Gifts are like that. Even the most generous can disappoint. As Cheryl Strayed writes in a terrific essay in the December issue of Allure (alas, in typical Conde-Nast fashion, it’s not online):
“My boyfriend gave me a 12-pack of Diet Coke for Christmas!” I occasionally exclaim with glee, now that years have passed since the roil of sorrow and humiliation of that day. That present is little more than a funny memory now, a mere entry in my annals of the Really Bad Gifts I’ve Received. There was the “electronic guard dog”—a plastic speaker that emitted a screeching bark each time it detected motion—given to me when I had two actual dogs that did the job with authentic verve. There was the book about how to succeed as a financial executive in Japan that I received upon my college graduation as an English major. There were the used bath towels sent as a wedding present by an otherwise sane relative. And then there was the granddaddy of them all: a Weight Watchers gift certificate from my mother-in-law for my birthday when I was eight months pregnant.
Each of these gifts made me believe, in a new light, the old adage that it’s far better to give than it is to receive. Receiving sometimes hurts. Bad gifts tell us not who we are, but who the gift givers wish we would be—thinner, say, or a Japanese capitalist rather than an aspiring writer. Or, perhaps worse, they imply that we mean so little to the gift giver that he or she didn’t even bother to consider what we might like or need. That’s how it felt to receive soda for Christmas.
To be fair, Strayed’s mother-in-law very likely chose her gift out of womanly sympathy for the impending struggle to lose pregnancy weight, perhaps even thinking that she herself would have once appreciated such a present. But whatever the good intentions, the gift itself revealed that she knew little of her daughter-in-law’s own desires or how Strayed wished to be thought of by others. The gift certificate wasn’t just wasteful, like the electronic guard dog. It actually hurt.
Gifts seem simpler for children. With so little chance to buy the things they want, kids are expected to make their wishes explicit: “What do you want for Christmas?” Letters to Santa function as de facto gift registries. Birthday wishes enjoy similar social sanction. Doting relatives may come up with ideas of their own, of course, but children are also less likely to evaluate surprises based on what they think those presents say about them. They just want good stuff. (According to the Flickr caption, the 5-year-old in the photo even found socks exciting.)
For adults, gift giving takes on either lesser or greater significance. It’s either an obligatory social ritual with minimal emotional content or an opportunity for recognition and revelation. Woe to the couple in which one partner goes for ritual and the other longs for recognition.
Gifts carry a dangerous glamour. They encourage us to dream of being lavished with the things we wish for but can’t have (or are too practical to indulge in) and—the emotionally fraught part—to dream of having those who love us discern our longings without our having to confess them. Beneath the gift wrapping we imagine something that demonstrates how well the giver truly knows and cares about us, something that affirms the person we wish to be. So we’re hurt when the gift seems either perfunctory (Strayed’s 12-pack of Diet Cokes) or completely inappropriate—a present for someone else. (In some cases, that someone else is literally the gift giver, who wants in on the present.) Saying “he’s hard to buy for” is, unless he’s ascetic or impossibly wealthy, usually a way of saying, “I don’t really know him that well.” The sad truth is that most of us don’t really know each other that well. He’s particularly hard to buy for because men don’t need a lot of earrings.
In a 1993 article in the American Economic Review, Wharton economist Joel Waldfogel estimated the “deadweight loss of Christmas,” arguing that “holiday gift-giving destroys between 10 percent and a third of the value of the gifts.” That loss is basically the difference between what givers pay to buy the gifts and what recipients would be willing to pay for the same items. Waldfogel has now developed his argument into an adorably packaged little book called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. Here’s an excerpt from chapter one, which you can read in full here):
O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi is a tale of another sort of deadweight loss. I’ve always hated it for the cruel joke the author plays on the characters, doubly so since he declares their gifts a model of wisdom rather than heartbreak. How can that outcome be good? Everyone is worse off! Even as a child, I thought a bit like an economist.
When the day arrives, families—and extended families—gather around a tree or a hearth or a menorah to exchange holiday gifts. Kids squeal in delight as they open their dolls and trucks. With young children especially, the gifts matter less than the ritual of ripping off wrapping paper and bows. Teenagers feign surprise—for grandma’s benefit—and register actual approval for the gifts they specifically requested. They roll their eyes at the music and movies you buy them. Because you’ve raised them well, they manage a smile for grandma’s gifts. What kid doesn’t need a candle? But the fabricated smiles aren’t limited to the teens. The adults all arrange their faces into expressions of pleasure as they unwrap items they would never buy for themselves. “A cribbage board? You shouldn’t have,” we tell our mothers-in-law. Indeed
But O. Henry did perceive one thing correctly: that the characters’ gifts were at least proportionate to each other, and each was—and was perceived as—an expression of great love. Imagine how much worse it would have been for Della to have sold her hair only to receive an ordinary tin of tea in exchange. (Diet Coke hadn’t yet been invented).
Cash, the favored alternative of Scroogy economists, lacks the glamorous promise of perceptively fulfilling an unarticulated longing. (Scrooge, of course, did not give cash. He was too stingy.) It also lacks the license to enjoy yourself that comes with a gift chosen by someone else. Cash is fungible. You may use it for something routine or responsible rather than something fun.
But suppose you’ve said you want the cash for a particular purpose, to get something you want but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) buy without the presents. Your friends and family could chip in to fulfill your wish, and you’d feel at least a moral responsibility to use their gifts the way you said you would. It would be just like cash, but it would feel different: a little more sentimental, a little less crass. Plus instead of, say, four OK presents for $25 each, you could get one great $100 present. It might not be glamorous, but it could be fun—and a lot less disappointing than letting people guess.
That’s the idea behind Lottay (pronounced like the drink), a gift-giving site started by some of my husband’s former UCLA MBA students. Their biggest problem, as Professor Postrel warned them, is getting people used to the idea of giving, and asking for, cash. It’s a tough challenge, one they’re trying to solve by encouraging givers to specify what the cash is for (with the understanding that recipients can spend the money as they choose) and by using “e-greeting cards, private messages, images and pictures to wrap money in the emotion of the occasion.” For those who don’t find that approach convincing, they have a blog with a glamour-puncturing message: Hints Don’t Work.
[Woman opening iron from iStockPhoto. Five-year-old by Flickr user edenpictures, used under Creative Commons license. Theft of the Magi cartoon from the wonderful XKCD. For sweet, funny, geeky gifts, visit the XKCD store here.]