Friday, December 22, 2006

Economists--The Dismal Gift-givers

A thought provoking article in today's Slate about gift giving. Apparently, economic research has established that people derive 20% more satisfaction from buying something for themselves than from gifts. For example, buying your own Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank CD will give you more pleasure than the Ray Coniff Singers you got from your Aunt Fanny. (Um...OF COURSE!)

Which raises the question--why is cash considered gauche? Don't we want our loved one to be as happy as possible? Wouldn't it be more generous to allow your gift recipient to select his/her own gift than to impose your own taste? Why do we give gifts anyway? Can I fit any more questions into a single paragraph? I can? Should I stop now anyway?

The Slate article reports some theories as to why gift-giving--and not cash--persists. I have my own theories. Of course, not being an academic economist with a grant, my research assistance comes from Your results may vary.

1. A gift is not viewed as a spent economic opportunity. That is, when I receive a gift, I don't see it as a consumer choice that I would have made differently--even though I might have. Instead, it's like free money. Put another way--I might not spend my money on a Waterford crystal toilet brush holder, but I'll sure spend yours.

This goes along with a long held philosophy of gift giving that I have had: a gift should be something the recipient wouldn't buy for him/herself. Something that is frivolous, delightful, or luxurious that the recipient would like to have but won't spend the money on. The key point is that the recipient would like to have this thing: thus a rhinestone encrusted belly button lint brush does not qualify. Spa services, important jewelry and/or new automobiles do fit this category.

At its best, this kind of gift giving is a way to open up new ideas and experiences. It's a wonderful way of showing vulnerability and desire for deeper connection. If your boyfriend is a hard core Hobo Nephews fan, and wants to share that with you by giving you a CD (one that you wouldn't ever buy yourself), that's a declaration of love far in excess of the monetary value of the gift.

2. A gift is a mirror in which to glimpse ourselves as other see us. This is why some gifts are so fraught with danger. Your wife does NOT want a new vacuum cleaner for Christmas (not even the newest Dyson, so don't try it) because it signals that you see her as someone who keeps your house clean so you don't have to. This does not create romantic feelings, and may result in coming home to find all your possessions in a pile in the front yard and the locks all changed.

But, suppose you were to buy the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank CD for your wife. It might suggest that you still see her as the adventurous, club-hopping hottie that she was when you met. It says that, despite hearing nothing but Barney songs for the last 3 years, you see her as in touch with cutting edge culture. It says "Hey, Blondie. Let's go hit the clubs and dance until the small hours, and then go back to my place and make out and sleep naked."

Of course, since there are no babysitters who will stay that late, this is not possible, but the sentiment is deeply appreciated, and you might just get some without having to leave the house. However, DO NOT send this CD to your Aunt Fanny, as you don't want her thinking those thoughts--and anyway, she'll probably just think it's a super fancy coaster.

3. Gifts are a measure of love. Again, this is where Danger lurks. Aunt Fanny, on receiving that Hobo Nephews CD--may feel insulted that you know her so little that you'd think she'd like such noise, when it just gives her a headache, and it isn't really music unless it's been on Lawrence Welk.

Which might be okay, if you don't see her so often. With your spouse, however, you'd better do better. Even some of the traditional gifts are now also risky:

You: presenting large, gaudily wrapped box.
Her: opening box and finding rare sable coat. How could you? Fur is murder, surely you know that! I don't eat meat and I won't wear dead animals! How long have I been the local chair of PETA? You don't even know, do you? How can I live with someone so insensitive to the rights of animals?


You: presenting small, tasteful velvet box.
Her: opening box to find flawless 3 carat diamond. You do realize that this represents the blood of native Africans who can find no work but to die slowly while mining these things, don't you? And that their price is kept artificially high by the DeBeers company which keeps vast reserves in their vaults? And that the cost to the people in the countries is not only their lives, but their self determination and dignity? How could you give me a product of such bloody oppression?

See--here is where you need to really know your recipient. This is where we get the saying "It's the thought that counts." You'd better have some good reason for giving the gifts above, reasons that say "I thought about you carefully, and all that you are, and I made this selection." Telling your girlfriend that the sable is from a new breed of sable that molts twice a year, for example, would be a good response--as long as it's true. Or "Darling, that's not a diamond--it's moissanette" is also good. If true.

Are you getting the sense that good gift giving is about mind reading? It can be. But when a gift is right--something that the recipient had never thought of, and loves more than they ever dreamed, when you get the reputation of being a thoughtful and romantic gift's priceless.

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