Give a Little Bit
On the psychology of gifts
On the psychology of gifts
Picture your guests arriving at the door for Christmas drinks. One hands you a box of Ferrero Rocher, another a bottle of bubbly. And then behind them, your friend Annie comes struggling up your stairs, panting a little under the weight of a heavy wooden crate covered in chicken wire. ‘Surprise!” she cries, thrusting it into your arms, and it’s not clear who is more startled – you, or the pair of white fantail doves peering out from beneath the wire.
The gift of livestock is perhaps the riskiest in the category of Inventive Gifts, although my mother-in-law didn’t think so. Undeterred by her friends’ disbelieving rictus smiles (or the daily toil that followed, shovelling bird poo from the patio) she went on to present an identical pair of birds to two more couples.
The search for inventiveness can also lead to other perilous choices - the Improving Gift, for example. If you give your sister cooking classes, she may well enjoy them as a fun way to spend a few evenings. Or she might interpret them as a coded complaint about how she never invites you to dinner. There are many subtle variations on the Improver – a work of classic literature given to the Playstation buff, say - but some are refreshingly free of ambiguity. Like when my friend Geraldine’s new boyfriend gave her a home electrolysis kit for her birthday.
The Gift of Malice, another category, is not so much a risk as a deliberate insult. The most outstanding examples I’ve seen involve clothes of a ridiculously inappropriate size. A size-12 friend’s appearance-obsessed mother routinely sends her dresses in size 18+ (‘oh sorry love, you must just look that big’), and a man I know once received a rugby jumper three sizes too small from his father, with a card pointing out that this would be a good incentive for him to lose weight.
Then there’s the Creepy Gift, such as the raunchy underwear another woman once got for Christmas. It wasn’t from her husband, which would have been bizarrely out of character. No; in some strange and complicated reverse-Oedipal pimping ritual, the Stunning Pearlite Open G-string and matching Erotic Triangle-Cup Bra came with a little Santa card gaily signed by her husband’s mother.
The Surprise Event, aka The Ambush, is often undertaken in a spirit of recklessly high romance – the surprise trip, the garden makeover or unannounced birthday party. Fraught with danger, this one is often more pleasing to the giver than the getter. Denied any part in the planning or outcome yet obliged to react - often publicly - with breathless gratitude, the recipient’s honest response may veer more to simmering resentment than any joy. I learned my lesson about this years ago when I agreed to help a friend’s husband surprise her with a party. Unfortunately when my friend – always prone to a sombre turn of mind - saw people she barely knew standing in her hallway, she assumed that someone dear to her had been killed. She spent the evening silent and shell-shocked while the rest of us hurled ourselves into the false hilarity and the booze, inwardly vowing: never again.
The Transaction is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all contemporary gift categories. The best form is the wedding registry, although it’s no longer alone. There are few important life events, it seems, that cannot now be sullied with a list of priced demands, distributed to loved ones via a favourite department store or gimmegimmegimme.com.au, where one can read saccharine greetings from the greedy couple as you punch in your credit card details. ‘Thanks for logging on to our honeymoon registry! We want to make our wedding as carefree for our guests as possible, so please choose from any of these expensive items - and you mustn’t worry at all that we will always know you were the one who gave us the Hot-Grippe silicone pot-holder (red), $15. See you at the wedding – I’ll be the one in white!’
Those who baulk at such demands, or the similarly joyless exchange of agreed-value shopping vouchers that characterise many a family Christmas, may be alarmed to learn of something called a ‘push present’: a gift, usually expensive jewellery, given to a new mother by her partner in exchange for the birth of their child.
I suppose any woman who has endured nine months of alcohol-free body-snatching followed by 27 hours of excruciating pain and terror might feel she deserves some recompense, but can a Tiffany ring really provide more than a partner’s deepest love and support? The answer for many modern women appears to be yes, now hand over the rock.
Is technology to blame for the rise of the transactional gift? Bald-faced demands are simpler made online or by email, let’s face it. In the guise of “making it easy” (when did we allow the idea to develop that a gift is such a burden?), it goes like this: “Just in case you’re at a loss as to what little Bobby would like for Christmas, here are some ideas”, followed by sixteen or so suggested presents in order of price and availability. Some parents seem particularly good at this, both young and old. One woman’s 80-year-old mother, pressed on what she would like for Christmas last year, waved her hand and said, “Oh nothing darling, nothing. Just a little hanky would be lovely, or a nice bar of soap. Or a Pioneer Blu Ray Home Theatre System.”
Am I the only one who finds such instructions dispiriting, if not enraging? I have argued with friends over this. My insistence on surprises and not returning gifts, they say, is not only impractical but ecologically unsustainable. Fair point, I guess, for what happens to all that ugly jewellery, the unwanted CDs, the useless kitchen gadgets like those divided glass bottles with two necks to keep oil and vinegar in (what are those things?), apart from going straight to landfill? Surely a wanted present is far more practical, and because it’s appreciated, more precious.
Well, no. For a start, the appreciated gift is destined for landfill too - but more importantly, in the transaction, the give-me-what-I-want-or-take-it-back approach, the whole point of a gift is lost. The gift is not the gift, but a symbol, a gesture of one person’s esteem for another.
It’s telling that in the NSW trial of ethics classes to replace scripture in primary schools, one of the moral dilemmas presented to 10-year-olds was the question of what to do when your birthday gifts include a horrible jumper hand-knitted for you by Grandma. Do you say you love it, or be honest and tell her the truth? The answer any 10-year-old can tell you, of course, is in favour of the loving lie: honesty is very obviously not the best policy when it comes to grandmas and handmade objet. It seems the 10-year-olds understand what all the 30-year-old bridezillas do not: that the gracious acceptance of a gift is itself a gift in return.
Of course, it would be nice to live in a world where the loving lie (see: doves, fantail) was not required. And occasionally, a person has a special talent for gift selection. This is the kind of person I would like to be one day, but I suspect it is a talent that is innate, not learned. We all know someone like this, who not only faultlessly remembers each birthday, but manages always to give a present so apt and considered that only the recipient can specially love it, and always does.
What is such aptitude made of? Some personal flair and thoughtfulness, of course, but most of all it is a talent for noticing, for listening, over time, for the tiniest of conversational or visual clues that might hint at one’s hitherto undiscovered delight in moss-green cashmere socks, say, or Himalayan wintergreen tea.
This kind of person has no need of websites like everythingbutflowers.com, with their screens on screens of depressingly generic Gifts for Her (are there women who actually want a battery operated Shiatsu Cushion Massager or a Kathy Lette audio book?) or For Him (cufflinks and cricket books, natch). One wonders, looking at sites like this, if they shouldn’t all be merged into one giant conglomerate called regift.com, for they are chock full of the stuff freely redistributed by folks like a notorious regifter I know whose habit goes largely unremarked except when he slips up in his recordkeeping, like the time he gave his sister the Dinosaur Designs vase she had given him as a wedding gift.
But lest I cast too unseasonably gloomy a light over this subject, let me offer some examples of gifts which rise above pragmatism or meanness or greed.
Take the instance of my farm-dwelling friend who, along with her partner, inexplicably forgot their daughter's fourth birthday until 11 o’clock the night before. In the weeks leading up to the day the daughter, bless her, had said that what she most wanted for her birthday was ‘a purple balloon’. At midnight the mother found herself tearing the house apart, searching high and low in every obscure cupboard for something, anything that might suffice as a gift. At two in the morning, at the back of a shelf high in an overstuffed hallway closet she found it: a purple balloon. The happiest of birthdays ensued. Or take my father, coming home from hospital for a single momentous day before he died, to sit in a wheelchair tethered to his drip-stand in the garage, as we children came forward to show him every piece of junk he'd kept for 30 years. He knew and named the perfect recipient for every rusty spanner, each box of Bakelite factory offcuts, each screwdriver set and roll of tent canvas, to be distributed after he died. Or this: a writer friend who was a nervy, bookish child in a boisterous family remembers a distant aunt bequeathing her the leather-bound set of literary classics her own children would never appreciate. The idea that this aunt, seemingly so remote, had recognised her niece for who and what she was long before the girl knew herself, remains precious to this day.
Maybe we’ve gotten too caught up in thinking of gifts as a matter of value – not just monetary, but also in terms of time or effort, thinking these should be somehow be evident in the gift. But perhaps it has nothing to do with expenditure of any sort. Maybe the best gift is like a perfect meal; so right, so seemingly effortless, that reciprocity doesn’t enter the recipient’s mind at all.
And perhaps we only need – to give or receive - one perfect gift in a lifetime.
My impeccably stylish friend Lu had been bludgeoned by months of chemotherapy into misery, terror, baldness and a devastating inner ugliness when a parcel arrived from her oldest friend Rachel in London. Inside a crisp white cardboard box with black edging, nestled in rustling layers of tissue, lay a soft black Chanel knitted hood, lined with silk. It was gorgeous, but it was not just a hat. What Rachel sent to her friend in that box was their shared time in Paris, an offering of physical comfort in the absence of a hug, and the restored possibility of sensuality, and beauty.
So there it is, the perfect gift: a recognition of the past and a tilt at the future, which has a little to do with the object, and everything to do with what it means. It is a gesture to your best self, whichever side of the wrapping paper you’re on.
© Charlotte Wood 2010
An edited version of this story was published Good Weekend magazine, 4 Dec 2010 - 'All presents accounted for'