book excerpt: gift-giving

While watching the several hundred commercials on television that try to get me to buy lavish gifts for my family and friends this year, I wonder where the real meaning of the holidays has gone. I get it; the holidays are a time for giving gifts to your loved ones, but a Lexus? A diamond ring? Really? Is all of that necessary?

This inundation of commercialism and materialism got me thinking about a chapter from my book. So, I thought I'd reprint it here. Enjoy.

An Excerpt from Chapter 4 of my book:

In the beginning of our relationship, Hus (my then boyfriend) bought me a watch. It was a really nice watch- an expensive watch. But, I was young, and, I didn’t (and still don’t) care for expensive things, especially expensive jewelry. I’m just a bargain-hunting, knock-off-wearing, ridiculously-pricey-shit-that-I-could-find-at-Target-despising kind of girl. I thought Hus knew this. Apparently, he didn’t. As I unwrapped the box and saw the Seiko label, I thought to myself, “What the hell is this?” About a second or two later, I had the box open. And there it was--a bright and shiny, brand new, extravagant watch. I took off my “Oops I Did It Again” Britney Spears watch (c’mon people, it was the late 90s, the watch was bright pink, and it played her music as the alarm) and fastened the white gold, fancy-schmancy watch to my wrist.

Looking down at it, I felt like Hus didn’t know anything about me. Did he ever listen to anything I said? If he did, it would have been obvious that I wasn’t one of “those girls.” I showed the watch to my best friend, and she completely agreed that it was an odd gift… for me at least. Needless to say, this was one surprise that did not go into my gift hall of fame and it did not make me feel loved.

Interestingly, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., at the University of British Columbia along with her colleagues actually looked at how gift-giving impacts romantic relationships.* To examine this issue, the researchers had couples come into a lab and individually rank four gift certificates based on their own personal preferences. Next, they were asked to pick the best gift certificate for their partners. The participants were then individually told that their partners had chosen a gift certificate for them. Participants were lastly asked to evaluate the perceived similarity they had with their partners and their relationship’s future potential. A little confusing?

Let me clarify with an example: Jack and Jill are dating and they decide to participate in this study. Once they arrive at the lab, Jack and Jill each rank four gift certificates based on their own preferences. Jill then picks the best one for Jack and Jack picks the best one for Jill. Jack is shown the gift certificate that Jill chose for him, and vice versa. Finally, Jack and Jill take a survey evaluating their relationship. Simple, right? Well, what made the study interesting was that the researchers actually chose the gift certificates for each participant based on the initial responses they each provided about their own preferences. The researchers manipulated the study so that participants were told that their partners either chose their most favorite gift certificate (which would be considered a “good” gift) or their least favorite gift certificate (which would be considered a “bad” gift). 

Like many things, men and women responded very differently to this task. Men who thought they had received a “bad gift” from their partner reported less similarity with them and also stated that they thought their relationships would be shorter than men who received “good gifts” from their partners. Give a man a bad gift and it may negatively affect your relationship. Women, on the other hand, actually reported more similarity and longer projected relationship lengths when they received a “bad gift” than women who received a “good gift”. I know what you’re thinking. No, this does not mean that women like bad gifts. Instead, the researchers believed that women might have felt forced to think about all of the positive aspects of their relationships and their partners because the “bad gift” caused them to worry about the status of their relationships. “Are we not close enough?” While men likely felt hurt by the fact that their partners did not know them well enough to choose the gift certificate that they would have been most excited about, women probably made excuses for their partners’ choices to help “save their relationship” that was so obviously failing. Clearly, the responses by both men and women are not healthy for your relationship. The take-home message: spend time getting to know your partner so that you can easily think of thoughtful gifts that he or she will absolutely love. 

Okay, back to my story. Looking back, I think I did make some excuses for Hus when he gave me that watch. “He’s never given me a bad gift before. He had good intentions. He’ll do better next time.” Don’t worry, Hus fully redeemed himself a few gifts later. He made me a wooden trunk with our names burned into the front and notches on the back for every year we had been together. He has since added a new notch each subsequent year (there are currently eleven notches adorning the back of this treasure). Over the years, I have slowly filled this trunk with hundreds of keepsakes related to our relationship. I love that I can open it anytime, take a few things out, and reminisce about each memory inside. I adored this trunk when he gave it to me, and I love it everyday when I look at it in my office. It’s one of my favorite gifts of all time. And, it’s probably one of the least expensive gifts he’s ever given me. 

While most homemade gifts don’t cost a lot of money, they can become more valuable to your partner than any Xbox, iPod, or a pair of expensive earrings.  

*Dunn, E. W., Huntsinger, J., Lun, J., & Sinclair, S. (2008). The gift of similarity: How good and bad gifts influence relationships. Social Cognition, 26, 469-481.

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