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The art of giving: Thoughtful gifts bring families closer

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 7:55 p.m. MST

George Duffy, 14, has always been tall and rangy — a trait mirrored by his three older uncles.

As he stands before them on a crisp Iowa Christmas morning, holding three gifts wrapped in brown paper folded under itself to hide the tape, he's thrilled to capitalize on another shared trait: love of music.

The gifts are passed to each uncle and the tearing of paper is followed by gasps. "Awesome," says one. "Great idea!" says the other, scanning the list of songs on his new CD. The hours Duffy spent compiling the mixes are met by appreciation and an added affinity.

A growing amount of research shows gifting trends are challenging the old-fashioned ideology that an unexpected, well-thought-out gift is best. While there are obvious advantages of giving someone what they really want, Miss Manners and etiquette experts are cringing at the prevalence of gift card and formal or informal gift registries, as well as the rising trend of self-gifting. As Christmas approaches, knowing how to give thoughtful gifts can enhance family relationships and bring the family closer together.

How thoughtful of me

Self-gifting will reach an all-time high this season, the National Retail Federation found. We'll spend an average of around $140 in self-gifts this year — up 9 percent from 2011.

"No one picks out better things for me than I do," said 62-year-old Marsha T. Wallac of Alexandria, Va., who just bought herself a $90 necklace at a craft show.

Mikey Ross, principal of creative consulting company Paper Rox Scissors in New York City, will be placing a puffy vest and new pair of snow boots beneath the tree this year, compliments of himself. "I paid for it," Ross said. "So why not, right?"

A similar mindset is often applied to the gift exchange process. Giftees themselves are more appreciative when receiving what they ask for, a pair of Harvard and Stanford researchers found in five different studies last year. Gift cards have been the top item on consumers' wish lists for five years in a row, the National Retail Federation found last year.

Etiquette experts, however, are concerned that something may be lost in the guarantee of an enthused recipient.

What's behind a gift?

The inclination to give is innate to mankind, said Ryan O'Donnell — CEO and co-founder of Let's Gift It, a social gifting company in New York and Ohio. Extending back to the first documented form of gifting in early Rome, folks offered objects to acknowledge a milestone occasion.

What's more, analogous with the need to give is the need to personalize a gift, O'Donnell said. "We offer something in the form of a physical good or product, but are also trained — in part by American greeting cards and Hallmark — to add our own personality to it."

O'Donnell launched a company that creates video blurbs with gifts. "By understanding that life passes us by, gifts that capture and immortalize a moment, a memory, can be priceless."

If the recipient is open and the gesture is sincere, a gift can maintain a lasting relationship, says Carolyn Hax, advice columnist for The Washington Post. If neither of the two, a gift can expose and even exacerbate relationship problems.

The etiquette of giving

The heart of a gift lies in its purpose: to show love, Hax said. "There are so many ways to do that, and if the love is there, then the way is valid."

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