Why We Give Good Gifts

During freshman year of high school, I discovered that my new group of friends had an entirely different methodology for gift giving. When it was someone’s birthday, we would meet up (probably for a movie), and instead of buying a gift, wrapping it, and writing a card to go with it, everyone would just give the birthday person a $20 bill and wish them a happy birthday. It was so simple and so ingenious, I thought! I no longer had to worry about whether or not someone would like my gift, or whether or not they would judge my crappy present-wrapping skills.

And from an economic standpoint, gifting cash makes perfect sense. People know their own preferences best, and they want to make their friends and loved ones happy through the gifts they give. Purchasing gifts for loved ones sure sounds like a losing proposition since we simply don’t have enough knowledge about our recipients’ true preferences in order to give them a gift that they want and will like. If given the monetary equivalent of the item in question rather than the item itself, they can either spend the cash on the item that we would have bought them, or if there is something else that they desire more greatly of the same cost, they could have bought that instead and derived more utility out of it. Economist Joel Waldfogel refers to this as the “deadweight loss” of Christmas, where there is a gap between how much we spend on a gift and how much it’s actually worth to the recipient.

So what gives? Why do we still feel queasy about sending someone cash as a present? My immediate reaction is that it feels completely impersonal; maybe we’re missing out on the sentimental value of a gift and focusing too much on the economic value. The economist Ezra Klein describes this phenomenon by referencing a grey rock on a coffee table that says “God Bless You” on it. The rock is not particularly valuable in and of itself to him, but when placed in the context that it was given to him by his mother, its value is incalculable.

The sentimental value of a gift can’t be the only missing component though. If my best friend buys me a box of chocolate-covered almonds, it’s surely sentimental because she gave it to me. However, I’d be a little disappointed because I’ve mentioned to her how I’m allergic to nuts, and it feels a little thoughtless to overlook something like that. Instead, I find that I like it when someone both thinks of me and remembers my preferences; the gifts that have stood out are ones where someone has somehow demonstrated that they care enough to listen and pay attention to details🙂 I remember a card my friend Christine gave me for my 21st birthday: I had mentioned offhandedly to her that I liked it when we were browsing Urban Outfitters together a few months prior, and it means the world to me that she expressed that she cared by keeping that card in mind.

Gifting should also be expressive of our relationships, and how we’ve grown closer and grown up together over time. We’re able to give better gifts to others as we get to know them better because we’ve shared and developed our identities with one another over time. We’re able to engage and connect with them on a deeper, more intimate level. I mention this because I’m reminded of a set of scrapbooks my friend Audrey put together to celebrate the last four years of college together: the messages are more thoughtful than if we had merely spent a year together because we’ve been able to learn more about one another and share more experiences together.

These are what gives. Gifting isn’t a rational social phenomenon. Adding sentimental value, affirming one’s care about someone by listening to them, and symbolizing the strength of a relationship between two people should take precedence over the pure dollar value or utility derived of the gift.

Finally, the question inevitably comes up of how we can give good gifts. I don’t have a good answer to that; like many other people, I don’t believe in my creative juices enough to execute on this well. That being said, one guiding piece of inspiration has helped me out a bit: this incredible piece by Ben Kuhn.

Thanks to Audrey, Lauren, and Rachel for spearheading the thoughtful gift-giving process. Thanks to Audrey for looking over a draft of this.

Step Back and Think

Move fast and break things. Shipping beats perfection. Wherever I go, I’ve encountered cultures that focus on building, iterating, and failing fast. To complement that, I’ve realized that I want to step back and think, reduce things to their first principles, and question why I’m doing what I’m doing. This is where this blog comes into play: it gives me the opportunity to take a moment and find where I stand, where I want to go in the future, and what path I might take to head in that direction. My friends and I have actually been talking about starting this blog for close to a year now, so we were definitely on the end of moving slowly and ironing out all the details before bringing this out into the open. And looking back upon an old draft of this post, I’m glad I still agree with my primary goals for writing – to structure and express my own ideas, and to let others understand and test them.

Leslie Lamport, creator of LaTeX and a Turing Award winner, talked about how if you’re only thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking. It’s only when you write that you begin to realize how unstructured and sloppy your thinking was beforehand. It’s only when someone asks me why the Charleston church shooting drove me to tears, or why marriage equality is such a landmark for a broader queer liberation, that I realize that I can’t immediately articulate what I believe. Codifying the thoughts in my mind is indeed a self-centered endeavor, and I hope that writing will help me find clarity and innovation. Building structure to what was once nebulous and free-floating, establishing focus on what was once blurry, and discovering the motivations backing my intuitions will allow me to better understand my own ideas. Instead of absorbing information and letting creative moments pass by, why not think deeply about them and keep track of what I’ve learned?

And why blog publicly instead of keeping a private journal? I think that while we have a proliferation of media to share experiences – list any social network here – I’d also like others to know what’s been on my mind. If what we believe and learn and value are important enough to not just push into a corner of our heads, we also should let others understand and test them. This gives us the opportunity to ensure our arguments are both consistent and sound, free of contradictions and unnecessary complexity. Trying to create these discussions online might be a pipe dream, but it’s a goal worth pursuing. I would love to engage and discuss my beliefs with others (and hear about theirs): the hope is that we can learn from one another, gain a better idea of how we should seek direction in our lives, and understand where others are coming from with their dreams and principles.

Thanks to Aaron and Christine for reading drafts of this. Thanks to Kamens, Sam, and Sherman for encouraging me to start blogging.