In getting gifts, we want to be surprised, sort of
It's the thought that counts, so we've been told. If only that were true. During the annual gift-giving holiday dance, our choreography is often flawed. Givers end up not only stepping on toes, but tripping over their best intentions and falling flat-faced into the Christmas cactus. Getters, with the merest inflection of disappointment in their voices, dash away hope and lay to waste days of effort.
It's the thought that counts, so we've been told.
If only that were true.
During the annual gift-giving holiday dance, our choreography is often flawed. Givers end up not only stepping on toes, but tripping over their best intentions and falling flat-faced into the Christmas cactus. Getters, with the merest inflection of disappointment in their voices, dash away hope and lay to waste days of effort.
"We're trying to get it right because gifts carry such a powerful message about our relationships," says Michelle Weinberger, who conducts research into consumer rituals at Northwestern University. "So it produces a ton of stress."
Decades of research show that the ritual offering and receiving of presents is important in the formation and development of close relationships. But it is also fraught with peril. "We want people to know us so well that they get us the perfect gift," says Weinberger.
In other words, we want to be surprised, but only by those who can read our minds.
"Some people are just harder to buy presents for than others," says Weinberger. The unfussy? Give them a pair of flannel pajama pants and a gift certificate to Olive Garden, and they're as tickled as Elmo.
But it's rare for a family to have more than one or two of this species.
Weinberger and her colleagues study average mortals and can confirm what you already know.
Most of us have a slew of clueless friends and relatives who, despite years of knowing us - despite birthdays and valentines, going-away parties, coming-home parties, Secret Santas, Full Disclosure Hanukkahs, anniversaries, Flag Days, and congratulations-on-your-appendectomy fiestas - cannot figure out why some gifts hit and others miss.
Behavioral scientists have found a disconnect in the perspectives of giver and receiver, says Margaret Rucker, a professor of organizational and consumer psychology at the University of California, Davis. "Since we tend to be both, it's strange that we can't seem to translate from one role to the other," says Rucker, who contributed to the book Gift-Giving: A Research Anthology.
So why is it that people who truly care about one another continually give presents that are memorable for the wrong reasons? What is the glitch in the gift-giving circuitry? Who hasn't known that sinking feeling when the ribbons and wrapping fall to the floor and we hear: "Oh. [Long pause.] Guess you forgot I'm allergic to chocolate."
Or "Gorgeous bag! [Long pause.] What do you know? I always thought Gucci was spelled with two c's." Or, "A gym membership and a carton of Slim-Fast! [No pause.] Well, that was subtle, dear."
One explanation is that men and women seem to value gifts in different ways.
"Men tend to think in economic terms. If it was expensive, it was good. Women are more focused on emotion," says Rucker. A study in which subjects were asked to guess the dollar value of their gifts found that women are inclined to overestimate, while men underestimate.
Both sexes appreciate receiving presents that make them feel understood. But that can be a challenge when you don't share the same taste. Good luck to the Taylor Swift fan trying to buy jazz for her dad when she doesn't know Django Reinhardt from Norah Jones.
It's like sending a vegan to Omaha Steaks.
"If you take on the challenge of trying to guess someone's taste, that's a dangerous place to go," says Weinberger. "You either have to invest energy in finding the right thing, or find something safer to buy."
Gift certificates work. But they lack soul. And they get lost.
Recent studies have found that giving "experiential" gifts can bring people closer together than material objects, says Cindy Chan, a doctoral candidate in marketing at the Wharton School. This is particularly true if the gift allows you to share that experience, says Chan. Taking a spa day together, for instance. Or going to see a play.
The holiday ritual of giving gifts, says Chan, "is a great opportunity to express gratitude. And when people put more thought and effort into choosing gifts that are more personal, it makes the gift-givers happy as well as the recipients."
Personal, however, should never be taken to mean that the perfect gift is one you'd want for yourself.
"The data shows that a giver-centered gift is going to be a problematic gift," says Weinberger, offering the chilling example of the golfer who buys his yoga-obsessed wife a set of clubs.
Finally, on a reassuring note, the experts want you to know that there seems to be no strong correlation between how much people spend on a particular gift and how they feel about the relationship.
"Just because it's expensive doesn't mean that the person will love you more," says Chan. And anything that draws attention to how much you paid will detract from the symbolic value. "If you're giving a gift, you're trying to communicate something about how you feel about the person." But be careful to pick a meaning that the getter is going to get.
Earlier this month on the ABC series Modern Family, Cam, a sentimental gay guy, gave a tiny, carefully wrapped Christmas gift to his partner's curmudgeonly macho father, Jay. Inside was the cork from a bottle of wine they shared the first time they watched a football game together.
Jay neither remembered the wine nor appreciated the present.
"I feel too much," Cam whimpered.
"Put a cork in it," said Jay.