Saturday, December 23, 2006

Bad Gifts

Those who say there are no bad gifts are like those who say there are no stupid questions...they are wrong. Sure, with respect to gifts, it's the thought that counts, but sometimes you are left wondering, "what were you thinking?"

In order to lift this plague of bad gifts, we have seen the rise of the gift card. A bit more stylish than its precursor, the awkwardly sized paper gift certificate, the new plastic version is gaining currency as an acceptable alternative to shopping. But does really avoid the problems of the poorly executed present? No.

Giving a good gift is a very difficult task because it requires thought on several different levels. To start, there is the care that gives rise to the desire to give the gift. Unfortunately, most of our holiday gift buying is socially coerced, we buy for those we have to buy for. The good gift demonstrates that you wanted to give, not that you felt compelled to.

This desire to give then triggers a second level of consideration – what to give? A good gift is something that the recipient will use and will make their life better. But usefulness is not enough. " for the electric nose hair trimmer."

A good gift is also something someone wants. There is no greater success than seeing wide eyes and hearing, "How did you know?" A great present is one that displays an unspoken intimacy, an understanding of who the person really is.

But, of course, this is where life gets tricky because even folks you know well are not always transparent in this way. Picking out a gift is making a statement about what you see as a person's projects and pleasures and this will reflect how you see and judge them. If the person is a music lover, you might think that buying them music would be a good idea. But, of course, this is a holiday mine field. You don't want to get them music they will dislike or music they already have. If there is a specific genre or artist they like, buying certain popular titles may accidentally indicate that you think they are not enough of a fan that they wouldn't already have this cd or that they are a johnny-come-lately.

This is where the gift card has found a home in the gift giving process. If you let them pick out their music, books, or games, they'll be guaranteed to get what they wanted and in an indirect way, you gave it to them. You will have made the people you were buying for happy and done it without all the tedious figuring out what to buy. What could be better?

But it is precisely this simplicity that impoverishes the giving of the gift card. Yes, you are guaranteed to not have given a bad gift, but at what expense? Now, gift giving has become about the gift itself, and not the giving. The sense of connection is gone. The gift card is about you, not about us. It sends the message that happiness is to be found in acquiring the things you want, not in being close to people who care about you – even if the people close to you do not really know you. And isn't that the case for all of us? Aside from a significant other or a best friend, we all have parts that our loved ones don't quite understand. But when they give gifts that play to that side of us, the gift says, "I don't quite get it, but I know it's important to you and I want you to know I am happy to try to nurture that aspect of your life." In this way, a bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought that counts.