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Gendered gift-giving angst

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Saturday, Dec 20, 2008

Though the idea of using potlatchess to take the edge of of capitalism often seems appealing, I’m not big on programmatic gift-giving. It seems to me that the spontaneous gift generates far less angst, simply because it need not ever be given. You just give something when you happen to come across something you know would be appropriate for somebody. Of course, if there is no schedule for gift-giving, you may not make a point of looking for such things as would be appropriate and never come upon them. Giving gifts is something of a full-time hobby, and requires certain habits of mind—reading magazines, taking frequent trips to stores, having conversations with people about their stuff, etc.—if one is to be successful at it. I don’t do any of that, so I only ever know what stuff I want for myself, and even that sometimes can make for a paltry list. (I try to be wanting for as little as possible; if it occurs to me that I want something, I go out and buy it.) In general, I don’t like the routine of showing consideration for other people by paying attention to their stuff; I’d rather be considerate by listening to their ideas, responding to them, and in general spending time with them. Gifts can materialize that sense of simpatico, but they also seem to threaten to replace it. Though I like it when someone buys me an apropos gift, it also makes me feel a little uneasy, as if the giver has secured themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card with their gift and now don’t have to put in any time with me. Gifts express our social relations in things; that can seem like an amplification and a realization of them, or it can seem like the termination of the relation as a living, changing thing. In particular, unwanted gifts can make a healthy relation suddenly seem dubious. If its the thought that counts, what in the hell were they thinking?


Both PsyBlog and BPS Digest have taken timely note of recent research by psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues into how men and women react differently to unwanted gifts. The PsyBlog posts points out the problem with gift-giving in romantic relationships:


Psychological research on how gift-giving affects relationships hints at this no-win situation. Studies suggest that good gifts only affirm similarity between couples, and so do little for the relationship. Poor gifts, though, may lead people to question their similarity with each other, thereby damaging the relationship.



Dunn’s research shows that the intensity of revulsion felt at a bad gift varies by gender. Men readily interpret an ill-suited gift as a sign that the relationship won’t last; women are more likely to rationalize away a bad gift to protect the relationship: “women are more motivated than men to marshal psychological defence mechanisms to protect against the damaging effects of poor gifts.” Obviously, this reflects a certain power dynamic at work, likely a legacy of patriarchy. Part of the “domestic angel in the household” stereotype for women involves “effortlessly” coming up with the right gifts for people while evincing all sorts of inherent holiday cheer. The holidays become an arena where those confined to the domestic sphere can show off their worth and excel, demonstrate competency and secure recognition for it. But the consequence is that the effort starts to be taken for granted; men expect the elaborate holiday performance of women as a domestic tour de force; women don’t expect the same from men.


To me, the clear response to this is to rid relationships of gift-giving expectations to remove this patriarchal hangover. And then give gifts when you feel like it. If you dare it, you might declare that every moment you spend with a partner is your gift to them, and vice versa.

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