Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Gift-Giving or Extortion?

Ron Lieber, a columnist for the Economics section of the New York Times, wrote an article for last Saturday's paper proposing a new paradigm for holiday gift giving that annoyed me tremendously. His premise was that we need to look for ways to relieve what many feel as the "crushing social obligation" of giving gifts.

Well right there you've already lost me and annoyed me. Gift-giving is a way of thinking about others, of making ritual connections, of adding a touch of frosting to social encounters. It is never an obligation, not adult-to-adult. Giving a gift is a way to be social and in many situations it is common and culturally expected. The part that people seem to find tricky is that these cultural expectations should never translate into personal expectations (and even demands), not after the age of maturity. Every gift that somebody gives you is an unexpected and delightful surprise. Even if it's something you don't like, and even if you consider it just more "stuff" you don't need.

I think it is the expectation that some seem to have that others "owe" them gifts -- the personal expectation I mention -- that yields the "crushing" nature of the social obligation that people come to feel. I love giving gifts, and I frequently give them outside the boundaries of birthdays and holidays, but I suspect I'd lose my delight pretty quickly if I came to feel that I was expected to give them. It's a tricky balance, I know, and there are some social fictions at play, but at the core this is really how I feel about giving gifts. Thank goodness nobody has ever made me feel that they expect something from me in this regard, that they are imposing a "crushing social obligation" on me.

Mr. Lieber's proposal was as follows:

"Everyone in the family puts their gift budget into a pot. A designated banker sets half aside and divides it by the number of gift recipients. Everybody takes their share and buys one special thing, though I might exempt small children. Everybody wears or brings their gifts to the holiday gathering for appreciation. Then, over dessert, the family votes on how to distribute the rest of the money to a worthy cause (or several)."

Distaste welled up in me like acid reflux. First of all, this confuses gift-giving with charitable contributions. They are separate things that serve separate purposes. I know that it has become widespread for people to give money to charity in somebody's name as a "gift" to that person, and it has also become widespread for people to request contributions to charity in lieu of gifts, but I remain uncomfortable with this. If you want to give to charity, then please give to charity -- it's admirable and should be encouraged and you can make your own choices about how much of your discretionary income to give to charity and how much to put towards gifts. You can even decide that you are going to put all of your discretionary income towards charity and none towards gifts and I would find that a reasonable (if severe) stance to take. But a charitable contribution is not a gift to a third party. Requesting that others give to charity in this fashion deflates the intentions and motives and joys that are part of gift-giving. Gifts and contributions are both great things (and both voluntary things). But they are not the same thing.

One reason I feel strongly about the conflation of charitable contributions and gift-giving is that this reduces a gift exchange to a financial transaction. Gift giving is not a financial transaction -- it is a social and emotional one. And that is what bothers me most of all about Mr Lieber's proposal: It turns the fun of the gift ritual into a simple financial exchange. Here's some money -- buy yourself something you like and then come to show us what it was. At the risk of repeating myself: The point of gift giving is the giving, not the gift. Contradictorily enough, this even applies when the gift itself is money. But the rules about obligations and expectations still hold. It is always an unexpected delight to get a gift of money, but people don't owe you tribute.

Mr. Lieber tried to be fair in his article, and he included some responses he'd gotten to his proposal (including some similar to mine). But just as he started to appease me by acknowledging my point of view he quickly wrote something that managed to increase my dudgeon. After noting some of the objections to this plan, he wrote:

"It is entirely possible that none of these problems would crop up in your circle of giving. But if you're concerned enough that they might, you can simply start by asking people change the way they give to you. Perhaps a spouse or parent could get your one special gift, while everyone else donates to a charity of your choosing."

What? WHAT!? Did you catch that? Ask people to change the way they give to you? Make actual demands on others, demands far worse than the original demands that caused you to feel the crushing social obligation in the first place. Remove the pleasure completely from the process of gift-giving. Because, as this comment makes clear and helps me see why my gut reaction was so negative: Mr Lieber evidently thinks that it's entirely about YOU. Do YOU want this gift? Do YOU need this gift? Will the heartfelt expression of another make YOU feel an obligation you don't want?

More contradictions: For the person giving the gift to you, it is entirely about you. For the person receiving the gift, it is entirely about the person who gave you the gift. Both of these statements exist in the same space. Each person gets to think about the other. Fondly. Without a crushing sense of social obligation.

Mr. Lieber, on the other hand, gets coal in his stocking.
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