Gift woes

by Rob Horning

12 December 2006


I’ve always been more than a little uncomfortable with prescribed gift giving—my lame excuse is that unscheduled gifts are more authentic; only how often can you get away with giving an unprovoked gift without seeming a little creepy? It takes more conversational deftness and security in your shopping skills than I possess. I tend to give away stuff that I got for free or stumbled upon randomly, so I have an excuse if the gifting goes badly—“Well, I just saw this at Value Village for 99 cents and thought you might get a kick out of it.” “This was in the free pile at work.” For some strange reason I seem to think that sending the message that I didn’t really spend any money or time trying to find something for a person somehow comforts them. My guiding principle, I guess, is to never demonstrate through a lame gift that I have totally misjudged someone and somehow failed to really know them. How I envy the people who never give a second thought to a lame gift—they must make up for it by giving so many gifts that their successful-gift average ends up being pretty high. Or rather, viewed from a strict quantity-over-quality perspective, they distribute a sum total of more happiness through sheer volume. I instead have eaten a lot of gifts I ended up lacking the courage to give. And so that copy of Practical Chess Endings remains on my shelf with my unsent packages of Joe Weber jokes.

Anyway, during the holiday season I tend to come across as extra curmudgeonly, I think; today I was approached to participate in a secret Santa at my work and I replied, “I can’t do that.” Naturally I was asked why not, and I was on the verge of presenting a semi-bogus religious reason when the office do-gooder walked off without my needing to reply. I was thinking to myself that I already had too many gifts to get for people in my family, but it turns out that if I wanted to reduce my stress, I should have leaped at the opportunity to give to strangers in lieu of people I ostensibly know more intimately. Via BoingBoing and then the Consumerist comes links to this report from the Journal of Consumer Research. It turns out our gift-giving acumen is more likely to fail us when we think we know the person we’re giving to. Apparently the more familiiar we are with a person, the more we take for granted that we know the, the more likely it is we will misperceive what they actually want. This is from the journal’s teaser for the article:

Past research has argued that lack of diagnostic information causes this sort of misperception, but Davy Lerouge (Tilburg University, the Netherlands) and Luk Warlop (Katholieke University, Belgium) found that we buy unwanted gifts even when we have plenty of knowledge. In fact, we frequently have the most trouble understanding the tastes of those we know a lot about. Not only do we feel overconfident that we’ll pick something they like, but our tendency to assume that we are extremely similar to the ones we love also motivates us to ignore cues that don’t support preconceived notions.

We tend to put faith in our ideas of what we want our friends and family to be rather than seeing them for what they are or giving them a neutral, all-purpose gift that falls below the connotations of particularity. That’s why it’s not so lame and unimaginative to give things like socks or AAA batteries. Hey, maybe someone in my family might appreciate Practical Chess Endings. I used to expedite this whole phenomenon by simply buying stuff I wanted and then giving it to people. If it didn’t end up being something they wanted, at least they got the gift of knowing me and what I might want a little better. (Very generous of me, I know.) I have often had hard time imagining that people don’t want what I want, and I can’t bring myself to shop with other people in mind—they begin to fuzz out as I begin to imagine myself owning the stuff I am contemplating buying. I succumb to the narcotic fantasies of consumer pleasure that sociologist Colin Campbell describes in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. I’ve never gone so far as Homer Simpson’s trick of buying Marge a bowling ball with his own initials inscribed in it, however. Thus the holiday season tends to unleash my inner selfishness—the more times gift shopping takes me to stores, the more covetous I begin to feel.

As far as I’m concerned, when giving gifts, cash is king. I used to get my niece and nephew gift cards, but then I started reading the business press, which is full of stories of how gift cards favor retailers and how they have methods to push down redemption rates, whether through expiration dates or arbitrary restrictions on paying out the balance after purchases. And besides, why would I want to limit them to whatever store I chose? I guess a gift card prevents the cash from dwindling away on quotidian things like gas, junk food, beer, the phone bill. And it can give a shopper focus, an excuse, a reason to go buy something that they may have been waiting for. A gift card is the only reason I end up in Barnes and Noble (that is, ever since I stopped returning free-pile books there), but when I’m there I enjoy the pleasant buzz of browsing, empowered by “free” money. But this seems like a retailer’s trap I should spare my loved ones from.  I always have wanted to write “merry X-mas” in magic marker on a $50 bill and just stick it in an envelope, but the sad truth is that this wouldn’t be appreciated like I’d hope it would be; this would be still a gift I’d want, delivered how I would want to receive it, completely colored by my dumb notions of what I think is cool.

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