The woman in the elevator is struggling with six full shopping bags, three on each arm, and looks totally stressed, her phone to her ear. She’s apparently oblivious to the four people who are destined to overhear her conversation. “I’ve done everyone except Mom,” she says, “I keep putting it off, looking at stuff and changing my mind. She says she doesn’t want anything but she says that every year.” There’s a pause while she listens and then she continues,” She’s impossible to please. I hate it.” The older woman next to me smiles and murmurs, “In my family, it’s my sister.” The elevator stops and we shift to let the sole man in the motley crew out. He exits and then turns and adds, “Try shopping for my wife sometime.” He’s shaking his head as the door closes.
The gifts are symbolic offerings and especially at the holidays when there’s an exchange, there’s room for all sorts of psychological posturing and even power plays. Not all of this happens on a conscious level but what we choose to gift can often serve as a shorthand for the truth of the emotional connection. Take the case of Kate whose mother is always harping at her about her weight:
Every year, she buys me something that’s two sizes too small. And, somehow, she’s lost the gift exchange receipt. My husband and I treat it as a kind of running joke because it’s so predictable but it hurts. She manages to buy my two sisters things that fit but never me. See the pattern?
Differential treatment of siblings and even grandkids finds its way into gift-giving in some families as well, an expression of larger relational patterns that come wrapped in paper and topped with ribbons and bows:
My parents ask me and my brother what our kids want every year and every year, they buy these wildly expensive presents for my brother’s kids and stuff that looks like it came from a Dollar store for mine. It’s not the monetary value that bothers me but that they’ve found another way of expressing their disdain for my children and how I’ve raised them. According to my parents, my kids aren’t nearly as successful as their cousins at sports and school and that’s their way of telling them so. It’s enough to make me dread seeing them.
This isn’t just my inner Grinch observing, by the way; the symbolic nature of gifts is a psychological truism and, not surprisingly, researchers have also looked at what they called “The Dark Side of the Gift” and what they found was illuminating. They focused solely on women and discovered that just about everyone was vocal about the anxiety felt about choosing and exchanging gifts. In one test that included sentence completion, participants revealed that “bad gifts happen to good people” and that gifts can be used as weapons of choice. No surprise there. I still remember the hideous sweater—acrylic and brown—a formerly close person gave me.
Other researchers have studied how gifts influence the course of relationships. A good gift speaks to not just similarity between partners but intimate knowledge of your likes and dislikes, which makes you feel closer to the gifter. Yes, an acqua silk blouse will fill one woman with joy while a pink one will bring her down hard, or vice versa. Plaid lumberjack shirt for the hunk in your life and a polo shirt for the prepster—Okay! Getting a gift you actually want makes you feel understood.
But what about the bad gift—the horrifying, awful, terrible gift that reveals your partner’s utter cluelessness about you? That’s what Elizabeth Dunn and her team wanted to investigate. Is the bad gift a relationship deal-breaker? Well, it turns out that men are more sensitive to the bad gift than women, interestingly enough. That turned out to be true both for those who were newly acquainted and those who were dating. Men thought less of their partner and more negatively about the relationship when a bad gift came their way; women, on the other hand, weren’t as affected. Why? Other studies show that women display a tendency to safeguard their relationships, putting a more positive spin on negative events to keep the connection afloat, and these researchers surmised that gifts were no exception. Counterintuitive to be sure but interesting.
Following are some thoroughly unscientific types of givers, the best one first, which I’ve observed over the course of many years or gleaned from stories shared by others.
1.The Caring Giver
Yes, this is the one immortalized by O.Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi and he or she is the person you really want in your life. (I am lucky to have several.) This person not only loves gifting people but spends real time thinking about what kind of present might make them happy. It’s not about money, prestige, or anything else but simple pleasure. Brava and bravo to these folks who really embody the spirit of the season.
Uh oh and the irony is that these people generally give fabulous presents that actually look as though they were chosen by a caring type but turn out to have nothing to do with you or caring at all. This is all about the show and, sometimes, the show can positively wow you. The narcissist in my life was a primo gifter—he surprised me with ballet flats one year which were truly memorable (Imagine a man alone buying a woman shoes!) and a fabulous winter coat another—but I never understood that looking good was all that mattered. It’s easy to be fooled by this type but, in the end, the truth will out. It’s all part of the narcissist’s need to see himself well-reflected.
3.The Power Player
Sometimes, giving really big and expensive gifts is one way to show off and establish dominance and that’s exactly what the power player wants to do. He or she is the one that showers lavishness—a reminder of his outsized success—and sees the holiday exchange as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement that, if it makes you feel small in comparison, is a win-win situation. If it’s store-bought, the amount spent will be brought to your attention; if it’s handmade, then the cost and effort it took will be made clear to you. The power player may also use gifts as a talking point—the story I told about the gifts always being two sizes too small is an example—or a way of manipulating you. Being grateful under the circumstances may be a bit of a stretch but, hopefully, there aren’t too many of this type in your life.
4. The Put-upon Shopper
Oh, the stress of it all! The lines, the crowds, the number of stores visited before it could be found and every other detail associated with the present is part of the gift-giving ceremony when this type’s involved. This is a plea for attention, and can be guilt-inducing as well (“Just imagine what you put me through getting you this present!” or “I am completely exhausted which you really should appreciate”) and shifts the focus from the gift to the giver. Chronic complainers fall into this category as well as those who simply can’t bear not being in the spotlight. “Poor me!” this one whines and expects eternal gratitude.
5. The Re-gifter
Is it just parsimony or an unwillingness to extend herself or a way of telling you that she just doesn’t care? Of all the toxic gifter types, this one is the hardest to figure out because, sometimes, she doesn’t even bother to remove the evidence of the re-gift.
Maura was one of my newer friends; she’d been a work colleague for five years but I I thought we’d developed a bond in the past year and shared many confidences so I started inviting her to parties with my friends and even had her over last Christmas. She gave me a sugar and cream set which was wrapped in pink paper and still had the original gift tag attached. It was apparently a birthday present which I suppose she pulled out of her closet. I honestly didn’t even know what to say to her. I still don’t know why she did that, but it definitely changed our relationship. I felt insulted that she cared so little that she didn’t even bother rewrapping it. It was a deliberately dismissive gesture. Why bother? It would have been better to show up empty-handed in my opinion.
Not all re-gifters are this obvious as the story a friend told me demonstrates, recalling the silver bracelet, carefully wrapped and be-ribboned, nestled in a blue Tiffany box. It looked wonderful but it had apparently been re-purposed since the bracelet was one she’d given her friend fifteen years before. Too stunned to murmur anything but “Thank You,” she’d glimpsed a side of an old friend she’d never seen before.
Gifts reveal much, whether we like it or not. It may well be that holiday gift-giving has the potential to bring out the very best in us and, alas, the very worst.
Photograph by Andrew Neel. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Sherry, John F. Jr, Mary Ann McGrath, and Sidney levy,” The Dark Side of the Gift,” Jounral of Business Research (1993), 28, 225-244.
Dunn, Elizabeth, Jeff Huntsinger, et al. “The Gift of Similarity: How Good and Bad Gift Influence Relationships,: Social Cognition (2008),vol.26, no.4. 469-481.