When Does Gift-Giving Backfire?
Why we should pause before we purchase.
Posted August 30, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- One of the most awkward gift-giving scenarios is when you give a gift to someone who doesn’t have one for you.
- The expectation of reciprocity can create awkwardness.
- Some givers underestimate discomfort because they are less likely to perceive an appreciation imbalance.
Whether preparing for the holidays or a birthday, there are certain times of the year when you begin thinking about gifts. It’s easier to buy for family than for friends, and easier for friends than for coworkers. And what about your boss? People who work for you? What about someone you are potentially interested in romantically? As we navigate the gray area between personal and professional, it gets complicated. You don’t want to give the wrong impression.
And gift selection is not always planned. Have you ever been browsing through an airport or hotel gift shop and spotted the perfect gift for a friend or flame? According to research, there are good reasons to pause before you purchase.
The Rule of Reciprocity
One of the most awkward gift-giving scenarios is when you give a gift to someone who doesn’t have one for you. You may think that is fine; it just demonstrates your thoughtfulness, appreciation, and generosity. You may envision the perfect gift as one that never expects anything in return. But that might not be the way it is perceived.
Julian Givi (2021), in a piece aptly named “When a Gift Exchange Isn’t an Exchange,” investigated the discomfort potentially caused by gifting without reciprocity.1 He notes that gifts are usually given with the expectation of reciprocation, especially during the holidays. But the reality is that many recipients do not reciprocate. They might not be expecting the gift, or never intended to buy one for the giver.
Givi investigated whether givers accurately assess a recipient’s potential discomfort when they fail to reciprocate. He explains that givers severely underestimate discomfort because they are less likely to perceive an appreciation imbalance than recipients. He notes that because of this “forecasting error,” givers give more often than recipients desire, even when they know before a reciprocatory occasion that a recipient won’t be able to reciprocate.
"Perfect" Gifts Are Not Always Well-Perceived
The solution? When you spot the “perfect” gift for someone else, consider how it might be received and perceived. Some people would be flattered you were thinking about them on your vacation when you bring a souvenir, especially if they have also been thinking about you; others might feel awkward or uncomfortable. Due to the potential for discomfort, resort to discretionary spending. When in doubt, pass it up. You can always mention that you saw it, and thought of them.
Time: The Gift That Keeps on Giving
If you really want to bless someone else, forgo the trinkets, and give your time instead. Lending a helping hand or providing a sounding board for new ideas can be valuable interpersonal investments that avoid risking relationships. While gifts might be misinterpreted as coming with a reciprocal price tag, generosity is priceless.
1. Givi, Julian. 2021. “When a Gift Exchange Isn’t an Exchange: Why Gift Givers Underestimate How Uncomfortable Recipients Feel Receiving a Gift without Reciprocating.” Journal of Business Research 129 (May): 393–405. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2021.03.013.