Why ‘bad gifts’ are a good thing for our humanity

2010-11-30 00:00

WHEN I was 13, I gave my Aunt Muriel a scarf. Not just any scarf, mind you.

This scarf was red, my favourite colour, and huge and oblong, my favourite shape. When some time went by, and I never saw her wear it, I asked her if she liked it (at 13, you can get away with doing that).

She said it was a beautiful scarf, one that she liked very much, and that someday she hoped to find something in her wardrobe to go with it. Patiently, she explained that she appreciated the compliment of my giving her what amounted to my favourite scarf.

“You know, Mary,” she said, “giving a gift is the easiest way to impose our taste on another person.”

Ouch.

Now, Amazon.com has removed all worries of displeasing, or perhaps more gently put, baffling the receivers of my gifts. Or your gifts.

As I write this column, amid the Thanksgiving holidays in the United States, I am thankful for the patent (#7,831,439) recently acquired by the company through the ingeniousness of CEO Jeff Bezos.

I am thankful because it gives us all the opportunity to rethink the meaning of giving gifts.

Said patent, which is a “gift conversion system” according to its application, means to ensure that you always will end up with whatever gift you want, regardless of how much the giver intended to give you something different.

This means that you can enter your information and tell the elves at Amazon never to send you any actual gifts from Colleague Clarence of the Curious Choices.

Rather, the Amazon elves automatically will convert that neon-striped tie into a gift certificate.

This unfortunately means that, should Colleague Clarence suggest that you wear the neon tie to the next office party, you are in big trouble, because chances are you never knew what Colleague Clarence sent you in the first place.

Not only that, but supposedly the gift-conversion system will auto-generate a thank-you note. Would it not be more honest simply to send a receipt confirmation? (That’s fodder for a separate column, thank you very much.)

So, you might ask, why am I thankful to Amazon for this system? Because the system is not yet in place. Thus, we still have some time left to think about what holiday gifts, or any gifts for that matter, really mean.

Let’s remember, above all, that our only true gifts are our time and our attention.

Sometimes that translates into a physical object, sometimes not. Sometimes it means a colleague sends you an illuminating article or takes you to lunch. Sometimes it means a sterling-silver flash drive, a Prada case for your iPad or home-baked cookies.

This, after all, is the principle behind the adage, “it’s the thought that counts”.

A gift conversion system, which intercepts “bad gifts” and sends you a gift certificate instead, is brilliant technology sadly run amok.

It seems to me that the system of clicking a button in order to indulge our self-centredness so sterilises gift-giving relationships that we end up inadvertently deleting our humanity.

Although I am a shareholder in the company and ordinarily a fan, I do wish they had thought this through in the interest of good corporate citizenship.

Life is built on relationships. Good relationships create good business. It’s not the other way around.

Every relationship has the potential for screw-ups, gaffes, or unintentional comedy. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Which means, if I receive a gift that seems ridiculous to me, I get to respond to the challenge of making the sender feel appreciated, while remaining authentic.

Yes, it takes time, energy, and effort — this is part of our humanity. That is what builds relationships.

What if I am the giver who gives that ridiculous gift? I get to learn from it, just as I learnt from Aunt Muriel all those years ago. Well, who among us is perfect? Yet we all can hone our successful gift giving by asking ourselves some questions.

• Why am I giving it?

• Is it sincere?

• Am I giving it without strings attached?

• Does it reflect the receiver’s taste, not mine?

• Is it too extravagant?

• Is it kind? (Beware of gag gifts.)

• Is it appropriate? (Eg no chocolate for a dieter.)

• Can I present it in person?

• Is it presented beautifully?

• Do I feel good about giving it?

— Reuters.

• Mary Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette and Class Acts.

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