Offensive and Embarrassing Gifts

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Although the role of conscious intention in giving an offensive gift is

limited, gifts are often experienced as such by their recipients. Even if it

were one’s explicit intention to give an offensive gift, it is probably difficult

to admit that to an interviewer. Here we are faced with a fundamental

difficulty that underlies any attempt to measure motives of this kind. It is

extremely difficult, if not impossible, to capture the motives underlying

gift giving because the act of gift giving is in most cases barely reflected

upon. It is therefore not surprising that only a small minority of our

respondents – 8% – report that they have ever given an offensive gift;

10% have received an offensive gift at some time. When using a more

friendly termlike being “embarrassed” by a gift, the pattern changes: 21%

of the respondents have given an embarrassing gift to another person,

and 31% say they had felt embarrassed by a received gift. On the basis

of our respondents’ stories about offending and embarrassing gifts, we

developed four categories of “bad gifts.”

First, some gifts are simply not appropriate: “An acquaintance gave

me after-shave, although I have been wearing a beard for twenty-five

years”; “wine but I don’t drink alcohol”; “a couple of geese, although we

already have somany animals”; “jeans thatwere toosmall”; “a ridiculously

expensive vase fromanamorous colleague.” Second, there are thoughtless

gifts, or gifts that are too easy, bought in haste, or already in the giver’s

possessionandthen passed on: “a nasty little floral emblemformy farewell

after having been the president and vice-president of the company for

twenty-five years”; “two ceramic cats – supermarket rubbish – while I am

ac eramic sculptor myself ”; “a 1992 calendar, received in August 1992.”

Third, some gifts are pedagogical in the sense that they point to another

person’s weaknesses, criticize him or her, or communicate a form of

uncalled-for advice. For example, one respondent reports that she has

given a scale to someone else as a Christmas present “in order to let him

weigh things out”; other pedagogical gifts are antiperspirants or shampoo

or soap, “as if I smell bad”; or advice books about “how to bring up your

dog” or about how to cope with alcohol addiction. Finally, there is the

category of trash and monstrosities: castoffs such as “a used teapot”; “a

bag with second hand clothes, which was ready for the trash can”; and

monstrosities like “a fishbone plate,” “a screaming-green floorlamp from

my grandmother,” “a small net to cover plates, which was so cheap it fell

in pieces immediately.”

The many ways in which one may offend or embarrass other people

with one’s gifts are presumably reflected in the deeper meaning of the

adage that you “should not look a gift horse in the mouth.” Gift giving is

inherently risky, exactly because of its psychological function of disclosing

identities. Gift giving is a game with an uncertain outcome. One does not

bargain about gifts, and that is precisely what distinguishes gift exchange

from economic exchange.