Odds are extremely high that every single person reading this has given or received a gift at some point in their life. It can be a lot of fun, on both sides of the equation . . . and it can also be a source of major anxiety or stress.
The way we use the word “gift” in English tends to give the idea a connotation of being something optional — an add-on that, if left off, wouldn’t really change much. This is profoundly misleading. Quite apart from the obligations that surround gift-giving, the idea itself is central enough to human culture that one of the foundational works of modern anthropology is The Gift by Marcel Mauss, an essay analyzing the concepts of reciprocity and exchange. Gifts are a major part of how we bond.
When do we give them? The answer to that varies from society to society, but might broadly be grouped into three categories. The first is personal events: birthdays, rites of adulthood, graduation, marriage, childbirth, retirement, anniversaries, and so forth. On those occasions it’s usually the person undergoing the event who receives gifts, though hobbit birthdays in The Lord of the Rings are a famous inversion of this (and I’d love real-world examples to go with that; I feel like they exist, but I can’t actually think of any). The second category is societal events, e.g. holidays like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, where many people are giving and receiving gifts at the same time. And the third category is contextual events: bringing a bottle of wine or other small item when having dinner at someone’s house, or services for which someone won’t accept payment, but a “gift” is expected in return.
Sometimes gifts are optional. Sometimes they really, really aren’t. You may not be required to give a birthday present to every single person you know, but at least in the U.S., if you send your child off to another kid’s birthday party without something in hand, you’ll quite possibly ruin not only their social life but your own reputation among fellow parents. In Japan, Valentine’s Day isn’t about romance; it’s the day women are expected to give giri choco (“obligation chocolate”) to their male acquaintances and co-workers. (Men reciprocate a month later, on White Day.) We certainly can and do announce that gifts aren’t necessary on specific occasions, but a person who shirks the expectation of gift-giving breaks the bonds of reciprocity that bind our world together, and we have a profound negative reaction that.
What we give is also a point of possible tension. I’m not just talking about the pressure to find “the perfect gift” for the occasion; depending on the society and the circumstances, particular types of gifts may be seen as profoundly rude. In East and Southeast Asia, it’s entirely common to give presents of money, usually in a red envelope — but for white Americans, handing over cash often feels embarrassingly crass. A check is more discreet, but still feels impersonal; gift cards are a workaround, dodging the taint of literal money while still allowing the recipient some amount of freedom in choosing their own present.
The nature of the gifts can depend on the occasion. Weddings and baby showers in particular both tend to feature practical gifts, because people are clubbing together to help the happy couple or new parents clear what otherwise might be a major hurdle, the acquisition of all the possessions required by their changed circumstances. But while some people may be perfectly happy to receive practical things like non-decorative socks or a new toaster on their birthday, many others would prefer to get something entertaining or luxurious. In some cases a practical gift may be read as implying that the recipient can’t afford the basics without help, transforming a present into a coded insult.
There can be a huge amount of symbolism wrapped up in the nature and details of a gift. I recently watched a lecture on symbolism in Chinese art, where the lecturer unpacked a dozen or more motifs — peaches, bats, clouds, and more — to show how the decoration on something like a bowl or a carved pillow might carry the message of “may you have many sons” or “may you achieve high office.” Some East Asian cultures try to give wedding gifts in odd numbers, because even numbers are easily divided up in a divorce. In other cases, the meaning of a gift may hinge on an allusion to folklore and history. Depending on your language, many of these symbols can hinge on homophones; Chinese is chock full of them, while English has less room there to play. You can even leverage the symbolism of gifts for conflict or communication in a story: do the giver and the recipient both understand the metaphorical weight of a given item? Or is there an unintended message, or one not received?
Even the process of how a gift is given and received carries social weight. Looking again to East Asia, accepting a gift the moment it’s offered can make you look greedy; instead there’s an expectation that you should refuse it a few times (maybe a set number, maybe not) before finally giving in. Even in the West, we may say things like “oh, no, I couldn’t possibly” or “you shouldn’t have!,” especially if the gift appears outside a major context like Christmas. Sometimes they’re concealed by wrapping paper or a decorative bag. Should you open it right then, or not? One culture may expect you to tear in right away, while another insists that you open it in private, and for specific occasions — Christmas presents; red envelopes of money at the New Year — you may have to wait until the correct day.
Whether it’s at the moment of receiving, after opening, or both, one thing does seem to be universal: you have to express your gratitude. We may be told as children that lying is bad, but at the same time, we’re expected to always smile and thank the giver for their thoughtfulness and generosity, regardless of what we actually think. In some cases verbal thanks are sufficient, while in others you ought to write a note, going to additional effort in order to show your gratitude. Then sometimes you have to give a gift in return . . . and so the wheel of reciprocity turns, never quite reaching equilibrium. Because while gifts may be a nice practice, they can also be a soft weapon, creating an imbalance of obligation that has to be righted. We’re deeply wired for fairness on that front, which can be both a good thing and a bad one.