Gift Giving is a Complex Social Dance


Christmas lists have always struck me as kind of odd. It’s akin to providing someone with a list of compliments you’d like to receive. Wouldn’t it be better to just not get anything at all? How weird is it to essentially request someone hand over their money at the checkout counter because of the date on the calendar? The obligatory undertone feels wrong. But, according to Quartz, the obligatory nature of gift-giving is kind of the whole point.

“[I]f you’ve ever had the niggling sense that something other than selflessness drives the presents you dutifully exchange with friends and family, then sociology has your back,” Olivia Goldhill wrote. Turns out gift-giving has interested sociologists for years, and most have come to the similar conclusions. “Gift giving…is a physical symbol of a personal relationship and an expression of social ties that bring individuals together.” The actual exchange is crucial. Meaning: when we give a gift, we kind of are expecting something in return. And that’s not necessarily bad, it just…is.

If you’re feeling relieved that the act matters more than the gift itself, I have bad news. Dimitri Mortelmans, a sociology professor at Antwerp University in Belgium, says that the value of a gift in some way reflects how much you value the relationship. And when both gift-givers match that value, it’s a nod that they agree on the terms of their relationship. NO PRESSURE.

“There’s a debt-balance that people keep, silently, with each other, within their relationships,” says Mortelmans. “If you give an extraordinarily expensive gift, you also create an extraordinary imbalance. In the long term, something will go wrong with that relationship.”

I kind of knew this, but having it spelled out in this way strikes me as nightmarish. This feels appropriately dramatic: in a 1925 essay entitled “The Gift,” French sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote that “to refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality.”

I sense that you’re not anxious enough, so let’s make this more complicated. Psychologist Barry Schwartz says reciprocity isn’t as simple as matching your gifts in value. “[I]n his 1967 essay, ‘The Social Psychology of the Gift,” Goldhill wrote. “[Schwartz] explains that ‘a gift giver will experience discomfort if reciprocity fails to occur,’ but will be equally discomforted if they’re given perfect reciprocity.” If the equilibrium is too perfect, the act feels more like an economical exchange than a social one.

Okay, that’s also a disaster, but it actually might explain why I feel weird about lists — why they make me feel like two people are exchanging credit cards. It’s too economical! Where’s the fun? It also explains why I feel a little saddened by the fact that my family has decided to forgo gifts this year, even if it helps me financially.

At first glance, the sociology behind gift-giving makes it seem harder. But given a wider berth, I think it helps. Gift-giving is an obligation, yes, but a social one, not a financial one. When we lean too much on the latter — worrying about numbers and crossing off lists — we sift the joy right out of it.

WOOF! Are you excited for the holidays or what?

If you need some help, maybe check out Man Repeller’s first-ever gift guide!

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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