Festive gestures: What the gifts you give say about you

Despite the seasonal pressure, there's more joy to be found in giving than taking

Not long ago, the jangle of cash registers heralded the rampant consumerism that powers the festive custom of exchanging gifts. While today’s card terminals, e-commerce and digital wallets make procuring the goods easier (and quieter), they don’t address the common dilemmas of the seasonal gift purchasing bonanza.

What to buy for our nearest and dearest, close and extended families, friends, colleagues and others?

The long-held tradition of gift exchange – optimally seen as an appreciative gesture by both givers and receivers – can be onerous, particularly for those with large families and wide social circles, and stressful for folks on tight budgets. The Scrooges and Grinches among us abhor the whole concept, but maybe they’re on to something.

“Giving away our resources doesn’t seem to make sense in a modern capitalist society where money rules because we live in such a quid pro quo, must-be-successful world,” offers Chris Jackson, a professor of business psychology at UNSW Business School.

Nonetheless, most of us shop for gifts and give with glee – or, in fact, joy. In a 2019 quantitative survey of 1000 Australians conducted for the Financial Planning Association (FPA), 85% of participants said they found more joy in giving than receiving – and Australians are a generous mob, spending almost $20 billion annually on gifts, with Christmas the peak gifting season.

“Giving is an essential part of human nature and we do well to remember that there is a lot more joy in giving than taking,” says Jackson. 

“People feel a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement and see the world more positively. You learn there’s trust in the world and it can help with your confidence.”

'I might buy a gift that I think will please you, but ultimately it’s because I like it and I think it’s a good gift'


Impression management

To maximise the joy, some important factors should be top of mind because gifting is serious business. The gifts you choose will say a lot about you, how you perceive the receiver and value your mutual relationship. No pressure.

For starters, your gift should target the receiver’s preferences, but that’s not always the case.

A lot of gift choices involve more of 'the self' than 'the other', notes Nitika Garg, an associate professor in the school of marketing at UNSW Business School whose research focus is consumer behaviour. 

“It happens because we’re humans and not the best processors; our decisions tend to be based on our own perspectives. I might buy a gift that I think will please you, but ultimately it’s because I like it and I think it’s a good gift.”

Impression management may also be at work because giving a present exhibits 'pro-social behaviour' and enhances the giver’s reputation – and your gift’s wow-factor may be greater when giving to non-family members, Jackson suggests. 

Indeed, more distant relationships put the gift buyer in tricky territory, Garg agrees. 

“You don’t want to appear cheap, but perceptions of ‘how I value our relationship’, and ‘how I care about your preferences’ will come into play and may make you overspend, even though you’re not particularly close to the recipient,” she says.

Happy shopping

How generous will you be? Much will depend on the emotions you feel when buying gifts. If you feel grateful to the receiver, for example, then you’re more likely to bust the budget on their gift.

Research shows gratitude definitely boosts reciprocal behaviour, says Garg, “but it’s an 'other-focused' emotion, so even if the person you’re buying for hasn’t done something for you, you might be more generous if you’re feeling grateful”.

Pride is not a helpful emotion when shopping for others though, she warns, because it’s self-rewarding. There’s evidence it can motivate you to buy something luxurious for yourself.

Self-indulgence is also a risk when feeling sad. “We know from the literature that when you are sad you are willing to spend more to acquire new things,” Garg says. 

“I have studied sadness and found it makes you willing to pay more or eat more of something that will make you feel good, but not necessarily be good for you.”

Ultimately, Garg recommends shopping when you’re happy because “happiness is quite self-protective. It keeps you balanced to ensure you stay happy.”

'So long as you don’t choose a BridgeClimb for someone who’s afraid of heights, experiences make good choices'


For those who have plenty

There’s still the nagging question of what to buy. The FPA Gifts that Give 2019 National Research Report recorded the leading choice for Christmas is the gift card (31%). Is this the giver’s easy way out and the recipient’s flexible option? 

Garg sees the convenience aspect but spots a potential snag. “The receiver will make an implicit assessment of the value,” she says. 

“If there’s a discrepancy in their understanding of how much they think you value the relationship – the amount spent – then it could backfire as much as a bad gift.”

Perhaps a new experience would be better? Has your partner been sky-diving or hot air ballooning before?

Considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Jackson believes an experience may be a winner for those who already have plenty. 

“Once you have achieved security and a certain level of wealth, next you try to develop your experiences. We do live in quite a caged world, so the opportunity to go off and have some fun has also been commoditised,” he says.

Plus, experiences bring longer lasting happiness than material goods of equivalent value, Garg notes. 

“They show care. So long as you don’t choose a BridgeClimb for someone who’s afraid of heights, experiences make good choices, particularly for Millennials who have been shown to value experience more than material goods,” she says.

Regifting makes sense

Be mindful that cultural expectations dictate what’s acceptable. In Japan, for example, Jackson observes more significance is placed on gift-giving – even business gifts carry a lot of meaning – compared with the small gifts customary in Britain, his country of origin. 

Despite much-reported wealth, even members of the British royal family keep Yuletide spending down by amusing each other with novelties.

Finally, what happens if a churlish recipient doesn’t share your taste or if there’s a double-up? Is regifting okay?

It’s taboo, but actually not as much as we think, according to academics from London Business School, Stanford and Harvard universities who evaluated five papers on the topic and found receivers view regifting as similar in offensiveness to throwing gifts away, but givers actually prefer it. 

There’s a cultural aspect to this, too. Garg points to the Hindu Festival of Lights – Diwali – in India when “everyone gives to everyone” and the volume of exchanges almost guarantees not every gift will match your preferences, making regifting an accepted norm.

Besides, in a waste-not world, where recycling is imperative, extending the life of redundant goods makes perfect sense.


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