John's World: It Is Better to Give–Slightly

December 7, 2010 09:23 AM

Ahoy, happy shoppers! Depending on when you have a chance to sit down and read Farm Journal, this column will either increase your holiday anxieties or explain what went wrong. But what the hey—the problem isn’t going away. I refer, of course, to holiday gift-giving.

Christmas is all about giving, and since we now know that 107% of our national economy depends on the frantic exchange of merchandise in December, intense focus on the proper selection, wrapping and delivery of gifts has only been amplified by shrunken holiday budgets.

To make matters worse, gifts are no longer simply stuff you give to others to fulfill, more or less amiably, a holiday tradition. No, my naive donor, gifts are social nitroglycerine that
require exquisite handling.

The price is right (out there). First, there is the obvious economic angle. Rack your brain to see if you can come up with any gift that The Recipient cannot appraise in two minutes using eBay and a cell phone. I don’t care if it is a vintage brooch you discovered in a quaint shop by the train station on a business trip to Liverpool. There is a searchable episode of Antiques Roadshow online somewhere in the Intertubes, and Google can’t wait to blab.

So reconcile yourself to the fact that removing the price tag is a purely symbolic act. The marketplace for anything is more transparent than the “diamond” you gave last year. And you can be sure The Recipient will assume you paid the lowball number.

Subtexting. Unlike a rose, a gift is not just a gift. These days, gifts carry coded messages, the keys to which are largely unknown to most people and all men. It is this hidden attribute of a pair of mittens, for example, that can change an intended message of “I bought you these because I thought you could use them” into “Please think of the warmth of my embrace when you put your chilled hands into these fleecy protectors” or “These were on sale at the farm store near the windshield washer fluid.”

Not only are sincere gifting motives likely to be misunderstood, any motive can be misconstrued because of some characteristic of the gift. Speci-fically, I am talking about anything that has a size.

Keep this rule in mind: Unless,

1) you have obtained notarized substantiation of the proper size;
2) you have been heavily lobbied with leaden hints as to the size of the object
desired; and
3) you have absolutely no other alternative, avoid giving a gift that necessitates what amounts to a Christmas miracle: the manufacturer and The Recipient agreeing on what a number like
“11” means.

Guessing a size either too high or too low can indicate your inattention to The Recipient’s physical person or (worst case) a suggestion as to what The Recipient’s physical person should be. Another version of this danger is an X-volt power tool given to a person who has a Y-volt collection.

The surprise. In a desperate attempt at redemption or a case of temporary insanity, you may decide to “think outside the gift box.”

What is forgotten is that the box is there for your protection. Predictable gifts at least get predictable responses. Surprise gifts are 10-to-1 long shots that too often reveal a fundamental misperception of The Recipient. The Recipient may not react like the thrilled person in the Acme Home Electrolysis Kit ad, for example.

Hint: The first indication of a suboptimal outcome are ambiguous exclamations such as “Oh, my!” and “Wow!” In my research, I have discovered that “Oh, John!” can convey multiple emotions as well.

Deal the cards. The lowest form of a gift is the gift card. Indeed, those hard-to-buy-for loved ones often end Christmas Day with a stack of something resembling a bad canasta hand. The tragedy in this is not so much the blunt monetization of a relationship as the staggering 20% (really!) loss of value when the cards are lost or forgotten. They are the carbon tax of Christmas commerce.

You would think these obstacles would make us give more thought to giving. But in the long run, it’s still better than receiving, for one solid reason: no thank-you card guilt.

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