The Lost Art of Gift Giving

This photo shows gift tags for Christmas

The old adage says it’s better to give than receive, but current behaviors suggest otherwise.

A few years back, NPR reported on Amazon innovations in regard to gift returns: In short, you set up a list of parameters (e.g., no T-shirts, books by 18th-century authors, CD, etc.). If someone orders a gift for you that doesn’t match with your preferences, you then get either an Amazon credit for the gift-item amount or an item of equal value off your wish list. The giver gets a pre-generated thank you note for the original (never received/swapped-out) item or a “thanks for the thought, but I exchanged x for y” “gratitude” message.

Both options seemed, to me, appalling.  And yet, I was among the minority of NPR’s listeners in thinking this was hopelessly tacky (most listeners, to the tune of 65 percent, thought it was “awesome.”)

While this practice may have been modified since its launch (Amazon’s return center will take your gift return and exchange it for a gift card, without alerting the giver), the prevailing attitude still exists. In today’s me-centered culture, where the letter “I” adorns phones and computers, I wonder if I shouldn’t be surprised that we can’t handle the uncontrolled nature of truly receiving a gift.

The true definition of a gift has been lost – the generous donation of time and careful thought, made manifest in a purchase or a handmade item. A true gift reveals an element of surprise, shows that someone knows you and has paid attention to you. It can be practical or sentimental, useful or frivolous. But it says, in short, I see you. I know you.

I understand, as well, that wish lists partially exist to stave off the disappointment of an unwanted gift. But to deny ourselves of these presents, to refuse the possibility of the unexpected, is also to deny a great story.

For a recent birthday, an old friend gave me a grab bag of fun trinkets. Among its contents were tweezers, Silly Putty, a book of matches, and an unidentified chain mesh of sparkly beads, held together in a mystifying pattern. It became a game of sorts – a Rorschach test for friends and neighbors as we tried to determine just what exactly it was. My sister suggested it was a lamp shade decoration. Another friend proposed an oversized brooch, missing its pin. At last, one ingenious friend suggested it might be a wine cozy, and indeed it was. It’s sparkly and evokes the burlesque, making every wine bottle look like Gypsy Rose Lee – and we now bring it out for many get-togethers. It always sparks a conversation and shared stories about other off-the-wall gifts. We’ve all gotten them, and we may even have given some ourselves.

And that’s my main concern, my sadness, at the eager embrace of wish lists, covert return options, and similar tools of convenience and pre-selection. At their core, they diminish our community, as well as the knowledge of which relationships may need some more attention. They put the recipient front and center, at a time of year when togetherness and selflessness is celebrated.

In an age where we’re more connected than ever—via social media, email, smartphones, face chat, and more—we’ve somehow lost the means of really listening to each other. For what is a good gift giver but a good listener? We all have demanding jobs and lengthy commutes, and live in a multi-tasking culture with precious little downtime to actually connect. As such, we may find ourselves drawn to these easy, pre-determined gift-giving methods. But with such ease and convenience, and less idle time to spend together, we ultimately know less about each other.

Photo courtesy Sarah Parrott via Flickr Creative Commons

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