Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Blender Principle

Many years ago when I was a young man, I bought a kitchen blender for my then girlfriend as a birthday present. I proudly mentioned this gift to a friend and the friend’s reaction was best described by the expression, “If looks could kill, . . . .” Lesson learned. Not quite the best romantic choice.

The blender principle refers to the art of gift giving and since this is the holiday season, I would like to comment on observations I’ve made in the years since that incident. Of course, Scroogenomics has already chimed in with the economist’s perspective on gift giving, namely that when others shop for us they are unlikely to do as well as we would when we shop for ourselves. And the Wall Street Journal (1, 2, 3) last year provided plenty of horror stories about ill-chosen gifts.

The blender principle states that the gift must match the desires of the recipient. Anything else is a disappointment. This means that it is not impossible for a blender to be appreciated by someone who loves to cook, has little money, and talks constantly about the dishes she could make if only she had a blender. For most, women in particular, a blender is just too utilitarian. As my friend put it, “You want to give something that is ‘useless,’ not practical, such as perfume or jewelry.”

The adage “it’s the thought that counts” is correct, and I would add “not the price tag.” The art of gift giving is not easy. It requires knowing well the desires of the recipient, which cannot always be known in advance. No doubt this is why many people throw money at the gift, these days seemingly acting on the premise that the more money thrown, the better the gift—and, presumably for some, the more appreciation expected. Giving according to price, though, is an evasion of thought. It’s as bad a giving a blender, or socks or underwear, or cash or gift card (except perhaps when grandparents do the latter).

One of the most enjoyable and challenging purchases I had to make in my younger years was a gift for a Christmas grab bag. The limit on the gifts was $10, which today would be about $25 or $30. Not a large amount of money and even less information about who was attending the party, except that the attendees were all admirers of capitalism. The challenge was to come up with a gift that was not too specific and not too generic but somewhere in between such that any one of fifteen to twenty people could appreciate it. I think I succeeded, though I no longer remember who got the gift (a book about the monopoly board game) or whether it was appreciated. At least one gift in the bag was non-G rated, indicating a decided misunderstanding of the concept.

A limited price tag on gifts is appealing. It forces the issue on thought. Like the wedding registry, however, most kids and even adults today have resorted to providing givers long lists of preferred items. Add the faux surprise and hyperbolic gushing “how did you know—just what I wanted” upon opening the gift and I begin thinking of the h-word for the whole season. Yes, I am one who suffers holiday season stress. As a result, I have often wished that my family were Jewish. Eight gifts for the children during Hanukkah and the family goes out to dinner at a nice restaurant on Christmas day. That’s it. Instead, lists are beginning to accumulate around our house and the panic I feel on the first day of each month when I have to think of a new blog topic is beginning to set in for the current holiday season.

What I really wish for this holiday season is the elevation of thought and demotion of price in process of gift giving. Victorian England is apparently the origin of our modern tradition, and the Victorians were creative. For example, they had cobweb parties, only vaguely reminiscent of spiders. “Each family member was assigned a color, then shown to a room crisscrossed with yarn of various colors. Each person was to follow an assigned color through the web of yarn until he or she reached the present tied to the end.”

Sounds fun to me! The usual arsenal of gifts under a tree, though, will still probably be required this year.

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