Gift-giving is wrapped in the complexity of relationships

The stress that you might feel about giving gifts at Christmas is based on the complex web of relationships and societal norms we adhere to North America.

Saskatoon marketing expert offers insight into gift-giving behaviour

Gift-giving can be an expression of the complexity of relationships and norms we adhere to in society according to Marjorie Delbaere, associate professor of marketing at the Edwards School of Business. (Getty Images)

The stress you might feel about giving gifts at Christmas is based on the complex web of relationships and societal norms we adhere to.

Marjorie Delbaere is an associate professor of marketing at the Edwards School of Business and teaches consumer behavior. She has looked into some of the research behind gift-giving.

Here are some of her reflections on several scenarios:

A friend buys another friend a lavish gift

"We feel obligated to give back because we feel this norm of reciprocity," Delbaere said.

She said gifts, while meant to be generous and offer a positive message to another person, can be the source of tension between two people.

"Whenever you give a gift, you reevaluate your relationship with the person giving it to you. So there's this back and forth. That can absolutely put some stress on a relationship. Even if you were trying to give something that was really nice, it doesn't always really come across like that because some times we think, 'Well OK are there strings attached to this gift?'"

Delbaere said we feel obligated to give back.

"If you don't reciprocate, you are violating one of our cultural norms."

Do you always have to bring a host a gift?

Delbaere, who does not claim to be an etiquette expert, said this might be one of those cultural norms that is slowly changing. "It's quite possible that those expectations for a hostess gift are starting to decrease."

Do I have to buy something for the piano teacher, hair stylist, etc.?

People should worry less about this type of gift-giving she said. 

"If you do give your piano teacher a gift, it's to thank them and acknowledge them. It doesn't necessarily invoke that reciprocity."


This scenario depends on the person, but it can have some negative consequences on the relationship Delbaere said.

"If you're re-gifting to signal something, that can really sever ties between people. But some people might really just like that," she said. 

"It usually results in bad situations between the giver and the recipient."

Can I ask for cash?

"The idea of a gift is that you put some thought in to it. Now it might be that if you put a lot thought into it you might realize that that person really would prefer cash. And then it's okay to give cash. But some people have a very strong aversion to giving cash because they believe it signals that you didn't put any thought or effort into the gift."

The other side of this equation is whether people can ask for cash. "If you put demands on what you're given, you're violating that whole process around gift-giving, it's that the person should be trying to figure out what you need, or want or would like."

Gift cards

Delbaere believes we gravitate to gift cards because we want to strike the right balance between being personal and getting the right thing.

"So it feels like we've made it more personal, and we've put some thought into it," she said. "Yet it's an easier thing, and there's less risk that you're going to pick the wrong thing, because that's what stresses us out too is picking the wrong thing."

How much do I spend?

"It's not always about the amount. It's more about does the gift really signal that you know the person."


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