Sunday, 20 November 2011


I have just come back from a visit to my local town centre; depressing and enjoyable in equal measure.  Enjoyable because it was a bright, if somewhat cold, and it felt good to be among people busy with the routine excitement of a Saturday outing.  Depressing because of the forced jollity of the seasonal decorations that far from being a reason for good cheer somehow seemed to remind you that we needed it if only to counter a general mood of economic malaise.  

And so to shopping – not for the essentials but for those other things that allegedly brighten the day – gifts.  

Conventional wisdom has it that gifts are a wonderful thing. The recipient and the giver are both blessed, or so it is often believed. And buying gifts definitely benefits the retail sector and therefore  the economy. (Though as far as the economy goes, what’s important is that people spend their money on buying things. The giving of whatever has been bought as a gift is not necessary for any economic stimulus – unless it is a battery operated thingy, in which case it is good for the battery trade.

But conventional wisdom is subject to the corrosive effect of convention.  Routine and custom gives rise to perfunctory duty rather than joyous spontaneity in much the same way that familiarity breeds contempt.  Expectation of a gift leaves the recipient vindicated rather than fulfilled if the gift materialises at all and disappointed if it does not.  A sense of obligation to give converts what might have been a voluntary and joyous act into a reluctantly discharged duty.

In A Thousand Splendid Suns Khalid Hosseini describes the gifts that Jalil makes to his illegitimate daughter as ‘half-hearted tokens of penance, insincere, corrupt gestures meant more for his own appeasement than hers..’; ouch!

With marriages, anniversaries, birthdays, Divali, and now Christmas, not to mention special days like father’s day, mothers day and the soon –to-come new year’s day presenting not-to-be-missed opportunities for giving and receiving , the potential for trouble is immense. The appropriate gift must be chosen, bought, packaged and presented with the right element  of generosity. The recipient has to show the right degree of surprised pleasure taking great care to hide any disappointment at the choice of gift. 

Altogether too many opportunities for getting things wrong with serious consequences for 
social and family relationships.

A few of us discussed this over dinner one day and came up with a set of Rules of Gifts (based loosely on Isaac Asimov’s rules of robotics). I propose that universal acceptance of these rules  will promote harmony, reduce conflict and enhance relationships.
Rule 1. The potential Giver has the right but not the obligation to make a gift.
Rule 2. Once a Gift has been given, the Recipient has sole rights over its fate.
Rule 3. The Receiver has a duty to accept the gift in the spirit in which it is given but has no further obligation to the Giver.
Rule 4. All other parties are irrelevant to the transfer of the gift from the giver to the receiver.

And that is my gift to the thorny problem of gift-giving.

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