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August 14, 2006

Perils of Present-Giving


[published on June 21, 2006 at "The Flatland Oracles," my previous blog]

1.  Present-giving without pitfalls.


          My husband and I coexist peacefully partly because we have made a practice of avoiding the rituals that produce so much grief between other couples we have known. 

          Specifically, I’m talking about the ritual exchange of gifts that seem to cause grief to so many other couples.  We don’t do that.   Though we don’t come from similar backgrounds (and in fact were brought up in different countries), we do come from families that don’t treat present-giving as some sort of anxiously-anticipated indicator of the state of the relationship or the other person's view of its significance.  By mutual agreement, we seldom or never give each other presents on occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries.

           If you think that sounds sort of joyless, read on. 

          It’s not that we don’t mark the days at all.   The birthday boy or girl usually chooses a restaurant and we have a meal.  If the birthday boy or girl has expressed some specific desire for some particular thing, the other will generally see to it that the thing in question is (eventually) forthcoming.  But the thing/present thing is just not a big part of the occasion for us.  It’s also not a matter of great suspense:  since we both share our money and have equal access to it, it seems a little ridiculous to make the non-birthday-celebrating person try to guess what the other would like before investing our funds in a present that would be appropriate. 

          There’s also the financial angle.  If I take a large sum out of my savings account to purchase for my husband some particularly pricey item I know he’d probably like, there is subsequently a large sum missing from my savings account (and in other words, from money which is otherwise available if we need it).  It seems self-defeating for me to spend the money on the pricey item before checking with him to find out if it’s something he’d like more than having that amount of money available.

          For this reason, we treat presents like other purchases, with this one difference.  Before an upcoming birthday, one says to the other, “What would you like for your birthday this year?”  We discuss it, decide together whether it is feasible, and if we decide that it is, we buy it.  If we decide that it isn’t, we don’t.

          I guess it might be a bigger issue for people with more money.  I can see where if he had a great deal of discretionary income---and especially if we didn’t share what we have—it might hurt my feelings if he didn’t want to spend some of it on me. 

So I can see where it’s a hot-button issue for some couples; and perhaps for them, the sort of present you get really does reflect something about where you stand in your loved one’s list of priorities.

2.    Tokens of literal esteem.

If you’re not married and/or don’t share your funds, present-giving really can be fraught with symbolic meaning  (How much do you love me?).  When the two people who are in the couple don’t share the same assumptions about the importance of presents the outcome can be disastrous.

While visiting me years ago, my friend Fran spent a lot of time in antique stores and in shops specializing in imported gifts looking for just the right gifts---that’s gifts  plural, armloads of them---for an exceptionally demanding partner.  That particular partner came from a family who treated every birthday celebrant as Royalty-for-A-Day, so for each birthday that partner always expected everything she wanted.

          Fran, on the other hand, grew up in a WASP-y Southern family where the tradition was to be sedately honored and to receive from other family members the small tokens they had selected.  Money, never to be spoken of in a social context, was not to be considered a factor in assessing the merits of the gift.

          Of course, the everything-you-want tradition sounds like more fun (at least when your turn comes round) but there are definite drawbacks, one of which is that you grow up to be an entitled brat who believes that there are occasions when the world should revolve around you.  In a very young child, that can be endearing; in someone over, say, six, it starts to be obnoxious.  It also becomes increasingly expensive as the recipient advances in years and in wants.  For example, giving a 4 year old all she wants might mean you buy her a Barbie’s Dreamhouse; for a 16 year old, it’s more likely to be something like the most powerful laptop on the planet or an SUV.

          In the case of Fran’s partner, each pending birthday became a land mine because she not only expected to get what she wanted, she went batshit crazy if she didn’t.  ("You don't love me enough.")  Of course, if you equate the amount and quality of the love you're getting with the value and number of presents you receive, nothing is ever going to be enough.. 

          After spending a lot of her vacation anxiously shopping for Sophie (we’ll call her Sophie because that is not in fact her name), Fran returned home feeling radiantly happy with her armloads of tribute.  Alas, none of it turned out to be what Sophie wanted.  All of it, plus a dozen red roses, ended up being thrown into the back yard. 

          Most of the adults I know aren’t as open as that about disappointing gifts, but a lot of them have other ways of letting the partner know that they’ve failed.  In some ways, it’s probably easier for the gift-giver if the recipient reacts with shrieks of fury and hurled roses because the failed gift-giver then has the right to get angry back and to accuse the person of being a greedy, mercenary,  self-centered, etc., which doubtless feels better than being made to feel like a cheap, unobservant, insensitive, uncaring, etc. by the other’s more restrained display of disappointment and frustration. 

           3.  Disproportionately inexpensive

          And I totally understand how a disproportionately inexpensive present or no present can be deeply disappointing, humiliating, and hurtful.   It sends a message; i.e.., “I can’t be bothered.”  I don’t think for a minute that it is greed that makes certain people I know of both sexes set so much store by expensive presents (jewelry, expensive stereo equipment, vacations to the French Riviera).  If you’re not entirely sure how someone feels about you, you might absolutely interpret the sort of gift he gives you as a literal token of esteem. 

          In that case, inexpensive or inappropriate token = no esteem, at least from the  point of view of the recipient.  This is something I understand and have, indeed, experienced myself.

Oh, how I cried when, at the age of 7, my younger brother (having spent his Christmas money on a lunch for himself and the teenager who took him shopping) presented me with a single pink (uninflated) balloon!  It wasn’t a cool balloon like the ones they have now; it was just six inches of limp pink rubber (I know, okay?).  I have never felt the same about balloons since then.   

The thing is, it wasn’t just that he’d only spent 5 cents to the 10 I’d spent on his gift, but that---as the above-referenced teen gleefully reported to our youngest brother---Ben had waited to buy my gift till after he’d bought gifts for everyone else, including:  our younger brother, the guy who helped my dad out in the yard, the babysitter, and  (or especially) the little girl across the street.  As the teenager reported, Ben had done this on the theory that my present didn’t matter as much because I didn't matter as much.  In other words---the outrage!---he gave me a crap present because he didn’t like me as much as everyone else. 

I didn’t like him either especially, but I’d spent a long time (without stopping for lunch) looking for his present and had eventually spent 10 cents to buy him a really unusual bank made from tin fashioned in the shape of a mailbox and with its own miniature key.  The key was what really sold it.  And it cost me double (in those days of the literal Dimestore) what his present had cost him---double.

My parents tried to sit down and reason with me, and my dad said he would personally escort Ben to the store and oversee the purchase of another present, but I refused.  It was too late.  It was also too late for the little fellow to make up with me (after pressure from the parents) by piping in his sweet little 7 year old voice, “I’m very sorry, [Sister]!  I love you!”

I punched him in the stomach. 

I also outed him and the little girl across the street to both sets of parents about a little game the two of them were playing they liked to call "Checking bottoms."

So I know from experience that even a small child can recognize a disproportionately cheap and inappropriate gift sends a message.  The message is:  “You’re not a priority.”

Though I was 9 when I had the falling out with my brother, and eventually even learned to love him again (he grew up and turned out to be pretty cool), the memory remains, which is probably why I spend so much time and energy searching for gifts for my in any case incredibly deserving nieces and nephews.  I do not want any of them to be traumatized by a pink balloon episode. 

4.  Why it shouldn't matter to people and why it matters anyway

It’s not that I don’t understand the perils of present-giving;  I just think adults in a relationship need to come to terms with the whole present thing.  It’s stupid to have every birthday, Christmas, and anniversary be the occasion for the sort of tension that seems to erupt between many of my partnered friends.

In the days when men owned and controlled all the money, and the wife had to wait for what she got till he decided to let her have it, present-giving was very likely a truly big deal;  in I Love Lucy, Lucy either had to wait till Ricky wanted her to have that mink stole she craved (I know) before she could have one; or else she had to find a way to get one for herself by sneaking behind his back to earn some extra money or through some sort of connivance. 

Every anniversary and birthday was a big event because she might get something she really wanted without having to trick him into letting her have it.  And because she didn’t have a right to use his money to buy those things herself, each expensive gift passed as an expression of how much he really cared.

But these days, women have their own money.  Why, then, do my young friends still get into horrible dilemmas over presents?  If the young female ones want, say, a big sparkly ring, why don’t they buy it themselves?  Why are my young male friends perplexed about what to give their girlfriends----why don’t they know their girlfriends well enough to know?

Furthermore, why aren’t the recipients-elect seriously concerned about the financial burden on the giver-elect of purchasing a ring that costs, say, the same as a semester’s tuition at a decent law school?  Why wouldn’t the recipient be really reluctant to be the source of that sort of financial burden?  Isn’t that exactly the sort of thing that’s likely to put a strain on a relationship?

But on the other side of the issue, a disappointing present is disappointing not necessarily because of the price (I myself have---graciously, of course!---accepted many disappointing and expensive presents over the years) but because it shows that the giver of the gift doesn’t really know what you would like.  In other words, doesn’t know you.  Which is perhaps another reason why some people over-react when they get presents they don’t want.  The subtext of their expressions of disappointment is probably “How could you not know that I didn’t want this?”

5.  Great presents I've received  (a partial list for the edification of the gifting-challenged)

My first husband bought me a bejewelled ceramic dragon that everyone else thought was quite ugly but which I loved. At the time, it was mall gift-store kitsch, but hell:  I liked dragons.  I've still got it; and I could sell if it I wanted (but I don't) for about seven or eight times what he spent on it.  It's still mall gift-store kitsch, but it is "collector's item" mall gift-store kitsch.

My English mate, Rumcove, who never has a lot of extra cash,  is an expert at giving great presents.  For example,one Christmas, he gave me a snow-globe enclosing a very pretty couple of children dressed in white riding on a white horse to commemorate our favorite line from a British comedy we both used to quote.   (For Brit-com fans, a hint:  "He's touching the precious things of the shop!")   

Another year, he bought me a plastic bottle of soap bubbles in the shape of the children's storybook character "Noddy," a plastic replica of Noddy's car, and two Noddy dishes---all children's things.  He sent me "the Noddy swag" because his nickname for me was "Noddy" (for wooden-headedness, a certain chirpy disregard of reality, and epic klutziness).   I still have and display these not-very-expensive items.  He's also really good at finding music and books that I love.  I will like him till I die for introducing me to Ian Dury, Billy Bragg, and Nick Hornby.

My friend Fran once gave me a small framed painting of Siamese cat that she'd picked up somewhere and an embroidered sunglasses case with a picture of a Siamese cat on it.  Another time she sent me a wee drawing from France of a coffee cup sitting on a table. All these gifts referred to certain significant events in the course of our friendship.

Just once during my marriage I settled in advance on what I wanted and demanded a particular present.  It was a ring in a design that struck me as unique--not very expensive, but not cheap either---and for reasons I can’t now explain even to myself it was important to me that it come nominally from him.  So I circled its picture and serial number in a catalogue, drew arrows pointing to it, wrote "THIS ONE" next to it, and left it for him to find, along with the Visa card.  Since receiving it, I've worn it every day and have received numerous compliments on it.  Every time I get such a compliment, my husband announces, “I bought her that” in a tone of great self-satisfaction.

And that's another technique.

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