Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance
Fresno Bee, December 17, 2011
Christmas is the Superbowl of giving and receiving. All of our social and interpersonal skills are needed to give and receive well. We can learn a lot about social life, by carefully observing the details of the annual Christmas potlatch. And we can learn about ourselves by considering how we deal with giving and receiving.
Gift giving is a form of communication. Gifts send social messages. A perfect gift is a sign of care and thoughtfulness. A great gift shows that the other person really understands you. Although we say that it’s the thought that counts, inappropriate gifts are expressions of thoughtlessness. What message is being delivered when you give an alcoholic uncle a bottle of booze or a conservative niece a subscription to your favorite liberal news magazine?
Good givers are perceptive interpreters of social reality. It takes considerable finesse to figure out who should get what, in our complex social world. Do you, for example, give a gift to the mother of the man you just divorced, when she comes to pick up her grandchildren? It takes a lot of tact to negotiate these sorts of situations.
The Christmas gift ritual is subtle game of secrets and excitement. We keep these secrets wrapped in bows—to be given at the right time and in the right way. Wonderful gifts can be ruined by an over-enthusiastic or half-hearted presentation. Children can be forgiven for spilling the beans or for ripping into a gift too soon. But adults are expected to display a subtle balance of eager enthusiasm and cool nonchalance.
There are a lot of details to attend to. Sometimes a gift-receipt is appropriate. But it is usually considered tacky to leave the price tag on. Homemade gifts can be charming—but some people will think you are a cheapskate. What about an expensive gift: is it too flashy or over-the-top? And is “re-gifting” allowed? Probably, as long as you don’t tell the original giver or the new recipient.
Gift-giving relationships are fraught with social significance. Consider the annual Christmas card list. When do you drop or add someone from your list? And those newsy holiday letters are subject to interpretation: are you bragging too much about your fabulous life or complaining too much about your deteriorating health? Should you write a personal note to a casual acquaintance? Or can you just send the family picture, without a note? These choices convey social messages.
There is also an art to being a gracious receiver. We need to know how to say thanks. Expressions of gratitude allow the act of giving to be successfully completed. And you need to fake gratitude when necessary. Even phony gratefulness is important, as a sign that the gift has been received. In the modern world, it is difficult to figure out what counts as an appropriate thanks. Is a text message or phone call sufficient? Or should you write a good old-fashioned thank-you note?
If this sounds difficult, that’s because social life is difficult. Giving and receiving are complex social practices. Generous givers and gracious receivers are social geniuses. They negotiate social situations with grace and style, nimbly imagining the other person’s attitudes, expectations, and desires.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized that generosity was in the middle between stinginess and wastefulness. It is wrong to give to little—but it is also wrong to give too much. The key for Aristotle is figuring out how to give the right amount, to the right person, at the right time, in the right way. This takes careful reflection and lots of practice. The same can be said for receiving: we need to carefully practice graciousness and gratitude. The key is to be mindful, thoughtful, and aware of the complexities of the social game.
No one is born knowing how to give well or to receive graciously. All of this is learned behavior. Our children work on it throughout the year—at birthday parties and elsewhere. Adults participate in acts of giving and receiving every day. We give each other our time, our attention, and the small favors that lubricate social life. Christmas crystallizes this for us, as a ritual reminder that human life is a complex dance of giving and receiving.