The Life of Gifts
What is a gift? A gift is something of value, shared with others.
When we say a person has “gifts to share,” we often mean that the person comes bearing gifts in the ordinary sense — presents that are presented with appropriate packaging. The appropriate or “thoughtful gift” in this instance is the one that takes the recipient into account, both in terms of the nature of the gift, as well as the manner in which it is presented and packaged. A gift of this sort is usually some material good, but words or actions (or inactions) can be “gifted” too. If you are struggling to find a thoughtful gift for someone, a good rule of thumb to follow is simply this: Give something that the recipient would enjoy greatly, but which they would be unlikely to get for themselves.
…and how about giving the gift of your time and attention, aka Quality Time?
There is also another type of “gift” a person may have to share, which is some unique element of the person himself/herself. This kind of gift is intrinsic to the giver’s person or personality — it is some special talent, ability or capacity, which is appreciated and cherished by others.
Although both types of gifts — the “presents” and the “talents” — can be shared intentionally or unintentionally, in the latter case, more often than not the receiving comes through unintentional or indirect means. The person who is gifted is frequently unaware of the circumstances under which their gifts are received. However, if we stretch our imagination, we can see scenarios where there is a kind of intentional and thoughtful “presentation” and “packaging” involved even in this second, more ethereal definition of a “gift.”
A gift is something of value, shared with others, and accepting a gift can be as delicate a process as giving one.
While many traditional societies have established codes of conduct around the giving and receiving of gifts, in Japan, the giving-and-receiving-of-gifts, okuri-mono, has been raised to the level of high art. To the Western observer, Japanese gift customs may seem overly elaborate and even histrionic, however these rituals hint at a much deeper truth: It’s not about the gift as much as it is about the way the gift is given, and received.
The Japanese way of giving and receiving gifts, e.g. providing a subtle alert before actually presenting the gift, creating just the right amount of anticipation, giving the gift with two hands, receiving it with two hands, the proper way of choosing and presenting gifts in public or to groups, the way to hold an object with a zipper or a seam, the best words to use when giving and receiving the gift, etc., etc., all of these fussy little rules make a lot more sense whe we understand that giving a gift is a kind of change communication. More on this in a moment.
The Japanese tradition provides insight into how best deal with some of the difficulties that can arise when giving a gift. In many situations, there are people who will have a hard time accepting a gift. So as a kind of preemptive Samurai Confict Management intervention, the Japanese gift-giving rules come along and help us, smoothing things out and avoiding a bloody mess.
How can accepting a gift be difficult?
A gift is a favor, and for some people, a favor implies some form of “strings attached” or at the very least, reciprocation. For some people, the thought of “owing” something to someone is deeply unsettling.
Ah, where to draw the line? On the one hand, you’ve got the savvy awareness of what motivations may lay behind the gift, on the part of the giver. This insight can be important in order to properly appreciate the gift, where it comes from, and what it means. On the other hand, you’ve got the extreme pathological fear of obligation, viewing all gifts as impositions, as emotional Trojan Horses that must be viewed with suspicion and generally avoided.
The Portugese word for “thank you” is obrigado — “I am obligated to you.”
Another reason why someone might get worried about receiving a gift has to do with pride and social status: The recipient’s concern is that by accepting the gift they will have been “one-upped” by the other party, or that they have demonstrated some kind of “cheapness” by not sufficiently refusing the proffered gift.
Of course, refusal of a gift by a would-be recipient is also a refusal to bond (and enter “bondage“) with the giver. Sometimes the biggest favor you can do someone is to graciously accept their gift, for it signifies that you are willing to forge a connection with them and yes, perhaps do some favor for them in the future.
I’ve seen so many people fail at being gracious recipients, sitting through any number of power lunches in the business world. At the end of the meal, there is often a struggle over who will pay the bill, as if both parties have read the same cheesy “How to be the CEO” book or article, all about asserting dominance. The longer this struggle lasts, the weaker the social bond becomes, so that special little connection that was building up through the act of sharing a meal or drink together, is now broken by what amounts to an act of chest thumping. What a waste! The best resolution to the Who-Pays-For-Lunch-Game-Theory-Experiment, especially in our cost-conscious economy: Agree to have a follow-up lunch date, at a specified time (schedule it right then and there!), where the other person pays. Social bond conserved… and augmented.
A gift is something of value, shared with others, and accepting a gift can be as delicate a process as giving one, because accepting that gift may involve some kind of change on the part of the recipient. The change may be as simple as a small, shared experience of joy in some food or drink, or as profound as the adoption of another’s worldview.
Some people have a harder time with change than others, and so for those people, gifts are a source of worry and concern. “What if I break it?” “Where will I keep it?” “Do I have to actually wear this / eat this / go there / take those flying lessons?” “What will the neighbors say?” “Will this make the other kids jealous?” “If I accept this person’s gift into my life, what will become of me?”
In fact, the previously mentioned issues of gifts as an inane struggle for social dominance, and the worries around “strings” and reciprocation, are actually just corollaries of this more general principle: Accepting a gift means accepting a change.
Now we can turn back to the Japanese and accept their insights about gift giving, with greater appreciation.