As we approach the holiday season and steel up our reserves to face the long line ups at the mall, we may be asking ourselves if it really is better to give than to receive? As you do your shopping are you making purchases for those you care about based on what you think they would like or on what they have requested? There’s an observation that is referred to as the wedding list paradox that offers some insight into gift giving and receiving. Couples that commit to their nuptials often sign up to a wedding registry for a specific store or group of stores. In so doing, their goal is to communicate to their friends, family, and guests a range of specific items that they are hoping to receive as gifts. In spite of creating a registry and populating the list with a variety of items, many guests will inevitably deliver as a gift something not on the list. Many will prefer to provide a personally chosen, unique gift. Why do givers do this?
This paradox of the wedding list captured the interest of some Stanford researchers in 2011. They studied participants that were divided into two groups: givers and receivers. The receivers task was to create a wish list for themselves by scrolling Amazon. The givers were given the lists prepared by receivers. The givers task was to pick an item for a particular receiver from Amazon. Their decision was to either choose something from the list provided by their receiver or to come up with a personal choice of their own. Both had been given guidance to look for nominally priced gifts between $10 and $30. Researchers then gave participants survey questions to answer. Givers were asked what they thought the receiver would think of their gifts. Overwhelmingly, to the tune of more than 80%, those givers that opted to avoid an item from the list produced by the receiver felt that the receiver would definitely prefer the gift personally selected by the giver. Surely, the receiver would appreciate the extra attention given by the giver the givers reasoned. This perception contrasted with the actual appreciation felt by receivers. The receivers were less enthused with the personalized present and would have much preferred something from their list. The attention of the giver wasn’t seen as thoughtful, but thoughtless. Writing of this idea, Matthew Syed, in The Power of Diverse Thinking notes, “Senders prefer unique gifts; recipients prefer gifts from their wedding list. Why? The reason hinges on perspective blindness. Senders find it difficult to step beyond their own frame of reference. They imagine how they would feel receiving the gift that they have selected. And, by definition, they would like it a lot, which is why they chose it. Recipients, by contrast, do not experience the anticipated joy, because they have a different set of preferences. Otherwise, they would have put the gift on the list in the first place.”
In other words, our gift giving seems to reflect an extension of the Golden Rule. We give what we want. We think others will be happy to receive because we would be happy to receive it. We’re emboldened in this belief by sentiment like it’s the thought that counts. We ignore the suggested items given as that seems like being thoughtless. We want to put our own spin on things and demonstrate the effort we’ve put forth. We want to show how hard we worked to come up with the perfect gift for someone. However, these thoughts are all about our perspective, not the recipients. We’re acting by seeing them not as they are but as we are. In an obvious example of how things go wrong, consider two different sports fans. It’s like a Flames fan gifting a Flames jersey to an Oilers fan. If done as a joke, ok, that’s a little bit funny. If done as a genuine gift, it’s reflective of the giver’s tone deafness. It’s the opposite of empathy. It’s not walking a single step in the receiver’s shoes but staying square in one’s own. The idea of gifting from a self-centered perspective is the opposite of a giving mentality. True empathy involves taking the time to either make an effort to learn about and understand the other person and their hopes and desires or simply ask them what it is they want. The perspective of giving what we think we would like to receive may be an extension of what psychologists call the endowment effect. We value more what we have. We are less willing to part with our stuff. This may be the case with ideas as well. We value our perspective and thoughts more than those of others. If I feel like this would be a wonderful gift, of course others will feel similarly when they receive it, we think.
John Ruhlin wrote Giftology and runs a business helping other businesses get better at corporate gift giving. It’s another area where we seem to collapse to conformity. Ruhlin writes, “It’s as if everyone reads from the same playbook with regard to what to give and when to give it.” Businesses are giving similar things at the same times. Corporate gifts tend, first and foremost, to be about “building a brand.” Gifts that don corporate logos are what companies contribute. Whether it be through golf balls, go-mugs, golf-shirts, pens, portfolios, notebooks, and more, all involve the givers logo with hopes of offering something that will be used by the recipient and either remind the recipient of the giver or alert those in the company of the recipient of the company doing the giving. In other words, these gifts are given as much or more for the benefit of the giver than for the receiver. Ruhlin notes of typical corporate gifts, “We make a gift all about us. It’s our event, our colors, our themes, our preferences, our whatever—and it has little to do with the recipient.” Ruhlin offers a distinction between a gift and a promotion. Most corporate gifts are usually guised promotions. Ruhlin bluntly points out, “You would never go to someone’s wedding and give them a crystal vase from Tiffany & Co. engraved with your name on it. So why would you give a corporate gift with your company name on it? When you make a gift all about you, it’s not a gift.”
A gift is a way to answer the question for whom are you? The receiver wants you to be for them. Ruhlin writes, “Giftology isn’t about stepping into the spotlight—it’s about shining the light on someone else.” Gifts are meant to be all about the recipient.” The purpose is to please the person. The goal is to gift something meaningful to them. Author Bryan McGill has noted that “Giving is the master key to success in all applications of human life.” The poet John Surowiecki observed, “of the various kinds of intelligence, generosity is the first.” As a key success factor in life, getting good at giving seems like a good idea. How can we improve?
It begins by realizing and accepting that the best gifts are those that are focused on the recipient. Giving is about the other person and not you. Sure, we want our gift to stand out, we want it and us to be remembered, but to do this, we need to get over ourselves and think about the person that will be receiving the gift. Giving can be a lot harder than it looks. Sure, we can give cash or gift certificates to generic businesses that we all will use. Few of us are unhappy to get a gift card to our nearby coffee shop or gas station. We’re going to these places one way or another so getting a helping hand is appreciated. However, if we want to be remembered, we need our gift to be meaningful to the recipient.
The irony is that the best way to be remembered is to not give someone your nameplate but to give them something with their namesake. Personalizing something meaningful for them goes further. Ruhlin writes, “You can give a gift that makes them think, ‘I love this thing. It has been beautifully engraved with my name on it, and I use it every day.’ … Over the long haul, it produces far more referrals and engagement than doing what everybody else does: throwing money at consumable things that just don’t measure up.” As Mother Teresa noted, “It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.” Or, as Ruhlin writes, “It’s not the thought that counts. It’s the thoughtful thought that counts.” Great giving is about empathy. It isn’t about promoting yourself, it’s about taking the time to determine what is important to the receiver and targeting a gift to be perfect for them. It’s is work to give something that is meaningful to the recipient. It’s easy to give them something that you want or that promotes your brand. Remember, if it’s work, you’re on the right track.
Another way to stick out is to gift when it is unexpected. Gift timing and type are too often predictable. We’re pursuing the same products and patterns. No office needs another Christmas basket at Christmastime. Does it almost become funny to get the same things from the same vendors like clockwork each holiday season? For how many years in a row have you received that dense log of a Christmas cake from that same vendor that nobody in the office touches? What does it tell you about the thought that has gone in to the effort? Does it seem like gift giving is just one more to do item to check off. Gifts that are appreciated are useful. That is, we want things that won’t sit in the corner collecting dust. We want things that we’ll use and enjoy often. A meaningful gift may be one that the recipient enjoys with friends and family. Focusing on things that will provide pleasure in a recipient’s personal life may provide a more memorable experience than making it work related. When we receive something that we love to use daily, it’s more likely to be brought up in conversation. We happily share what it is that is remarkable about the gift with others we care about. Inevitably, how we received it becomes part of the conversation. These conversations are stickier for both the gift receiver and the person hearing the story of where the meaningful gift came from.
For businesses, a gifting strategy isn’t just about customers. Gifting can strengthen relationships across stakeholders. Ruhlin encourages us to, “Make a plan for how you will show appreciation and gratitude toward people, and view it as a difference maker in your business.” Ruhlin suggests, “For the next thirty days, begin each morning by thinking about people—both personally and professionally—who are of the utmost importance to you. Think of those who have helped you get to where you are today, or who have touched your life in immeasurable ways: clients, suppliers, dealers, assistants, employees, mentors, advisors, and so on. End each day the same way: think about who had an impact on your bottom line. Who went out of his or her way to help you succeed? What’s that person’s current value? What could his or her lifetime value be? When you start thinking about what you’re grateful for, there’s a natural segue into wanting to show your appreciation via a verbal thanks, handwritten note, or maybe even your first crack at strategic gifting.” Consider becoming more deliberate and intentional in your gift giving. As Anne Frank observed, “No one has ever become poor by giving.” Look for unique ways to reflect your corporate values and offer something unique and meaningful to those that matter to your organization.
- Gift giving seems to reflect an extension of the Golden Rule. We give what we want.
- Are you making purchases for those you care about based on what you think they would like or on what they have requested?
- Corporate gifts tend, first and foremost, to be about “building a brand.”
- Most corporate gifts are usually guised promotions.
- A gift is a way to answer the question for whom are you? The receiver wants you to be for them.
- As a key success factor in life, getting good at giving seems like a good idea.
- The irony is that the best way to be remembered is to not give someone your nameplate but to give them something with their namesake.
- Another way to stick out is to gift when it is unexpected.
- Gifts that are appreciated are useful.
- A meaningful gift may be one that the recipient enjoys with friends and family.