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Low Expectations: How to Gift Without Receiving

Secret Santa.

The two most mundane words ever to be invented, a phrase intended to evoke an inane amount of anxiety with little to no beneficial return. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that Secret Santa doesn’t offer its advantages: getting a gift is still pretty fun, even if we don’t like what we get.

But that’s the thing. What do we do if we put in all this time and effort into finding someone the perfect under $25 gift, only to receive a pair of socks in return?
Basically, what do we do if we get gypped?

I’m in college right now, which means I lack the two necessary objects to initiate Secret Santa: money and time. I also have a job, which means I try to build a relationship with people who are far older than me and have known their colleagues before I even started. So when both my friend group at school and all my colleagues at work offer to do a Secret Santa, I wonder in what world is this a good idea.

There’s always that one (or more likely, several) person who pulls the sock escapade. Now it doesn’t have to be a sock per say, but it’s anything that screams “I have no idea who you are and I have put zero effort into this.” And that one person always has to drag it down for the rest of us, be it a friend who gifts a toilet-shaped mug to the girl who loves coffee, or the work who gives the pregnant employee a maternity shirt. What do you do in these situations, especially when that person received a gift that exemplified what a true Secret Santa exchange should be?

You bite your tongue. You stay thankful that you have friends and a job to call your own, let alone received a [albeit, crappy] gift at all. You stay humble, you accept circumstances as they fall and you take things as they come to you.


Why should this same person get away with pulling this lack of respect year after year? But then again, could you afford to confront this person and risk possibly losing a friendship over a $25 limit?


I have yet to find a viable solution to this matter, but it got me thinking. Why do we have such a taboo around gift-giving, to the point where these problems are sure to arise and the only option is such a last resort like confronting that person?

Like all problems in American society, I hedge my bets in looking to other countries, and the gift-giving results are astounding. In China, the experience is what is appreciated, meaning anything from meals to trips and even complements would be a perfect gift to anyone, showing you truly care about a person rather than finding a material good. In Italy, personal relationships and connections are emphasized in gift-giving. Anyone from children to businessmen are expected to gift things with a personal touch, meaning homemade goods—food from cooks or drawings from children—are greatly valued, as they exemplify the effort. And in Mexico, the gift need not be big or expensive, as smaller gifts bring a better message than bigger ones. A smaller gift equates to “presence” and self-worth, meaning flowers are a great gift considering it means the gift-giver will be sharing the experience with the giftee.

There is no doubt that gifts are important in solidifying a relationship. This New York Times article features several conversations with prominent psychologists on the very act of gift-giving, how it’s less about what you receive and more about the act of giving in itself. Virginia Commonwealth associate professor Tracy Ryan stated that “you have this pressure of reciprocity” when giving to another human, but that feeling dies when giving to something else, like a pet. She writes that this “shows that a lot of the pleasure is in the giving, knowing you’ve taken care of someone.”

Which goes back to the main concern, am I (and are we) concerned more about the socks I will receive, or am I concerned about the relationship I share with that person? I truly believe it’s the latter, since if we take all of the customs around the world, it seems as if people value more the effort and ability to give a gift rather than what is the gift itself.
Plain simple: gifting something from the heart is far better than a gift card or a gag gift. Now this isn’t to say that I won’t appreciate an iTunes gift card if I’m a music lover, just as I would love to don a gag novelty shirt. But it means that if you truly valued our relationship, you would go the extra mile and perhaps gift me an album or get a novelty shirt of a topic that interests me. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the shirt or the band, but it’s the effort that you tried that truly shows how much I mean to you—and vice versa.

When gift-giving this holiday season, remember, it’s impossible to find that perfect gift, and you shouldn’t spend tons of money and time trying to find that perfect object. But at the same time, showing some bit of effort allows reciprocation of feelings on both sides, as opposed to material goods. And maybe that’s it. Let’s bear through the sock-giving and toilet-shaped mugs for now, but always keep in mind that friendship is still there, and that’s what matters most.



Catherina “Cat” Gioino is a current sophomore at Columbia University studying Political Science-Statistics and English. When she’s not constantly watching movies– much to the chagrin of her friends and family– she’s constantly referencing them and speaking in movie quotes– much to the chagrin of her friends and family. She’s been told she’s semi-funny by several people but doesn’t act on it. And! She writes for a number of other sites.

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