Opinion & Thought

Presents of mind

“C’est pour offrir?”

“Oui. S’il vous plaît”

I watched, enchanted, as the assistant deftly turned a small white card box into a minor artwork. But I also learned: how the paper needs to be only a little larger than the surface area of the contents; how thicker, better quality paper folds and cuts more cleanly than cheap stuff; how one should fold it in as closely into the corners as possible; how the end flaps should never stray onto the main surfaces, how to wrap tricky objects by starting from the largest surface, and how to use a minimal amount of tape so as not to mar the effect.

The package was expertly quartered with ribbon, the loose ends made into a bow and drawn across the back of the scissors blade to curl them, a decorative sprig attached. The Swiss are masters at such small acts of hospitality. My hosts were delighted; I went home and practised.

The giving and receiving of presents is a significant gesture and worthy of care: an expression of appreciation and understanding from one human being to another. Choosing something to give, gratuitously to delight another involves effort and insight; it means assuming proxy powers to enhance another’s life.  Dig deeper and you find yourself confronting profound questions about whether humans are fundamentally competitive or collaborative creatures: the act of voluntarily giving something away could even be counter-evolutionary, which may be why the sense of beneficence it generates can be so pleasurable for the giver too…

But while the giving and receiving of presents can be a delightful thing, offering moments of innocent joy, it is also a minefield of potential misjudgement and faux-pas; in this apparently simple act, there are so many judgements to be made – which may be why it is so often played down, made more pragmatic than symbolic, just another tick on the to-do list.

Perhaps the French phrase gives an inkling of this: something to be offered. Not insisted upon, nor taken for granted; perhaps something artfully chosen and presented, highly personal – tentatively, humbly proffered for acceptance. Therein lie imponderable questions about whom the present is really for, and what its purpose is:  the stage is set for a delicate pas-de-deux between giver and recipient. But while the obvious answer might be the latter, there is more to it than that.

 One can begin by wondering whether it is the act or the artefact that is more important; “It’s the thought that counts” might give us an answer – but which thought? Whose? Not all presents are chosen or given wholly willingly. And what if it’s wide of the mark?

An artfully-given present demands empathy from the giver towards the recipient, in order to know what will both delight and be of use. As important is the implied care that was taken in the choosing; to that extent, a present says much about the giver too, and this therefore allows him or her some sovereignty over the act. Thus it also requires receptivity, good grace and a willingness to be delighted on the part of the recipient.

So presents may be as much about giving as receiving; while I appreciated that as little as a child as anyone else, over time I have come to enjoy the act of seeking out suitable gifts that I hope will delight their intended recipients – but which also say a little about me and our relationship in the process. For there are, after all, two people involved in this act.

Literally and figuratively wrapped up in all this is the nature of the gift itself: should it be useful, or simply beautiful? Whom should it most delight – the giver or the receiver? Is the purpose to say, “Here is something I hope you will like” or “Here is something that I like, that I hope you will too”? In an ideal world, they will overlap of course – but let’s not get too ambitious… People nowadays tend to have very specific wishes, but there may be times when something more generic but genuinely charming comes closer to hitting the spot – as we tend to do with people we know less well.

If it’s really the thought that counts, then the nature of the present itself perhaps matters less, so long as it is not actually rejected. Most people are realistic and tactful enough to understand the occasional failures, though it is still an opportunity lost and a disappointment gained, for what is a present if not genuinely loved…? What is perhaps more difficult is misjudgements that persist year after year, with neither side apparently learning very much. A kind of entrenched resignation sets in at yet another tea towel from….. A seriously mis-received present can cause embarrassment and cause nearly as much offence as does a good one pleasure; see www.dauphin/henryV/tennisballs.…..

And so we very often play safe. We fall easily into judging a present by its content rather than its symbolism; I am as guilty as the next, though I am still as delighted by something genuinely unexpected, provided it genuinely pleases me – but that is the difficult bit, for that involves knowing me more than a little…and I’m not keen on the subterfuge required to cover up the less successful ones.

If specialness is the main criterion, a present doesn’t need to be large or expensive; I would rather receive something nice to eat or drink (nicely wrapped of course) than an ugly but ludicrously expensive watch, a bubble-packed green plastic smoke-emitting toy dragon with illuminating LED eyes, a baggy orange acrylic pullover that I really will never bring myself to wear even once, or even a pair of Beolab-28 speakers, which Bang & Olufsen’s website is (without apparent irony) offering in its ‘gift suggestions’, for a mere £10,750. A badly misjudged present suggests that the person giving it either does not understand, or does not care – or both; it wasn’t a present, just an obligation. Repetition only makes it worse…

Sadly, I think a lot of the charm has already been lost. I blame the usual suspects, namely commerce and the media, who shamelessly devalue everything they touch so long as it boosts the bottom line. Modern retail couldn’t care less about the niceties, so long as we all part with shedloads of cash in the process; it benefits from turning present-giving from a symbolic act into a utilitarian and expensive one. Many have been conned, seeming to believe that the important criteria are the size, number and cost of the presents, rather than how well-considered or genuinely delightful they are. Why does anyone need to give the same person multiple presents? Do two presents delight twice as much as one? If nothing else, the Law of Diminishing Returns says not…

With the loss of ‘well-given’ has also gone ‘well-received’: particularly now that we often know what the wrapping (if present) will contain, much of the delight is lost before we have even started, replaced by inevitability, no matter how nice the item. Once the present is opened, it is put aside on the pile with all the others, possibly (if it is lucky) to be revisited another day. Just another act of material acquisition.

Yet despite the foregoing, I admit I have become a complete Present Pragmatist. I think it was the realisation that this is indeed a two-way process that did it – and it seems I am, once again, in a very small minority. I’m not sure where else the best resolution can lie between two people who for whatever reason (perhaps great distance?) only have a rudimentary appreciation of each other, for whom presents may be bought more because of the relationship involved than a deep desire to delight that individual. I would rather receive no present at all than an inappropriate one, just because someone did not think hard enough about the pas-de-deux. That may sound ungracious, and appear to contradict my earlier point about the respective prerogatives of the giver and receiver – but the solution surely lies in the level of understanding necessary between those people in the first place. If the price of resolving that issue is to do my own legwork, then so be it.

It is not a matter of having expensive tastes. I would rather receive something small but well-chosen – or else add my own contribution, to make affordable something that otherwise might not have been – than be given something useless to me just because it was cheap, of an “appropriate” size/value, or because it briefly amused to the person who bought it. Not that this has proved much defence against “I changed my mind and bought you this instead…” – leaving me to pick up the entire bill for what we had previously been agreed would be shared….

All manner of complexities can simply be sidestepped by either specifying very closely what one would like (sending a hyperlink is almost fool-proof), allowing only a very small number of people to do one’s shopping – or even mutually buying one’s own, and settling up later. This seems to avoid most of the tide of polyester pyjamas, sugary snacks and joke socks (that play Jingle Bells) that might otherwise arrive. It even avoids some (but not all) of the gaudy, sticky-tape-plastered (and definitely not recyclable) wrapping paper that seems to be that national norm when it comes to ‘presentation’, Swiss standards being rare here. And given that much of the symbolism is already gone by that point, I am also mercenary in my use of online shopping to minimise the tedious logistics.

I hasten to say that I do apply the same logic the other way round: people should have what they tell me they want, no matter what I think. I learned years ago that there is no point going to great lengths to acquire something special for someone, only for it to be utterly lost on them. Nor to wrap things especially nicely if they are routinely shredded without a glance. My belief that nice things always cut through was shown to be hopelessly naïve.

So, I largely save my efforts for those who do understand, and accept that I will be buying a fair number of the watering cans, car tyre pumps, underwear and novelty nick-nacks that some people would just buy for themselves rather than requesting as presents. That is, I suppose, another form of good grace – the acceptance that one should completely suspend one’s own input when giving, and just do what was asked. I suppose it means that I accept (reluctantly) that my idea of Giving is not the only valid one. Except that inwardly, I don’t; too much of the essence has been lost.

There are, however, certain lines I will not cross: I always buy the best present I can afford rather than the cheapest (or first) I can find, I do not dilute my budget by adding needless extras – and I still wrap tightly and with minimal tape.

I don’t intend this post to be taken too seriously, but neither is its message unimportant. It may speak of ships passing in the night, of people who, for whatever reason do not really understand or value or think hard enough about each other, even when they may supposedly be close. Present-giving easily becomes tokenism, ritual, routine, rather than a genuine expression of delight, appreciation and respect – not of the thing itself, but of one person in another.

Happy Christmas.

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