At the risk of being labeled whiny by my brother Joe, I would like to take this opportunity to whine about the Steak Lovers' Kit he sent for Christmas a few years back. It included a jar of sauce, four serrated knives, a cutting board and a pointy thing I later identified as a fork thermometer--but no steak.
In my family, this is what we call a classic. I come from a long line of bad-gift givers (no, Mom, I did not like the Dances with Wolves soundtrack), but even I was impressed by how effortlessly the Steak Lovers' Kit trumped all the other terrible, pointless presents of Christmases past. The nostril-hair trimmers and the devices to remove fabric pills from acrylic sweaters couldn't hold a scented candle to the Steak Lovers' Kit and its undeniable lack of steak.
This is a scary time of year to check the mail. The holiday gift-giving season, during which the average American shopper this year will spend a total of $1,161 on presents for an average of 15 people, really showcases my family's talent for transforming innocent commodity items into emotion-laden symbols of how we truly feel about one another. Or not. Since there are only two people in the world I know well enough to guess what they would really like (one of them is me), I wasn't surprised to learn of a recent study that finds that 58% of recipients react negatively to their gifts.
In fact, University of Illinois researcher Cele Otnes concluded after studying 147 "gift experiences" that "gifts are an extremely inefficient use of money and psychic energy."
While Professor Otnes says she wasn't referring to any particular Christmas gifts, I had a feeling the tampons one participant in her survey received from a grandmother might have informed her opinion. Or maybe it was the woman who sent her sister a bag of Doritos and an opened jar of dip.
Since Professor Otnes has seen it all--from kids who receive generic items out of "gift closets" to manipulative givers whose cards say "Call me the minute you get this!"--I hoped she would support my plan this season to cut off my family entirely.
"Bad idea," she says. She points out that such an extreme position would be offensive in a culture that considers gift giving one of its most important rituals.
Instead she tried to jolly me out of Grinch-hood by suggesting (in a Cindy Lou Who voice) that most gifts aren't bad enough to destroy a relationship. She points to my brother Joe's Steak Lovers' Kit. "All those accessories," she says. "And he knew you like steak. Do you think he was trying to be thoughtful?"
That shamed me into considering milder solutions, like gift certificates. "Recipients say they like them," Professor Otnes reports, citing research. And for those really hard-to-buy-for people, like every member of my family? Give them experiences instead of merchandise, she offers. Take them out to dinner or a play. This provides the added benefit of being a gift that you, the giver, can horn in on.
If that doesn't work, Professor Otnes suggests that a popular way to get rid of bad gifts is to recycle them. I, for instance, have other brothers who like steak.