Archive for the ‘Sociology of gifts and giving’ Category

Gift giving and ‘moving on’

April 26, 2010

When is it time to call a day, gift-giving-wise? 

Friendships can grow stale over the years, as we grow in different directions.  Yet it can be hard to know when – or how – to bring the gift-giving years to a close.  Will we be perceived as rude?  Heartless?  What if the other person sends a gift when we don’t?

Consider: are you still in touch with the person fairly frequently – say, more than three times a year?  Do you write or phone each other, or keep in touch via Facebook or other social networks, to share news?  If living locally, do you ever meet for coffee or a meal?  If the answer to these is ‘no’, then I think it’s reasonable to ‘downscale’ to a more modest gift or maybe just a greeting card.  If the gift-giving has become arduous rather than easy and joyful, that’s another clue that maybe it’s time to change.

If you’re still reasonably close to the person, and feel you can raise the matter of gifts for this Christmas, chances are they will be just as relieved as you if you agree to downscale or even cease the gift giving. 

With family friendships, what started out as a few cute gifts for a new baby  may become harder to sustain as the children grow in both age and number.  It can be a burden trying to purchase a gift for each child, particularly if you’re no longer as close to the family and are less familiar with their needs, wants and current possessions. 

My suggestion is to gradually move away from individual gifts, to one ‘family’ gift that everybody can enjoy, like a variety box of deluxe cookies, chocolates or a fabulous cake.  Perhaps a gift hamper, a family movie pass, or a board game that they can play together.  And in time, the family gift may itself become more modest in nature, and even move down to just a greeting card.

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Gingerbread musings

April 19, 2010

Paying their way: my numeral cookie cutters make a batch of "2" biscuits

I did it!  I made a batch of “2” shaped gingerbread cookies for the slew of second birthday parties coming up, using the numeral cookie cutters I bought a couple of months ago.  

I frosted them in different ways and personalised some of them with messages like “Cory is 2” and “Happy Birthday!”.  I thought they looked great, and suitably festive, especially when packaged.

However, my confidence dipped when I went to the first party.  It turned out to be a full-on, almost-no-expense-spared sort of children’s party.  (I mean, there wasn’t a clown or magician, but I think next year there will be).  I had felt pretty good about my special cookies gift, until I saw the hordes of other people all turning up with big flossy parcels.  Then I began to feel…cheap.

I couldn’t help it.  But then again, I reminded myself, this little boy is little more than an acquaintance.  We haven’t seen Cory in probably four months.  It seemed like madness to rush out and buy a $15 – $30 toy for a child we barely know.  Plus, his wealthy parents seem to have purchased him every toy his heart could possibly desire.  What on earth could I have found that he didn’t have already?

So I found myself in a “But it’s the thought that counts!” kind of moment.  Maybe the gift was a little cheap (?).  Certainly it only cost me a few dollars instead of the dozens I’d normally have to have shelled out. 

But despite being relatively inexpensive, it wasn’t an easy gift.  Baking the cookies, frosting them in various ways, including hand-frosted messages…that took a lot of time and effort.  It would have been much simpler to just visit a local boutique and have them giftwrap some puzzle or train or something – done in a matter of moments. 

All the same, I couldn’t help wondering what the parents thought about it, later on after the party trimmings had all been swept up.  Did they comment to each other, What a charming and original gift, and that homemade gingerbread sure does taste good! 

Or did they say, Cheap bitch!

Teen birthday angst

April 2, 2010

I know a young girl, soon to turn 15, who is not speaking to her parents – because they won’t buy her the $400 mobile phone she wants as a birthday gift.

Her family are blue collar working class and have a $300 limit on birthday gifts – which frankly I think is very generous.  However their daughter, with her eyes firmly set on a fancier, prettier, more fashionable mobile phone, insists that she’ll have nothing but that phone. 

She’s tried asking her folks for an advance on the babysitting money she’ll earn in a few weeks when the school holidays arrive, to give her the extra money towards the phone.  But they’ve put their foot down and said No.  Wisely, I think.

Firstly, because it’s her little sister’s birthday soon after, and they’ll need all their readies for her birthday.  Secondly, because they intuitively grasp that it’s wrong to encourage their children to yearn after luxury items that they don’t really need and they can’t really afford.  And if they cave in this year, what will she be demanding next birthday?  A car?  A $500 handbag?  A ski vacation?

The thing is, she’s actually a very sweet and caring girl at heart.  She’s just caught up in the massive egocentricity that is being a teenager – with perhaps a dash of peer pressure relating to mobile phone ownership.  She’s pretty and popular – and beginning to really know it. 

I think her parents are sensible to not give in to her wheedling.  Although she’s not speaking to them now, I know that can’t last: she’s part of a caring, loving, humorous family.  And one day, she’ll realise how selfish she was being.

Karmic gifts

March 31, 2010

Ever given a gift to someone you wouldn’t expect?  Such as to someone with whom you don’t have that close a relationship?  A gift given without any expectation or likelihood of reciprocity – but given because it seems like “the right thing to do”? 

Occasionally, such gift opportunities fall in our path.  I know of two.  The first one was when I spotted a pretty little vintage piece of Coalport “souvenirware”, celebrating the little Welsh resort of Aberystwyth.  A woman I knew, who had recently been a work colleague of mine, had lived there for some years and recalled it with great fondness.  So when I saw this little inexpensive piece of memorabilia, I just had to buy it for Deb.  I stopped by her new workplace (she had started her own business) a week or so later and dropped it off to her.  She was surprised and thankful for the gift  – especially as I don’t think she even liked me that much!  In point of fact, I wasn’t close to her either – but I strongly felt that that wee china item was meant for her.  Maybe when she looks at it now, she thinks a little more warmly of her former colleague. 

Another example was a friend of mine who bought her husband, from whom she had recently and traumatically separated (at his behest), a beautiful birthday present.  It was a Wedgwood coffee mug, celebrating the anniversary of the launch of Concorde airplane.  She knew he loved the Concorde and would adore that high-quality, commemorative mug.  So, even though she could little afford it (Wedgwood doesn’t come cheap), she made the purchase.

“It was like a farewell salute,” she says.  “‘No hard feelings’.  Even though I did have hard feelings about why he had ended our marriage, giving that gift just felt like the right thing to do.  I have never regretted it.”

The ethics of regifting

March 7, 2010

This article takes an in-depth look at whether regifting is ethical or not.  The upshot being: it depends on your motives.  Examples of ethical and unethical regifting are described. 

I know I have regifted both ethically (it was kind and suitable) and unethically (I was just being cheap or lazy, or both – how one shudders in hindsight!)

Sticking to the script: gratitude in 1930s Scotland

February 25, 2010

It was the accepted norm, long ago in my mother’s Scottish hometown, that a housewife could call upon any available child to run an errand on her behalf – such as buying some meat from the butcher’s shop.  Back in those days nobody had refrigerators, so perishable goods had to be purchased on the day of use – hence there was a big demand for kids to run these sorts of errands.

It was normal for children to play in the streets, so all one had to do was open your front door and holler in the direction of the nearest kid:  “Here, you – Jeannie McNabb!  Come you here!”  Then give the child her/his instructions, and money to make the purchase.

When the child returned from the errand, the woman who commissioned it would, by way of thanks, give the child a small coin.  Protocol dictated that the child must strenuously decline this token gift, and only accept it after making repeated earnest refusals. 

The ‘street telegraph’ being what it was, by the time the child went home, his or her mother would know all about the errand they’d run.  She would quiz as to whether any gratuity had been offered, and if so, how vigorously her offspring had attempted to decline it. 

My grandmother’s inquisitions about how strongly her daughter had tried to decline the proffered coin were apparently quite aggressive.  Woe betide any offspring of hers who simply said, “Thank you!” and pocketed the little copper coin! 

What a pantomime this all was!  Yet it was unthinkable for a coin not to be offered in token payment for the child’s services – that was only fair.  Local codes of politeness meant that the child must repeatedly try to refuse the coin (lest they appear needy or greedy) and the adult must urge the child to accept, ultimately succeeding.  Each ‘player’ in the charade had to act according to their required role, in order to fulfil the cultural obligations of reciprocity and courtesy.

Electronic thank yous

February 23, 2010

I’m going to make a bold statement here and contradict the etiquette mavens of this world by saying something shocking:

It’s all right to say thank you for a gift by email or telephone.

Especially if that makes the difference between saying ‘thank you’ promptly, and possibly not saying getting around to saying it at all. People are busy with kids, jobs, commitments; time is precious; not everyone has stationery or postage stamps at the ready.

But make it a good thank-you. A mundane, thanks-it-was-great, simply won’t do. Be enthusiastic. Tell them what you love about their gift. Make it lively enough and they won’t even notice the lack of a handwritten note.

One exception: weddings or other important gift occasions. If anyone has sprung for a ‘special occasion present’ for you, they deserve the courtesy of a written thank you.

Due to the ubiquity of electronic channels, I actually think some people are starting to expect their thank yous to arrive more quickly these days. Here’s a telling story: Last year I received a gift from a cousin, popped a thank you card to him in the mail the following day, and got a phone call from him that very evening, asking: had I received the gift? Yes indeed, I said, adding that (thank heavens!) a thank-you card was already winging its way to him. “Oh, I wasn’t ringing to be thanked,” he said, “I just wanted to be sure you’d received it.”

I had to bite my tongue from pointing out that, as he’d sent the parcel by special delivery, he could have used the tracking number and called the freephone service to find out whether it had been delivered. I guess he thought because he hadn’t heard from me within two days of the parcel’s delivery, that I probably wasn’t going to acknowledge his gift at all – and it obviously didn’t occur to him that someone would send their thanks by post. That’s how much expectations have moved within the last decade or so.

Always bring a present

December 16, 2009

I’ve learnt the hard way: unless the birthday invitation has “no presents please” printed on it, always, always bring a gift.  Even if the birthday girl’s sibling says not to bother.  Even if it’s just for casual “it’s my birthday” drinks at a bar for someone you’re not all that close to (in which case, something small will be fine). 

In fact, something small will usually always be fine.  (If something big is called for, chances are this will be clear to you – because it’s for a close relative, or for a big-deal event like a wedding – and so you won’t be dithering about whether or not you ought to bring a present.)

Twice I’ve been to casual birthday get-togethers where I’ve been assured that it wouldn’t be necessary to bring a gift.  And each time, while being greeted by the birthday girl, I’ve seen her eyes momentarily flick down to my empty hands then widen in surprise.  Clearly, no matter what I’d been assured, clearly the birthday person most certainly DID expect gifts! 

So I’ve learnt my lesson.  Always, always, bring a present, however small.

Ideas for small presents: some chocolates or candy; a scented candle (boring, but reliable – make sure you buy a good brand though); a cute notepad; a posy of flowers; a bottle of (good but not great) wine.

The ad that stole Christmas

December 6, 2009

There’s an ad on TV for a hardware store chain that makes me grit my teeth, a little.  It shows a man – a very blokey kind of fella – driving up to a ‘drive-through’-style speakerphone, and saying into it: “I need some presents.”  He rattles off a list of family members he’ll be needing gifts for: something for a small boy, twin girls, his wife, “…and whatever it is that you get for your mother.” 

A female voice responds, suggesting suitable gifts for each – and even a gift for himself (one of those big steel barbeques).  The man agrees to all the gift ideas and the items are instantly plonked down onto his trailer by an unseen hoist; he drives away beaming, towing a jam-packed trailer.  His whole Christmas present shopping has just been taken care of in moments.

Of course, the ad is tongue-in-cheek – the hardware chain is not seriously suggesting it operates a drive-in service, just that their stores are a great one-stop shop at Christmastime. 

But the ad’s cavalier attitude towards Christmas gifts nonetheless irks me, as if its premise is some sort of male fantasy (and perhaps it is): “Imagine if you could get all your Christmas gifts without any effort, just as easily as you can buy a cheeseburger!”

I particularly dislike that last part of the man’s order, where he says, “…and whatever it is you get for your mother” as if all mothers are boring and interchangeable and can be easily fobbed off with some generic gift like a potted plant chosen by someone else (which is indeed the gift idea that is suggested and accepted).

‘Scuse me for being a Christmas grouch.  I just think the ad rather cheapens the idea of Christmas gifts, suggesting that they’re random objects which should be chosen with the most minuscule amout of time and effort.  To which I say: Humbug!

If only I’d known!

November 28, 2009

I had a roommate some years ago who, after learning in passing that my birthday had recently occurred (such as after having observed a recent gift), had a habit of exclaiming, “It was your birthday last week?  Oh, you should have told me!”

The implication being, of course, that she too would have gotten me a card or a present for my birthday – if only she’d known the date.

We roomed together for three years and, upon the second and third exclamations of belated birthday surprise, I had to bite my tongue from pointing out: “You keep a birthday calendar right here on the kitchen wall.  You could have written my birthday on on that calendar last time you heard it was my birthday.  If you’d wanted to.”

But in the interests of domestic harmony, I kept my trap shut.  Which I still think was the right thing to do.  After all, we’re still friends!  And I have the funny feeling that we wouldn’t be if I’d pointed out her deliberate birthday blind spot. 

Understand, I didn’t care about her buying me a present.  For many years now I’ve actually preferred giving gifts to getting ’em.  But her deliberate, pretend forgetfulness – she was no bimbo – did rankle with me.

Ever have something like that happen to you?