Those packages you see lying under the Christmas tree aren’t just presents but symbolic markers. Symbols of both relationships and the self. That’s why we all remember the gifts we’ve been given—the good, the bad, and the genuinely ugly—because we understand them as revealing the nature of the connections we have to others. In his seminal article, “The Social Psychology of Gifts,” Barry Schwartz writes that “Gifts are one of the ways in which the pictures others have of us are transmitted.” Of course, the gift doesn’t just reveal the image the giver has of you; it exposes the character and the thinking of the giver as well.
Christmas giving makes us anxious not just because it’s revelatory but because it’s an exchange. We dread receiving the bad gift as much as giving it. In fact, when John F. Sherry, Jr. and his colleagues explored what they called “The Dark Side of the Gift,” they found that people are far more ambivalent and even negative about gift-giving than the cultural tropes would suggest. Most interesting is the bad or awful gift, and how people react to it.
Anecdotes confirm not only how well people remember the bad gift but their feelings upon receiving it. We offer up this (unscientific) list of the potential givers in your life (and mine), as a way of easing the stress of the holidays a bit and giving you an edge on keeping your cool.
- The Genuine Giver
If you are lucky enough to have one or two of these folks in your life, it’s time for rejoicing. The genuine giver has actually thought about you and what would give you pleasure. Our culture likes to believe that everyone is a genuine giver - if you doubt it, just re-read
O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi - but maybe what really makes this kind of giving so special is that it’s the exception, not the rule. That gives us all the more reason to savor the moment.
- The Status Hound
This is the costly gift as self-enhancement - a show of money or power, or perhaps both. In this case, the gift has nothing to do with the recipient but everything to do with the giver. These are the gifts for which the exchange receipt was invented, and the truth is that they aren’t emotionally painful unless the giver is a true intimate - a lover or a spouse - in which case the status gift can pack a big emotional wallop.
- The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
This is the giver who likes to be thought of as a wonderful gift-giver with perfectly wrapped gifts but his or her spirit is no more genuine than the Status Hound; in the end, Christmas is all about him or her. The Wolf is likely to send a check, rather than a present, and will “re-gift” items without thinking about whether the gift actually suits the recipient. The Wolf likes gift-giving to be even-steven - especially in terms of money spent - so beware of possible posturing or pouting if he or she is disappointed. Paradoxically, the Wolf is also likely to be a discriminating giver - within the family, some members will be luckier than others since the Wolf doesn’t shy away from playing favorites.
- The Power Player
Perhaps the worst kind of giver - the one who really knows how to manipulate the symbolic nature of the gift - these people are the likeliest to hurt or disappoint us, especially at the holidays. Because they understand how gifts can cause us pain, consciously or unconsciously, they choose gifts that do exactly that.
- The Complainer
Yes, it’s not just that you have to appreciate the gift the Complainer gives you; you have to listen endlessly to the travails and inconveniences he or she experienced this holiday season, especially during the acquisition of your gift. Luckily, the Complainer is easy to spot and more of a nuisance than anything else, and one of the reasons wine is part of holiday celebrations.