All sorts of people calibrate their spending based on this notion of exchange, often attempting to match an estimate of what the recipient gave them last time around. They do this for all sorts of reasons. “He likes to pay for dinner,” says Ellen M., of her new guy. “But I never want anyone to think I’m in it for that, so I pick up the check at least half the time. I feel a strong need to assert my independence.” A caring, if frugal, gift-giver, Clark C. has found himself “making sure I had gifts for people who I felt would abuse me [if I didn’t]. Certain people, pay-to-play people, will let you know they expect something.”
Although the idea of the “unconscious marketplace” is convincing, it’s only one way to understand gift offerings. In a 13-year project with colleagues Cele Otnes and Young Chan Kim, University of Texas-San Antonio marketing professor Tina Lowrey studied 14 women in the weeks surrounding Christmas. Every two or three years, they met with their mostly middle-class, Midwestern subjects to gather data about their gift-buying habits. They conducted 30- to 90-minute interviews and accompanied the women on hour-long shopping trips. “We found that the women took on different roles in different situations,” says Lowrey. “They could play multiple roles with the same person over a year.” They could even play different roles with the same person on the same occasion. One woman makes a practice every year of giving her younger sister two presents, one a “fun” item and the other a book. The gifts reveal two different roles the older sibling is playing: entertainer and teacher. Similarly, as Lowrey points out, “A lot of couples give one mushy card and one funny card, which tends to happen most on birthdays.”
Lowrey and her team have identified six roles that gift-givers play. Teacher, or what they call “socializer,” is a common one. So is the “pleaser,” whose intention is very simply to give pleasure. The “provider” is nurturing or protective, which makes socks, gloves, and underwear her/his preferred standbys. There’s also the “avoider,” who tries to duck the occasion altogether; the “acknowledger,” who gives out of obligation; and the “compensator,” who attempts to make up for a hurt or a loss.
My brother, for one, is a die-hard pleaser. “He’s really good at gifts and he spends a lot of time thinking about it,” his wife, Jane O., reports. After the inlaid jewelry box and the vases for her antique pottery collection, he made her a birdhouse for nesting wild owls. “It wasn’t just the gift; it was partly that he made it, and then we went out to put it up, and he climbed up a ladder in the snow.”
Paul F. is a pleaser, too, though he often takes on a second role. A big manly guy who has been with his boyfriend, Grant M., for four years, Paul likes to make sure Grant is “provided for,” which explains his choice of the fancy little keychain with a pen light that helps Grant read better in dark restaurants.