On the surface, gifting is about expressing appreciation for the people in our lives. It sounds simple and obvious. But when we get ‘wrapped up’ (bad pun?) in the expectations of individuals and society towards gift giving, it quickly gets complicated.
When you think about it, we exchange gifts within a labyrinth-like context of relationship dynamics, personal expectations, intentions in giving, and whatever the social norms are for the gifting occasion. If everyone involved is sensitive to each other’s desires, and willing to abide by the subtle rules of their relationships, then all is well. Logistics for consideration by the giver include the type of gift, size, cost, and nature of the gift. Also, the gift must be in accordance with the sort of relationship involved and the purpose of the gift. Often, there is an expectation of a reciprocal gift or some type of gesture in return. What happens when the gifter is oblivious, or disregards the feelings of the other? Since the guidelines are usually unspoken, it is easy to run into lots of glitches.
As far as the recipient is concerned, he/she may feel uncomfortable if the gift is too expensive or too inexpensive. The gift may then be rejected. He/she may also feel unappreciated (the wrong gift), distant (if the gifter is insincere), irked (if the gift is seen as a ploy to gain favour), or depressed/shamed (if the recipient cannot reciprocate in kind). It all makes for some fascinating developments in relationships.
Then there are third party nuances. What about the effects on the extended group? For example, when an engagement ring is given and accepted (or not), it usually affects the larger familial group in all sorts of way. An engagement certainly does not happen in a vacuum. The size of the diamond may cause various conclusions to be made, e.g. the groom is extravagant, or conversely, the bride is in for hardship.
No wonder major holidays can be so stressful.
Gifting really gets interesting when you attach a value to the intention and/or energy behind the gift. When we put a lot of personal effort into the gift, the exchange usually bolsters the relationship. In this way, the value of the gift is more about the energy and the intention behind it, rather than the item itself. For example, when a child arduously creates a craft for a parent, it is usually appreciated for the intention behind the gift rather than the actual object. When you expand the concept to include gifts of an organ or blood from the body, active listening, philanthropic gestures, or just time to rest, the concept of gifting embraces all sorts of dynamics within relationships.
In the end, there seems to be an unspoken assessment of the gift, by both the gifter and the receiver. The gift feels good to both parties when all values are in balance. That means that there is an exchange that works – for both parties. As soon as the exchange is accepted, a subtle, unspoken ‘tally’ or score sheet of sorts is created. What is the nature of this exchange and tally?
Think of a traditional weight scale with two arms that tilt according to which side is heavier and which is lighter. When you give a gift, and it is accepted, your side goes down, i.e. your side is weighted in your favour. In this way, a measure of indebtedness to you results.
It is this sense of indebtedness that gives you a sort of ‘power’ over the other. The nature of the indebtedness can be about affection/favour, business affairs, or a specific role with responsibilities attached. To achieve a balance again, the recipient needs to reciprocate in kind. As soon as you reduce the gifting exchange to this level, gifting inevitably ends up as a power play. Indeed, most gifts tend to revolve around what the giver wants in achieving some end. So, while there are many types of gifting, almost all reflect an effort to achieve a result or effect. In other words, vying for an effect is about ‘power’ over the other.
The only exceptions of gifting in terms of power seem to be selfless, random acts of kindness, where there are no expectations of a return gesture, except perhaps from a divine entity. Hmmm, having said that, it sounds like there are no exceptions after all.
Helena Green is a freelance writer in Nanaimo.