Gift Giving is a Complex Social Dance

Sorry, I know, but it is!


Christmas lists have always struck me as kind of odd. It’s akin to providing someone with a list of compliments you’d like to receive. Wouldn’t it be better to just not get anything at all? How weird is it to essentially request someone hand over their money at the checkout counter because of the date on the calendar? The obligatory undertone feels wrong. But, according to Quartz, the obligatory nature of gift-giving is kind of the whole point.

“[I]f you’ve ever had the niggling sense that something other than selflessness drives the presents you dutifully exchange with friends and family, then sociology has your back,” Olivia Goldhill wrote. Turns out gift-giving has interested sociologists for years, and most have come to the similar conclusions. “Gift giving…is a physical symbol of a personal relationship and an expression of social ties that bring individuals together.” The actual exchange is crucial. Meaning: when we give a gift, we kind of are expecting something in return. And that’s not necessarily bad, it just…is.

If you’re feeling relieved that the act matters more than the gift itself, I have bad news. Dimitri Mortelmans, a sociology professor at Antwerp University in Belgium, says that the value of a gift in some way reflects how much you value the relationship. And when both gift-givers match that value, it’s a nod that they agree on the terms of their relationship. NO PRESSURE.

“There’s a debt-balance that people keep, silently, with each other, within their relationships,” says Mortelmans. “If you give an extraordinarily expensive gift, you also create an extraordinary imbalance. In the long term, something will go wrong with that relationship.”

I kind of knew this, but having it spelled out in this way strikes me as nightmarish. This feels appropriately dramatic: in a 1925 essay entitled “The Gift,” French sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote that “to refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality.”

I sense that you’re not anxious enough, so let’s make this more complicated. Psychologist Barry Schwartz says reciprocity isn’t as simple as matching your gifts in value. “[I]n his 1967 essay, ‘The Social Psychology of the Gift,” Goldhill wrote. “[Schwartz] explains that ‘a gift giver will experience discomfort if reciprocity fails to occur,’ but will be equally discomforted if they’re given perfect reciprocity.” If the equilibrium is too perfect, the act feels more like an economical exchange than a social one.

Okay, that’s also a disaster, but it actually might explain why I feel weird about lists — why they make me feel like two people are exchanging credit cards. It’s too economical! Where’s the fun? It also explains why I feel a little saddened by the fact that my family has decided to forgo gifts this year, even if it helps me financially.

At first glance, the sociology behind gift-giving makes it seem harder. But given a wider berth, I think it helps. Gift-giving is an obligation, yes, but a social one, not a financial one. When we lean too much on the latter — worrying about numbers and crossing off lists — we sift the joy right out of it.

WOOF! Are you excited for the holidays or what?

If you need some help, maybe check out Man Repeller’s first-ever gift guide!

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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  • Gift giving gets harder than it should be, this article is so right about all of the social pressures that get into your head that really shouldn’t

    – Natalie

  • Meredith

    It’s complex. I think it’s helpful to remember that all our social and family relationships come with both obligations and rights. There are expectations, but we also receive benefits and privileges in our relationships. I love to use these clips to jumpstart discussions about reciprocity in my classes:

  • Peta trendall

    I love love love Christmas gift giving and couldn’t give a toss if i received a gift in return. the perfect gift is more about nailing just the right thing and less about what it cost. But those generic Christmas gift packs that seem to sprout up everywhere this time of year are a big social no no. They smack of care-factor-zero in my books.

  • I love gift giving! Finding the right present for loved ones is so fun! If I could afford to I’d give gifts all year round! This year my presents are a bit cheaper than usual… but I only actually exchange gifts with my immediate family, boyfriend, and one close friend… no one else gets gifts from me yet. Maybe when I’m older and richer (fingers crossed for getting richer lol) I’ll be able to give more gifts!

    I have felt an imbalanced friendship before, where I put my all into it, planned a surprise birthday party and spent loads of money, then when my birthday came around I barely got a ‘happy birthday’ from them… I realised then my friendship didn’t mean as much to them as it did to me and the friendship soon ended. There were other things though, not just the birthday imbalance.

    This is a great article, thanks for sharing the research with us! 🙂

  • Alison

    My dissertation contained an entire section on gift giving in the colonial era, and disparate definitions of “value” in indigenous and European communities. Alas, I did not learn the lesson. My boyfriend travels 3 months of the year for fieldwork/data collection, and he always runs out of toothpaste. So, I found fancy, organic, Italian-made travel-sized toothpastes. They were ridiculously expensive and really good quality. I thought it was the perfect gift.

    He was so disappointed that I had to supplement with other presents. I paid for rush order delivery. We joke about it now, one year later.

  • Gift giving really stresses me out, and I don’t even have to buy that many because I have a small family. I feel like you’re either the gift-giving type of person (like some of the people who commented already) or you’re clueless. I just never get that ‘I saw this and thought of you’ feeling, I’m always uncertain when it comes to gifts because I feel like the people I’m shopping for already have so much stuff that what I buy won’t feel special.
    For a few years my boyfriend and I stopped giving gifts (we’d go on dates/go to events instead) but he gave me a birthday gift this year and it got me kind of anxious because I don’t know how I’m going to top it for him.

  • Molly D

    A goldfish makes a fantastic xmas gift.

  • BK

    I live giving gifts but honestly don’t mind if I get anything in return, mostly because I am #milennial and #awful have very particular tastes in almost everything. Getting Christmas presents ready for my family is actually my favourite part of Christmas; this year I think I’ve nailed it for everyone and I barely had to ask anybody what they wanted. I’ve spent the past two months making my sister a tapestry cushion that she saw in a book one day and thought was cool before flipping the page and forgetting all about it. If she doesn’t love it (she will) I might chew off my own feet.

    By contrast, work Christmas present swaps are THE WORST. I’ve started a new job, which I love, but don’t really know any of the people that well because I’ve been there all of a month, and today we’re doing a Yankee swap present exchange (like in the office episode) – what am I meant to buy for under $10 which would universally please one of like 20 people who I barely know? I settled on a mug and homemade hot chocolate mixture. If you don’t like that on some level, I’m not entirely sold on the idea of you having a soul.

  • Sophia Simons

    Haha! Never would have thought to find one of my former teachers on here, prof. Mortelmans! So funny