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Can't Think of a Good Gift? Give a Bad One

The proliferation of gift cards says something about us as a culture.

What to buy some people on your gift list is often a puzzle and finding the “perfect” gift seems impossible. But, Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Gettysburg College, warns against the gift card and explains why the gift card is a symbol of our culture’s lack of intimacy and how that leaves us stumped. Personally, I agree with him when he says, “Gift cards are the lazy person’s gift.” I asked him to elaborate in this guest post.

Steven Gimbel on gift-giving and gift cards:

It’s easy to moralize about gift cards around the holidays. They are the lazy person’s gift. They take no thought. It is usually the ultimate in impersonal giving. You are making the receiver do his own shopping and that’s your job. It’s no different from giving cash except that now the receiver can’t spend it wherever he or she pleases. It is supposed to be the thought that counts not how much it costs, but with a gift card it is only about how much it costs because that’s all there is to the gift.

To some degree, these criticisms are all apt. A gift card is not a gift, but a placeholder for a gift. It says to the recipient that I am not going to think about you, who you are, what you want and need, and what would make you happy. I am going to let you take care of bringing yourself joy.

Indeed, the point of giving a gift is the demonstration of thoughtfulness: I want you to be excited, to have something new which will improve your life in some way, and to know that I think enough about you to spend my time to figure out what would bring you happiness and to go and get it for you. A gift is a symbol of relationship. I know you and care about you, and I am making it part of my life to try to make your life better.

A gift card erases much of what a gift says. It does not affirm our connection. It does not show how much I understand your desires. It is not something to be kept and cherished, something that derives meaning and worth beyond the material value because it was a gift from me.

Of course, this is not always the case. One of the best gifts my wife and I have ever received was a packet of gift cards from my parents. They were for local restaurants and came with a promise to babysit our very young children. These were not just gift cards, but the possibility for a couple to spend valuable “us time” together, something that my folks knew was scarce in our busy lives.

Similarly, a gift card can be a very thoughtful gift if the hunting for the thing is a part of the joy the person receives. As our son has grown, he has become an avid baseball card collector. A gift card for an on-line auction site gave him not only the opportunity to acquire a few new cards he would not have had the money to afford, but also gave him hours and hours of fun trying to find bargains and win cards in auctions with nail-biting finishes that rivaled the bottom of the ninth inning in the best games played by the players pictured.

The Bad Gift

The proliferation of gift cards as gifts says something about us as a culture that should be considered with some concern. The reason many of us buy gift cards as gifts for our loved ones is the fear of giving that gift, the bad gift, the gift the recipient didn’t want and is now saddled with and has to feign excitement for having received. We’ve all gotten that gift. “Now, what am I going to do with this?” we think to ourselves.

The bad gift is not something that makes our lives better, but something that causes stress. I have to find somewhere to put it even though I don’t want it. I have to remember to display it and use it when the giver comes over. We know the effects of the bad gift and no one wants to be the one who gives it, to have wasted money and time and to have burdened someone we care about instead of bringing them happiness.

This fear of the bad gift shows that it is the gift and not the thought that matters to us. We worry about the gift more than the giving because the gift is more important.

The deeper worry is that we give gift cards as gifts because, while we have relationships with those we love, those relationships have become so fractured that we do not really know them. “He spends all day on the computer or playing those games, so how do I know what he has, what he needs, or what he would want?” As the culture has created smaller, interest-focused communities that demand lots of time, we spend less and less time with those around us. Our lives, especially the virtual aspects, become hidden from those to whom we should be the most connected and this alienation generates the worry when there is a gift-giving occasion. We don’t know what to get each other because we don’t really know each other.

The rational answer is the gift card, to let the specialist figure out what specialized needs and desires he or she has. The gift card is not the problem, but a symptom of a larger cultural phenomenon. When we criticize the gift card, we put the blame in the wrong place. It is not the holiday present, but how we spend the other 364 days as part of our family and community that we ought to be concerned about.

There is no greater success than seeing wide eyes and hearing, “How did you know?” A great present is one that displays an unspoken intimacy. Shoot to give a good gift -- not a gift card -- even if your gift ends up being a bad one.