The Hidden Meanings Behind Gift Giving

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When we present a gift, we’re handing over so much more than what’s in the box. 

From the very beginning of our human socialization, the act of gift giving has been an important element of establishing and strengthening social ties. In antiquity, offering gifts was a way to prove one’s social worth and the value of a potential betrothal.

And in more modern times, nations have relied on formal gift giving to signal the intent of diplomatic relations. A very famous example, of course, is the gift of the Statue of Liberty from France to the United States in 1886.

But in our own personal and intimate relationships, giving gifts is used to reinforce our social bonds. From a suitor bringing flowers to a friend bringing (back) souvenirs, we offer tangible gifts as a proxy of our affections. And aside from the reinforcement of our love and friendship, gifts can also stand in to express our congratulations, sympathy, and gratitude. 

Expectations in Gift Giving

Given the weight of the underlying meaning, it’s no wonder gift giving can be an emotionally fraught activity. There’s this pressure to deliver the perfect gift that matches our intended affection. 

We may turn to the internet searching in vain for perfect gift giving tips when in reality those ideas, while possibly good, probably lack the intimacy both the giver and the recipient can really appreciate. 

If gift giving is more than meets the eye, it’s worth examining what could be a broader agenda or context behind it. Sometimes an offered gift is simply that. But at other times the gesture may be cloaked in subtle meaning woven with undetectable intentions. 

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When we stop to consider what’s really conveyed in these generous gestures, we come to see what’s happening in plain sight. Strong messages are being transmitted without anyone uttering a word. 

Here are some examples.

Hidden Insecurities

I have a dear former colleague who, whenever I see her, always shows up with gifts. Sometimes for me but always for my young daughter. When I saw her this summer she once again had plenty to share. I felt silly over-expressing my gratitude for her continuous generosity.

When we started to talk about her aptitude for gift giving, she admitted that she tends to be generous especially with kids because she wishes to be liked by them. She assumes they will always prefer their parents. (Based on this logic, you can understand that she doesn’t have kids of her own!). I found that comment really interesting. 

As I reflected on her personality, I recognize she carries insecurity within her that no cajoling on my part can remedy. As a way to cope, she uses gift giving as a means to convince recipients that she’s worthy of their affection. And that makes my heart hurt. 

Substitutes for Words

Sometimes we rely on gifts to convey messages that we just can’t articulate with our words. We may have deep or complex feelings yet not the language to match. So we turn to gifts to say it on our behalf.

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A classic example is the marriage proposal. How do you tell someone with adequate words how much you love them? And in an eloquent and romantic way you wish to spend the rest of your life with them? Many would agree words just can’t convey the depth of this emotion. But a diamond ring sure can! Our society has come to recognize the engagement ring as a tangible representation of this indescribable sentiment. 

Alternatively, we may turn to gifts to express sympathy when we just don’t know what to say. Or we rely on them to right a wrong when the words I’m Sorry spoken for the hundredth time lose their potency.  

Other times we’re at a loss for what to say in the midst of pain and awkwardness. So we offer a gift as a way to extend comfort, make amends, or recalibrate the relationship. It may not carry the power of the spoken word, but it can be a fine offering of kindness, compassion, and care wrapped in a bow. 

Lazy Affection

We celebrate holidays throughout the year in which gift giving is a central part—Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa, birthdays, anniversaries. And let’s not forget Valentine’s Day! 

We feel the pressure to deliver meaningful gifts with each occasion but over time an unintended apathy settles in. Year after year our task to find the right gifts for loved ones just becomes one more thing on our to-do list. We know giving gifts is important but we just can’t sustain the high expectations. 

Nowhere is this most understood and appreciated than in the confines of a long-term relationship like a marriage. A union where there’s plenty of built-in expectation around gift giving and the hidden meaning behind gifts. This is something most women place more emphasis on especially early in the relationship to the chagrin of well-intended partners. 

In time, however, some couples agree to end their gift exchanges especially when the kids show up. They readily acknowledge the gift giving pressure serves no useful purpose for their relationship (anymore). 

Yet, for some long-term couples who never agree to reset these rules, their exchanges often lack sincerity and thoughtfulness. It’s not intentional. Instead, it’s a transition to living on autopilot. 

After so many years, a gift just can’t deliver the wow factor each and every time. So the ritual of exchanging gifts as a means to show passion or sentiment becomes fully obligatory. And as exciting and heartfelt as a cardboard box the gift came in.

A Means of Showing Off

As most would agree, the dread of the holiday season is the obscene emphasis on the gifts. Advertisers beat the drum year after year that it’s through your gift giving (of their products, of course!) that you really show you care. 

Partly as a result of this sick messaging, some individuals use Christmas, birthdays, and other gift giving occasions as a venue to showcase their buying power. Their excessive generosity turns into bragging rights both for the recipient and the giver while leaving those of fewer means feeling small and insignificant. 

It becomes a highlight of the haves and have-nots without anyone realizing the outlandish gestures may be just for show. 

Here are some extreme examples in history of such over-the-top gift giving: 

  • The Hanging Gardens of Babylon given by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II to his homesick wife Queen Amytis. It was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. No pressure!

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  • The first Fabergé egg given in 1885 by Tsar Alexander III to his wife Maria. It was crafted from a foundation of gold and contained a minute diamond replica of the imperial crown. Maria so loved the egg that a unique one was commissioned every year until 1917. 

  • A 68-carat diamond given to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton. After an extensive public viewing of the stone, Taylor debuted the ring in Monaco at a ball to celebrate Princess Grace Kelly's fortieth birthday. 

In these examples perhaps the sentiment was honest but the actual gift proved to be a big distraction. 

In our own lives, most would agree we don’t want gifts of distraction, we want gifts of intimacy. We most treasure the gifts that celebrate the relationship and our place within it.

Proof You’re Well Known

Almost all of us have been on the receiving end of some pretty terrible gifts. When we get them we try with all our might to feign some excitement but we’re left to contemplate Do they even know me?!

So on those rare occasions when we get a gift so perfect, it has such tremendous meaning. It’s so satisfying. What excites us most isn’t the gift itself but the recognition that this person really, really knows us. 

It confirms that they’ve paid attention and they know what’s important in our lives. Ironically such gifts usually cost the least or are homemade. The essential materials consist of care, effort, and thoughtfulness. 

And sometimes the best gift is the most random and unexpected ones. They’re the ones usually accompanied by the words: I was thinking of you when I saw this. It warms the heart to know that we’re well regarded and regularly remembered. 

It feels sweet and tender to be thought of in such a way in which there isn’t any social prompting or feelings of obligation. Where reciprocity would be inappropriate. Instead, we can simply bask in the knowledge that we’re loved and cared for. 

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The Best Gifts to Give

The best gifts need no wrapping. We can bypass the stuff and the things that just can’t get the true sentiment across. Instead, we can offer a more valuable present—our time and attention. This is what we all really want anyway. Presence with our loved ones. Demonstration that our relationships matter. 

Years ago when my nephews were young, I would get them toys because that was the thing I thought they wanted. My sister dismissed my insistence and simply said, “Just spend time with them.” That stuck with me. So today as I plan for my own kid’s birthday parties, I implore her guests: the best gift you can give to her is to spend time with her and create wonderful memories. 

So sincerely give of yourself. Be present in the good times and the bad ones. Have fun experiences, create memories together, share a cup of tea, hear about their heartbreak, show encouragement for their ambition, walk with them in dark days, celebrate their wins, and on and on. 

Your participation in their lives on any given day is the invaluable gift. And it keeps on giving.

Take Action!

When the time comes to purchase a gift for someone, think carefully about the potential meaning behind it. Is there meaning in it or would it be a gift of obligation? Then think creatively about something else you could give that would be more heartfelt and possibly less tangible. 

Do you agree with the arguments in this post? Why or why not?

Start a debate in the comment section below.