The simple gold bracelet bestowed to mark Valentine’s Day. The new refrigerator for a birthday. The dinner check picked up by a date. While the purpose of gift giving may seem obvious, and our intentions straightforward, I’ve been preoccupied recently by what’s under the surface: a web of mixed emotions.
Gifts can symbolize a feeling or express a value. They can act, in the words of one researcher on the subject, University of Utah business professor Russell Belk, “as a powerful statement of the giver’s perception of the recipient.” They can quell worries and fill needs, or sometimes deliberately not fill them, since some givers insist on practical gifts, which are often interpreted as unromantic. They can affirm relationships or even improve them. But they can have plenty of negative consequences, as well.
In one study of more than 100 gift recipients, only 42 percent reported “positive emotional experiences,” while 58 percent reported the opposite. Plenty of gifts simply confirm an already detectable distance. Givers reveal their ignorance and thoughtlessness all the time; every item of clothing you never even hung up is proof of that. And how many times has a present you didn’t anticipate left you feeling burdened?
Meanwhile, individuals add their own weirdnesses to the sauce. Some fixate on the surprise. Like my brother, who says of his partner of 22 years, “She always asks me what I want, which makes me crazy. If I tell her, I might as well go buy it myself!” Some fixate on protecting themselves from disappointment. Ellen M., for instance, who has spent too many Valentine’s Days alone for her taste, told her current boyfriend early on that she needs a gift come February 14. “I’ve had to remind him a couple of times,” she says, matter-of-factly. “He says, ‘Oh, yeah, I have to write that down.’” Getting him to express his devotion wasn’t the point. She just needed to make sure this holiday would be different.
On such a tangled, fragile mesh of meanings there rests enormous weight. This year Americans will spend more than $200 billion on gifts, almost one out of every ten retail dollars. According to Visa, the average American spends $941 during the holiday season alone, and marketers push us to purchase for some 12 different occasions, from Mother’s Day to Halloween.
Not surprisingly, then, money is at the heart of much gift giving. So much so that social scientists frequently use economics as a model to explain the ritual. To give a present, they say, is to pay something, however abstractly, and to expect some return on your investment. The most blatant example of this model has become a cliché: Guy takes girl to dinner; girl has sex with guy. Dinner is a gift with an unspecified but recognized price tag. A male in one study, in fact, referred to gifts as "fiscal foreplay."
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