A Real Stinker
That’s what they always say, right after you’ve opened up a pair of socks knitted by a half blind uncle who’s doing his time at a home rather than in prison where, ideally, he’s making progress in rehabilitating himself. The thought? What does that even mean? Does it mean you thought I would like a dozen cans of cat food (and no, I don’t care that they were on sale, I still don’t have a cat!). Does it mean that when you saw a pair of novelty truck nuts or a “Billy the Singing Bass” at a yard sale your first consideration was of me: “I know who’d appreciate this – I can call it vintage and he’s such a hipster he’ll have to like it”?
Look, here’s the thing. There’s a protocol to gift giving, a quid pro quo we’re expected to follow. Haven’t you seen Donnie Brasco? Gangster film with Pacino and Depp. Christmas time they give each other cards with duplicate fans of $100 bills. That’s how it works. It’s ingrained in our DNA. Back in the old days, it was a show of respect. A neighboring tribesman came to visit and you gave them something to show you appreciated the fact they made the trip – it could be anything with at least a modicum of value (to you or to them): a tooth of a vanquished predator, a shiny rock, a spice or new type of food. Didn’t matter because you were expressing your gratitude and what you were offering was in-line with the size of that feeling.
If what you handed over meant nothing to either of you, then what was the point? The best case was that it would be shrugged off and set aside while the worst case meant it might be misconstrued as an insult and cause a war (or at least a major familial feud). This is also where the “exchange” part comes in. When you give someone a gift, you have to give them the opportunity to gift you back.
This is not “re-gifting” mind you. Re-gifting is when you get something which doesn’t suit you at all, but instead of throwing it away, you pass it along to someone else. In most cases, this is seen as bad form. In my own case, I re-gifted some plates but left the original card in the box. Sure, they were nice plates, but I can see why they weren’t well received. No, this is when you buy someone a round of drinks at a bar and then leave before they can return the favor. It leaves an obligation open as of something left undone. Ultimately, it makes for an uncomfortable situation on both sides.
Of course, sometimes, you can combine both re-gifting and return gifting all in one. Consider what happened to magician Mac King, who had a good friend, Fred, a magical tutor, present he and his wife Jennifer with “a set of glasses that he’d bought at a secondhand store in Louisville. Imagine the ugliest glassware you can dream up,” King explains. “These were more ghastly than that. Some “artist” had taken a set of cheap iced tea glasses and covered the outer surface in, I believe, mud and grass and then put them out to dry. I think they were supposed to look like small logs sawn from a tree. Not only were they awful to look at, but if they got even a tiny bit wet, they smelled like contaminated soil. So even if you were drinking sweet tea, it tasted like excrement.” King did the only thing he could do: “Six months later I wrapped them up and gave them back to Fred for his birthday. Another six months and Jen and I found them under our Christmas tree.”
Eventually, King exchanged the glasses for candlesticks, which they enjoy to this day.
And enjoyment is now the name of the game. When we look at chimpanzees and realize that their behavior, giving gifts or helping in grooming, can net them a better female and we realize that the same held true for us, that in an earlier state of our own civilization, gifts could secure better reproduction possibilities…hey… wait a second. It still does. Marilyn was singing in the last century that “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” while Beyonce is telling us if we like it, we should put a ring on it. Kinda seems that gift giving itself hasn’t strayed too far from its original intent.
We want to enjoy the gifts we give and we want to enjoy the gifts we receive, so as we head into the gift giving season, I wanted to take a few moments of your time to talk about some bad gifts and give you some pointers on how to avoid them.
First, consider who you’re giving to and how it might be received. When I was 17, my girlfriend got me a present for Hanukkah. Unfortunately, she had gone out of town with her family so had told me to go ahead and open it without her, which I did. In front of my parents. Imagine their surprise when they saw that my 15 year old girlfriend had gotten me a baby name book.
Needless to say, there was a lot of explaining to do.
Sure, it was a simple explanation, but I was incredibly excited and it never occurred to me it could be misconstrued.
Second, get something they want, not something you want. Kevin Burke, star of Defending the Caveman at The D downtown remembers that “I got a Getaway Chase Game when I was 4. It was the best present ever. My Dad and Uncle started playing with it. They broke it and never replaced it. I never got a turn.”
Along those same lines, my wife remembers a time, back when she was still in her single digits, her godmother came for a birthday visit, bringing cake. Now, to a little kid, cake is almost as important as presents and she was looking forward to digging in. Imagine the hurt when that relative sat down and ate the cake with her own family and never offered to share.
Really, just not cool!
Third, don’t get something just because you feel obligated. Paul Draper (http://mentalmysteries.com), a corporate entertainer and mind reader, is still shaking his head over the time a major talent agency, who represented full-time entertainers in a casino, became frustrated because other businesses in the casino were giving their entertainers Christmas gifts. “So in response, the agency/employer gave every artist a $4 gift card to coffee bean and tea leaf…with a photo of the CEO and his staff having fun in Christmas costumes from a professional photo shoot.” To add injury to insult, the artists had to come to a mandatory meeting, many on their day off, to get it.
And while we’re at it… unless it’s specifically requested, you should probably stay away from household appliances, cleaning supplies, or utility items. Gift cards or cash are only acceptable if you feel you don’t have any creative bones in your body (playing the accordion professionally, qualifies).
Because the thing is… while the thought does count, that only works if you put some actual thought into it.