The sun is hiding at 4:30pm here in New York. Incessant wintry tunes ring from loudspeakers and car radios alike. Promotional direct-mail spam is arriving in sparkly red and green envelopes. This can mean only one thing- the holidays are coming.
There was a time when the exchange of gifts was a deeply considered ritual. Gifts sealed trade agreements, heralded the joining of families, and marked significant rites of passage. By juxtaposition, the oft-disposable wares purchased and disbursed en masse by most modern Westerners seem positively consumerist. There are cultures which still practice this form of elevated exchange, and we could stand to learn a thing or two from them.
We’re Doing It Wrong
The Sami people, sometimes known as Laplanders, are the hardy Northern folk from whom the modern Finns, Swedes and some Norwegians descend. In the Sami tradition, receiving a puukko as a gift is considered an honor. The puuko is a small belt knife used for everyday survival in the forest. The thought process here is that the presenter gives the recipient a tool which is essential for all facets of their life: woodworking, preparing food, and even protection. The presenter is thinking about the well-being of the recipient, and is giving them something truly useful — not just a fleeting trinket.
If you’re inspired by the Sami way, a few notes: In Scotland, a blade given as a gift must be ‘handseled’ to stop it cutting the friendship. That is, a small coin must be given in exchange. If gifting to a South American, avoid anything sharp altogether — the superstition can’t be warded off with a coin.
It’s hard to talk about gifting cultures without talking about the etiquette maze that is Japan. Most of these traditions are steeped in superstition and numerology, but the way Japanese even today approach business gifting is interesting for us to explore. Business meetings in Japan start with an exchange of gifts, full stop. The contents of the gift don’t matter terribly much, but they must be uniquely applicable to the recipient, brought from home, or otherwise demonstrative of effort and forethought. The gift should be beautifully wrapped, and presented with humility: “tsumaranai mon,” which means “Our relationship is more important than this trivial item.”
In the West, this concept may ring of bribery, especially around the holidays. Expense accounts need to be punished before the end of the fiscal year, and we’re thinking about what to send our clients to show we care about them. In Japan, almost no attention is payed to the extravagance of these gifts. What is important is that the recipient knows you thought specifically about them and went to significant trouble to bring them your token of appreciation. By contrast, anything with your company logo on it, no matter how expensive, is seen as an insult. It says: “This relationship is about your company and my company, not you and me.” Think about that the next time you send swag around. Here’s a hint: it’s not just the Japanese who think your logo’d coffee mugs are tacky.
The 10 Commandments of Gifting
What’s the takeaway? Gifting is about showing someone that you understand them well enough to choose something for them that they’ll enjoy. That’s a powerful idea. Let’s not ruin it with nonspecific garbage destined for the landfill.
Because it’s so hard to keep track of important life events for people we care about, Holly and I have adopted the practice of buying presents throughout the year and storing them. Next time you see a bauble and think “Karen would absolutely love that,” buy it. When the Google calendar notification pops up, there’ll be no scramble to buy Karen a BS gift.
Here are ten more commandments to get you through the season:
1. Thou shalt not give books to non-book-readers. You don’t come off as smart or well read. You come off as a pretentious stranger who’s got some strong ideas on how to allocate 30 hours of the recipient’s time.
2. Thou shalt not give gifts to those with whom you do not have a gifting relationship. You place the burden of reciprocation upon them, which is no gift at all.
3. When receiving a gift from afar, thou shalt let the gifter know their gift has arrived. ASAP. Don’t put the gifter in the uncomfortable situation of needing to follow up to ensure the postman didn’t err.
4. Thou shalt leave room to save face. No giant gifts that must be displayed publicly like artwork or kitchen appliances.
5. Thou shalt not give gifts to experts in their field of expertise. Oh hey, Dr. Wheeler — I know you’re into quantum mechanics, so I got you this Richard Feynman book. Hope you enjoy!
6. Thou shalt not moralize with your gift. No exercise equipment. No self-help books. And God forbid, no classes you think they’d enjoy.
7. Thou shalt not check up on the gift. You may not like what you find. How was the book? Did you enjoy the classes? Is that toaster oven changing your life?
8. Thou shalt take pains to conceal the re-gift. Re-gifting has an undeserved stigma. Just because a gift isn’t right for you doesn’t mean it’s not perfect for someone else. Nonetheless, ensure the packaging is pristine, the wrapping considered, and the note heartfelt.
9. Thou shalt not mass-gift. If your first thought was “Wow, these would make a great holiday gift — let’s get a bunch,” they’re non-specific enough to be bad gifts indeed.
10. Thou shalt not unilaterally raise the gifting stakes. If your gifting cadence with Aunt Susan has been $50 for the past 5 years, don’t get her a Ferrari this year. Even if you don’t expect reciprocation, you’ve made her uncomfortable and self-conscious, which is (you guessed it) no gift at all.