Giving and Receiving Gifts Is a Hellish Absurdity
Few social traditions are as distressing to me as giving and receiving gifts. Exchanging gifts distresses me for a number of reasons. The first is the duplicity surrounding the reasons for exchanging gifts. People who give gifts say they do so out of feelings of love and generosity, that they give to make someone feel good without expecting anything in return. That's bullshit. Even in the nearly selfless act of giving to someone who is less fortunate and who didn't ask for anything, the gift giver still expects a thank-you or at least a look of appreciation. How quickly feelings of love and generosity can turn to disappointment, hurt, and indignation when you don't get the reaction you wanted from the recipient of the gift.
So, gift givers lie when they say they give purely from feelings of love and generosity. A second lie you often hear about gift-giving comes from the recipient who says, "It's the thought behind the gift, not the gift itself, that matters. Allegedly, as long as the gift-giver believes that the recipient would appreciate and enjoy the gift, it doesn't matter if the recipient really likes the gift. Okay, maybe parents feel this way when their immature, socially incompetent children give them something silly, stupid, ugly, or useless, because they do appreciate their child's attempt at expressing affection. Nonetheless, to accept this affection, they will need to lie about how nice the gift is.
On the other hand, how does a recipient feel about an undesirable gift when the giver is an adult who is supposed to be competent enough to know what will be appreciated? In this situation, it actually doesn't matter if the giver thought the recipient would like the gift. What the recipient is really thinking is, "What a thoughtless gift! Someone who really loves and cares about me would understand what I really like would never get me something so stupid!" Then, depending on the recipient's tact, he or she will either voice the thought, making the giver feel like an idiot, or smile and lie about much the gift is appreciated.
Giving and receiving gifts seem to be inextricably bound to lying and deceit. If we can lie to ourselves to pretend that this is not true, can we then manage to enjoy gift giving?
In my opinion, giving someone a gift makes sense and is enjoyable only under special, limited conditions. One situation that makes sense to me is when people with resources give a gift, purely from a feeling of love and generosity, to those without the resources to get themselves the gift. The feeling of love and generosity part is really important. The gift-giver is not expecting anything in return: not even a thank-you, not even a look of appreciation. Otherwise, it is not true giving. It's bribery. Furthermore, to make this an act of pure giving, the person who receives the gift should feel absolutely no sense of obligation to return the favor.
Unfortunately, this sort of "pure giving" is impossible. How can you not care whether the person to whom you are giving the gift is appreciative? After all, isn't the point of giving the gift to make the person happy? Where is the enjoyment in giving a gift if the recipient looks at it with a blank face, or, even worse, shows disappointment? Let's be honest. We give gifts in order to get something back, even if it is only a glimmer of a smile.
I think that the closest we get to "pure giving" is when parents give their children birthday and Christmas presents. Young children certainly do not have the resources to buy themselves toys, games, and other stuff they would like to have. And immature children can easily accept gifts without feeling a sense of obligation to reciprocate in any way. In fact, once children learn about the gift routine, they can easily develop a sense of entitlement. Then, parents have to meet their expectations or the children will express disappointment. The pressure is on to get just the right gift, one that will make your kids happy rather than disappointed.
We did not have a lot of money to spend on our children's gifts when they were young. So we usually tried to identify one high-quality, somewhat expensive gift to be the child's main present and padded it with several smaller, junky toys. When kids are 3 or 4 this usually works out well enough. But as they get to be 7 or 8 they certainly know the difference between quality and junk. It therefore became a painful experience to see my sons eagerly awaiting their birthdays or Christmas, knowing that I was going to see disappointment with the smaller gifts. And if the "main present" bombed, we had a major crisis. Of course, our sons learned fairly quickly the etiquette of lying about how much they appreciated each present, which made the process doubly painful for me. Not only was I letting my sons down, I was also putting them in a position where they felt they had to lie.
Complicating the matter of buying gifts for your children are the inevitable comparisons that siblings make. Naturally, parents want their children to be equally happy with their gifts at Christmas. Obviously this is an impossible task. Invariably one of our sons would be less happy with his gift than one of his brothers, so then we had to deal with expressions of envy. Once our boys reached their teens, they also became adroit human calculators, mentally summing and comparing the value of their own gifts to the value of their brothers' gifts. Everyone knows that when children get older they require more expensive gifts to cross the threshold into happiness. The question is, are older children entitled to more expensive gifts? Younger children who can estimate and add prices do not think so. Therefore, does one buy more expensive toys for the older boys, knowing that the younger ones will feel cheated, or spend the same amount on everyone so that the older children have to fake being happy? Giving children gifts is all about no-win dilemmas.
Enough on children. How about the exchange of gifts between people with relatively equal resources, such as two friends, or husband and wife? To me, this scenario is even more difficult than buying gifts for children. If financial equals are exchanging gifts, the gifts should have the same emotional and financial value. So, now, you not only have to figure out what to buy the other person, you have to accurately estimate what the other person is going to get you. This is impossible, unless you can read minds. Good friends or lovers are expected to be able to read minds, so if you goof and get something too cheap or too exorbitant, this is evidence that you are not a good friend or lover. What a wonderful specter hanging over you as you are trying to find the right gift!
I used to think that there was a way around this, which was to err on the side of getting something too expensive. Wrong. For one thing, the other person may feel ashamed and embarrassed about the inadequacy of his or her gift compared to yours. Second, if you have a joint checking account and are living hand-to-mouth, the other person might actually become angry about your irresponsible spending. I'll never forget the day I bought a pair of frozen lobsters to celebrate a special occasion and was asked to return them because they were too expensive. I guess there is another solution, which is to work your ass off so you get rich enough to make spending money a non-issue. Of course the more you put into your work to get ahead and make more money, the less time you have to contribute as a parent and homemaker, so, . . . well, that no-win scenario is a topic for another rant that I don't even want to write.
There's another issue that arises from having a joint checking account: You are not spending your own money on a gift for the other person. The other person is actually paying for half of the gift. And you are paying for half of the other person's gift. What, then, is the point? Unless the other person is such an amazing mind reader that he or she can figure out what you would like to have better than what you think you would like to have, why shouldn't the people simply buy gifts for themselves?
After writing this rant, I poked around the Internet for articles on the psychology of gift-giving and was rewarded with the following page that supports my feeling that gift exchanges between equals makes no sense. From http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/12/23/1071941734365.html :
"Conventional economics teaches that gift giving is irrational. The satisfaction or 'utility' a person derives from consumption is determined by their personal preferences. But no one understands your preferences as well as you do.
So when I give up $50 worth of utility to buy a present for you, the chances are high that you'll value it at less than $50. If so, there's been a mutual loss of utility. The transaction has been inefficient and 'welfare reducing', thus making it irrational. As an economist would put it, 'unless a gift that costs the giver p dollars exactly matches the way in which the recipient would have spent the p dollars, the gift is suboptimal'.
This astonishing intellectual breakthrough was first formulated in 1993 by Joel Waldfogel, an economics professor now at the University of Pennsylvania, in his seminal paper, The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.
The difference between what givers pay for presents and the value the recipients put on those presents is the loss being referred to and, since it's equivalent to tearing up banknotes, economists call it a 'deadweight' loss.
It follows from this insight that, if people must persist with gift giving, they should at least minimise the loss by giving money rather than items in kind.
Trouble is, were families to assemble on Christmas morning for an equal exchange of $50 cheques, the pointlessness of the exercise would quickly become apparent."
Oh, I know. The economic analysis above is so cold and rational. Giving gifts is supposed to be all about feeling warm and fuzzy. I'll repeat myself. I know that, I really do. The trouble is, once you realize what's going on, once you picture people all exchanging $50 checks with each other, you can never look at gift-giving quite the same way again.
And I'm not done yet. The problem of gift-giving gets more and more difficult each year because you don't want to keep recycling the same gift ideas over and over. If you've been together for 30 years, what on earth are you going to come up with for the person's birthday, Valentine's Day, Mother's/Father's Day, your anniversary, and Christmas this year that you haven't already given in the previous 29 years?
Some suggest that the solution is for people to let each other know what they would like for the next gift-giving holiday. There is an advantage to this in that the person won't be justified in feeling let down about the gift since it was on the wish list. Or so I thought. Sometimes people say they would like something but, when they actually get it, it turns out that they don't like it that much and they don't remember saying they wanted it. Furthermore, the joint checking account factor seems even more absurd when combined with the wish list solution. I tell you what I would like and you buy it for me with our money, and you tell me what you would like and I will buy it for you with our money.
Lest anyone thinks I am being thick-headed and short-sighted about the problem of gift-giving, let me prove that I understand the "correct" solution to the problem. The solution is to study the intended recipient of your gifts to no end, to know his or her likes and dislikes as well as he or she does. Next, consider every day of your life to be a day to find or create the perfect gift. As you stroll through stores or surf the Internet, be constantly vigilant for gift ideas. If you visit out-of-the-way stores or obscure web sites, this is all the better because you might find something that the person does not even know exists, but with your intimate knowledge of the person's emotional makeup, you'll recognize it as the perfect gift. There will be no more waiting until a few weeks or days before the holiday. Every day will be a day for identifying gifts, which can be stored until the holiday arrives. Gift-giving will become your career, a way of life. It's the only solution.
I do not think that this solution will work for me because it is too difficult, although I am learning to notice and procure gifts all year around instead of just before holidays. This solution still does not address the problem of how to make sure your gift is equal in value to the one you receive, how to cope with the disappointment of falling short with your gift, or how to convincingly lie when you are disappointed with the gift you receive. There's really no escape from the gift-giving trap, as far as I can see. I didn't invent gift exchanges; I was born into a system in which they are expected, so to refuse to engage in this ritual would make me subhuman. It is just another one of those inevitable things like death and taxes that we all must face.