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. In the early days of my marriage DB didn’t have a great deal of his own money and didn’t really understand gifting. For Christmas he bought me one of those end-cap $25 all -in-one make-up kits. I opened it in front of my family and as he broadly smiled at me I said “was this intended for someone else?”

    Shattered him.
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  2. Disagree with your examples:

    I look at “It’s the thought that counts” as more someone remembered your birthday but all you got was a stinking card or a dumb tie. If they forgot your birthday there is no thought involved so the example wouldn’t work.

    Job performance isn’t a thought either. Either they did it or only did it part way. Again thought isn’t part of it….unless someone was doing something possibly for free as a friend and failed miserably. Then maybe it would apply.
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    • If you get down to where I called the spade, you will see I agree with your assessment and take it a step (four, actually) further. I put up the examples as false. For a good example of the performance being less than stellar, read about the boots.

      I do not believe in “It’s the thought that counts.”

  3. Yes that turn of phrase is a terrible one and so many use it and think that it solves a dilemma but in reality a gift for someone is something that is special and needs to be thought out fully beforehand, not just a half ass attempt at the last minute resulting in a very poor choice and more critically, one that creates the use of ‘It is the Thought that Counts’, which is rather insulting at anytime.

    I know that this is just one example that I have picked up on and that there are innumerable others that qualify but at the end of the day the title of your posting is absolutely correct and that is ‘The Thought Does Not Count’.

    A very interesting posting this one Red and one that gives us all something to think about 🙂 🙂

    Have a lovely rest of evening my great friend 🙂

    Androgoth XXx

    • This has always been an adage which stuck in my craw. Having heard it recently, I could not pass the opportunity to write about it, especially on the heels of “How hard did you really try?”

      Enjoy the last of you night, as it is soon your morn…wait, it already is, my friend 😉

  4. You can bet ‘it’s the thought that counts’ stinks to high heaven.

    Not only do you add insult to injury (to the receiver) by not having checked out what small gift will do the trick, you don’t really know him or her, do you? Now, that hurts.

    This reads like ‘How to Buy Thoughtful Gifts for Dummies’, point by FINE point. Fabulous!
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  5. Well Red, I’m gonna disagree with you.

    I think you misinterpret the phrase. Allow me an example.

    You know what he/she wants. The hints have not been hints, but blatant sign posts. You go to great lengths to find it. Visit half a dozen stores.

    There! There it is and you actually run to the item and grab it before someone else does. The paper is chosen carefully, not some bag to just stuff it in. A new bow that matches perfectly. You wrap it carefully to make all the corners perfect. The edges of the paper line up to make it seamless. The bow positioned just so with a card to bring tears of joy tucked under the ribbon.

    He/she opens the card, reads it and smiles. So far, so good. The paper pulled apart, the box opened and….

    Well, it was the thought that counted. You can see the look on his/her face and know you failed. Despite all the effort. Despite paying close attention. Despite everything you’ve done, you’ve failed. For whatever the reason, the gift is not what was hoped for.

    And now, not even all that counts. If all that thought and caring does not count, then there wasn’t any reason to try in the first place.

    If there WAS thought, then the thought does count. If there was no thought, there wasn’t anything to count in the first place. Thus the phrase, “it is the thought that counts.”

    The well meaning and caring intentions of the giver are the true gift. If there was no well meaning intention, then there was no thought in the first place.

    If you give your wife the drill press you need for your shop, or your husband a weed whacker because you hate the tufts of grass around the trees, the only thoughts were selfish ones. You gave something you wanted. Since it is the thought that counts, that selfishness is what counted. Not for you, but against you.

    Therefore, I say…
    It is the thought that counts, and it doesn’t matter if that thought was good, bad or non-existent.

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    • I think we actually are talking about the same thing, you merely come from the other side of the coin. In your example, it was the receiver at fault. If the begging and leaving of items numbers was any evidence, receiver should have asked for a check a week in advance and wrapped the [expletive] thing in a favorite paper. Likely, this receiver would not have bothered with “ITTTC”, but would have sulked. This receiver is also someone who would be in your second to last paragraph.

      I have not used “ITTTC” as a peace offering for a genuine miscue, but as a receiver’s phrase as a euphemism for “Couldn’t you have hired a chimp?” or “Glad you stopped at the truck stop on your way here.” In your example, “ITTTC” comes as a giver’s phrase. When offered by a giver, who actually took the time to think and act, the phrase is not offered in the hackneyed manner as the receiver’s “ITTTC”.

  6. I’m still struggling to learn proper gift-giving for my wife. I tend to project my wants and needs upon her.
    Of course, her tastes are way more expensive than mine. 🙂 I’d be ecstatic with a used book from Goodwill.
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  7. Mo

     /  July 17, 2012

    I always thought the term “the thought that counts” either meant you were 1: Wrong for whatever you “thought” or 2: it is an easy way to say “yep you might have tried but it sucked none the less” I never understood it as a fuzzy feel good kinda thing. I recently TRIED(yes tried is the operative word) to make Russ’s fudge and bring it to him while he was out of town on a shoot. It fell miserably FLAT and tasted like total Poop on a stick. He ate some of it with a face that said “WTH?” he said “Thanks baby and its the thought that counts”. Needless to say I felt like an a$$ for not only NOT being able to make his favorite dessert but also the lame attempt and the lackluster reply.
    I think the thought doesn’t mean a thing. You can think and think and think but in the end what you DO makes a difference not what you “thought” of or what you “tried” to do. That to me just says Ok I tried but I failed and I am good with that.
    Uhhh NOO!
    Take with a grain of salt because I never liked that saying in the first place:)

    • I am with you on the actions speaking far louder than the words. You may well like the link at the top of the post. It is about the “trying”. Remind me, and I will give you the recipe for micro-cannot-possibly-mess-this-up fudge. 😉

  8. We had someone give us an enormous gift that by and large, most expectant parents would be thrilled to receive. It wasn’t cheap, it took a lot of effort, but you’re right, they didn’t take the time to understand why, of all things, this universally popular gift wasn’t on our gift registry.

    We thanked them, said it was the thought that counted, and took the gift home. We did end up using it, but if they had taken the time to read through the registry, they’d have scored with a much more thoughtful gift.

    In other instances, I’ve just donated that kind of gift if it wasn’t for us, because it was quicker to drop off at Goodwill than to wait through the return lines at all the dept stores. Just not worth it.

    My mother had gift-giving all turned around. She was very selfish. In her later years, she and I had a conversation where she explained to me, patiently as though I were a child “Gift giving is all about the giver expressing him or herself. It is not about the recipient at all.” She then gave me a heart-breaking example about how she went through the winter without a coat once, as a child, because her mother chose to give her a pen for Christmas, instead. She was a very sick person.

    Gifts are nice when they’re nice. When they’re not, they’re awful!
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    • o.O I come from a family of regifters. When it is bad, we give it back…at the next available gift-giving occasion. Shamelessly, we hand each other gifts with the line, “If you do not like it, I will just take it home tonight.” Unfortunately, those are never returned because, inevitably, they are perfect. I have a SIL who is afflicted with the could-not-get-it-right-with-an-item-number gift-giving disease. I think she may have been schooled by your mother. (Look for the comment below by my sister Mo. She admits it, too.)

  9. Mo

     /  July 17, 2012

    I personally have re-gifted something and made it a point to go purchase the same wrapping paper and carefully wrap it. TA DAAA here is your gift. I put as much thought into this as YOU did.
    At least it wasn’t an empty box!

  10. I think the thought does count when there was thought put into the action, but for some reason it did not turn out as hoped. You try to do something or get something that the other person wants or needs, but things go awry. Like you make someone their favourite meal, but you end up messing it up.

    I think thoughtlessness does not count.
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    • That is the point. The adage is ironic. We say it as a reflexive sarcasm when we are the receiver. When we say it as a giver, it is an apology. See Mo’s comment about the fudge…


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