Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Giver & The Receiver

 I've been thinking a lot lately about how to both give and receive gifts.  I find that it can be tricky and one must work to do it well.  Instead of blathering on, I'm just going to make a list of what I think is required for each as well as lists of qualities that contribute to being a poor giver/receiver. 


1. A good giver pays attention. They notice when you say you like something or need something or wish for something. They file it away in their minds (or their special literal filing cabinet at home, what do I know) and bust it out on your birthday or occasion of gifts and it feels so good because they remembered. They listened when you spoke. You feel known. 

2. A good giver gives freely, with no strings attached. They give never hoping you'll give in return. They give knowing the person might not receive well. They persist in it because they wanted to give something and that's the end of it.  They also never ask about the thing they gave.  "Did you ever use that ___?"  "Are you going to hang up the ____ I got you?" They don't come visit, looking for it, asking about it. Or, when you do use/wear it, they never acknowledge it as a thing connecting to themselves. "Oh look! You're wearing the ___ I gave you!"  It may make them happy, but then the real gift is the person wearing the gift, and the giver becomes the recipient and there's this added pressure element and nobody wants that. This can be ok, if the original recipient chooses it.  "I know it makes them happy so I will wear the ____."  I don't think this is a totally negative thing.  It just changes it. So, be aware.   I am conscious of gifts I've been given that come with terms and conditions and it's stressful and weird. 

3. A good giver gives when they want to, not because they're obligated to. This means they may give you something one year for Christmas, and maybe not the next.  Actually I think I'm just saying this to absolve myself.  But honestly, I hate giving just to give a thing. I want it to be meaningful, and if I truly can't think of something, I think a card is ok.  A card is great.  Cards have words in them and words are important.  Words are meaningful. Words I can do. Sometimes I get great gift ideas, and sometimes not. I take great care in this, and hate feeling pressured to give just to give. So if I think of something, great. If not, better luck next year? Still care about you.


1. A bad giver is someone who does all the opposite of what I said, ha ha.  It's hard to say "your gift sucks" if someone tried and it wasn't awesome or if they even gave you anything at all because they at least gave you something.  But, well, a bad giver does attach strings. They have follow-up gift expectations. They demand you prove you liked their gift. 

2. A bad giver gives you something without much thought. Maybe just a lazy giver.  And "give" doesn't even seem like the right word here. Maybe "produce".  I "produced" a present for you.  A bad giver makes it about themselves. "tell me my gift is good."  I sometimes make fun of this, like if someone likes my gift I'll said, "like, how much did you like it." So maybe this is actually me. But 99% as a joke.

3. A bad giver makes it difficult. They set it up as a gift but it requires more work for you thereby, again, turning it into a gift for the giver.  "I will help you give this to me and it will be very difficult and inconvenient so that you're happy with what you have done/given."  The gift gets lost in this gift. 


1. A good receiver is very gracious no matter the gift. They make an effort to examine the gift, remark on it, notice it, compliment what can be complimented.  They recognize the effort. They make the giver feel very special. This is the reciprocal gift. It's an important aspect of the giving/receiving dynamic.  A good, thoughtful gift can turn into a bit of a bomb if not received. Can turn up empty.   When Julian was having a birthday party for the first time, I would drill him on how to accept gifts.  "Ok, it's a lego set, one you've wanted. How do you say thank you?"  "Thank you so much! I love it!"  Ok, now it's a pair of socks.  SAME ANSWER."  

2. A good receiver does not feel stressed about the gift.  If they don't end up using it, that's ok. They're not obligated.  They know that once given, the gifting is done and they aren't responsible for making the giver feel like it was the most amazing gift in the world. 


1. A bad receiver does not really acknowledge the gift. They may be too anxious about reciprocating, feeling so pressured to return the gesture that they cannot express thanks or graciousness. They may explain or defend why they do not have a gift to give at that moment. They completely overlook the gift  because they truly cannot receive it in their heart, because their heart is too preoccupied with insecurity and hidden meanings and an inability to just accept something given.  Everything may have a contract attached for this bad receiver.  They may feel caught in a trap.  Gifts stress them out. It's very unpleasant for them. It's unfortunate. 

2. A bad receiver expresses disappointment.  This is a skill to develop. As children we are especially prone to show our disappointment. But we can mature out of this.  If we haven't done it in adulthood, we have completely neglected honing this skill and it makes for a terrible gifting experience.   Perhaps there is a deeper meaning there. Perhaps the gift reflects deeper issues, dredging up painful things.  Perhaps there was some insensitivity.  Like I said, gifting is tricky. But we can manage ourselves in these moments and be ok in spite of it.  

Gifts should be entirely free. Freely given, freely received. 

But Marcel Mauss, French sociologist and author of The Gift, might disagree. I recently bought this book and am trying to make my way through it but it's a bit rough.  But the concepts behind his ideas are fascinating. According to this essay (go read it, it's not long), he believes gifts are contractual.  An excerpt:

Mauss had very interesting views about gifts and gift-giving that really makes you re-evaluate the whole custom of giving gifts. His main argument is that gifts are never free. History shows that gifts almost without exception give rise to reciprocal exchange, or at least the expectation thereof. So his basic research question became “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”.

This is a complex question with an equally complex answer, and according to Mauss it has to do with the fact that a gift engages the honour of both the giver and receiver. It becomes an almost spiritual artefact. The gift is irreversibly tied to the giver – in Mauss’ words, “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them.”

What is particularly fascinating in Mauss’ theories is the idea that, unlike something that changes ownership by getting bought and sold, a gift is forever bound to the giver. It never fully changes ownership – it is almost as though it is only given on loan, hence the difficulty of selling, or even giving away, something that was gifted. This also affects the need to reciprocate – by gifting something in return effectively repays the ‘gift-debt’. Now of course the returned gift is again irrevocably tied to the giver, and so a surprisingly strong social tie is created between two people who have exchanged gifts – they effectively own a piece of each other.

That's beautiful and I'm going to have to give this some more thought instead of almost gut reactions like most everything I present.  I also appreciate the cultural aspect/differences, which Mauss goes into as well.  If I ever get through this book, I'll let you know what I find. As always, I'd love others' thoughts on this. But let me close this faux-essay with a quote I recently came across and loved.  Just hits right with me.  

John Steinbeck, on his friend and colleague, Ed Ricketts:

“the great talent that was in Ed Ricketts, that made him so loved and needed and makes him so missed now that he is dead...[was] the ability to receive, to receive anything from anyone, to receive gratefully and thankfully and make the gift seem very fine. Because of this everyone felt good in giving to Ed—a present, a thought, anything. 

Perhaps the most overrated virtue on our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is downright destructive and evil thing. can bring the same sense of superiority as getting does, and philanthropy may be another kind of spiritual avarice. It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. 

Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well."


1 comment:

Ash said...

I've been thinking about this too! Probs because of Christmas being so recent. But here's another point for bad givers: They downplay or even disparage their gift: "It's just a dumb thing..." I don't know what to do when I hear this. I would rather they didn't give anything at all, then. In the case I'm thinking of, their giving me a gift is most likely a reaction to receiving something from me, but I'm okay giving and not receiving. If you think it's dumb, why give it?