except from the florist. I have loads of “things” and love the fragrant ambiance of cut flowers. I love giving gifts 🙂

  4. This post reminded me of one I wrote around Christmas time, I just couldn’t remember why. At any rate, I agree with you. I don’t have much more to add, except a link to the post, if interested —
    Derek Mansker recently posted..What are YOU going to do today?My Profile

    • Not like I understand those who do not at least make the gift functional. Reminds me of hoarders. Meh.

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