Every Christmas, birthday, anniversary and special occasion, we carefully choose and offer gifts to our loved ones. It’s something we do naturally and most of us don’t think about its deeper implications. Yet, the gift we choose and how we present it says so much about us, our relationships, and the complex social structures within our community. Behind every perfect present lie social, psychological and emotional currents.
The history of gift giving
The practice of gifting has existed since the beginning of human civilisation. It may even predate it, with our closest ancestral relatives having shown signs of gift giving. Researchers believe that cavemen gave presents like unusual shaped rocks or animal teeth to strengthen social connection and show their appreciation to others. As social structures developed, the gifts became more elaborate and decorative.
Gift giving in pre-colonial times
For thousands of years, Native American tribes have engaged in the tradition of potlatch. Predominantly a tradition of Pacific Northwest tribes, the potlatch was a complex ceremony where property and gifts were given to confirm or reconfirm the status and wealth of the gift giver. So, the more elaborate the presents and ceremony, the more powerful the gift giver. A powerful tribe leader would be expected to shower his tribe, according to their rank, with elaborate gifts. Similarly, Iñupiat tradition in Alaska dictated that upon returning from a successful hunt, whaling crews gave the largest portion of their catch to other tribe members. The more tribe members received, the more respected the whaling crew.
Ancient Egyptian gifts for the afterlife
Early records of Egyptian history show that the deceased were buried with goods or gifts required for the afterlife. It was the oldest son’s duty to oversee his parents’ burial and ensure they had everything they needed. At the bare minimum, these gifts would include everyday objects like bowls, combs and food, while wealthier Egyptians would be buried with idols, amulets, jewellery, furniture and other valuables. Each gift had a different purpose, but most served to protect and help the deceased’s transition to the afterlife.
Gift giving in Ancient Greece
Gift giving also played an important role in Ancient Greek society. Elaborate, decorative gifts were given to express emotion, build relationships, and in the spirit of mutual aid or hospitality – a central concept of Ancient Greek culture. Families were expected to welcome travellers, who could be Gods in disguise, into their homes. A proper welcome included presenting travellers with a meal and a place to rest. Gifts were also given as a sign of respect and devotion. For example, it was customary to present Gods with gifts in exchange for safe passage or protection on the battlefield.
Medieval gifting traditions
During the Middle Ages, gift exchanges played a significant role in social interactions. Gifting offered a meaningful way for people to foster social bonds, or show allegiances to powerful people and institutions, like the king or church. Dowries are a prominent example of medieval gift giving that was designed to promote relationships. Involving the bride’s father presenting lavish gifts to the groom in return for marrying and taking care of his daughter, these engagement gifts included land, money, livestock or precious metals.
Important gifts throughout history
Why do we give gifts?
As gifting plays such an important role in our social fabric, we give gifts for many, sometimes conflicting, reasons. At times our culture requires it, for example Christmas or birthday presents. At other times, it builds and reinforces relationships with family members and potential mates, and can be done for a variety of reasons.
To build and reinforce relationships
We often give gifts to re-confirm or establish our connection with others, which means that they’re a reflection of both the giver and the receiver, as well as their unique relationship. Giving a gift to someone we care about allows us to communicate our feelings and appreciation for them. In fact, some sociologists think that we only give gifts to people we want relationships with. In his book The Gift, French sociologist Marcel Mauss argues that not giving a gift or rejecting it is essentially a dismissal of the relationship.
A way of showing love and devotion
In one way or another, gifts are used to symbolise love and devotion between two partners, coinciding with the theory of ‘symbolic interactionism’, which argues that people communicate through the use of symbols. For example, what do men typically buy for their partners when trying to express love or devotion? The go-to tends to be flowers since they can be interpreted to symbolise feelings of love with their fragrant beauty.
Have you been given a gift that has filled you with joy? Or perhaps you’ve been unlucky enough to receive something that left you feeling deflated and upset since it didn’t meet your expectations. But why would this irritate you? It’s the thought that counts and that’s precisely it. When you look deeper into the matter, it’s because we attach symbolic meaning to gifts. This means that a gift you are not overly enamoured with can be interpreted as thoughtless in spite of its altruistic motives.
To receive something in return
Since gifts represent our desire to build or cement a relationship, they also require some form of reciprocation. Contemporary sociologist Dimitri Mortelmans argues that gift giving creates a “debt-balance”, so to prevent ill feelings gifts must be repaid creating a cycle of gift giving. When reciprocating a gift, it should be of roughly equal value as giving too little signifies that you don’t value the relationship, while giving too much means that you overvalue it and causes feelings of embarrassment.
To help others
Some gifts are given with no expected return. For example, we often give presents to young children that have no way of reciprocating, or even our pets. While it could be argued that these gifts are reciprocated in other ways, altruism could also be at play. Love and appreciation are two of the biggest motivators for altruistic gift giving.
Giving gifts to help others can include donating money or volunteering for a charity. There are several theories that attempt to explain why individuals do this. One theory claims that dopamine-using pleasure circuitry in the brain is activated by charitable giving. Effectively, we give because it makes us feel good.
To find a mate
Most animals give gifts as part of the mating ritual and humans really are no different. One of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, have been documented giving food in return for sex and grooming, while gibbons give gifts to retain existing mates. Research conducted by biologists suggests that as serial monogamists, humans use gift giving to attract and retain mates.
The study found men who were more generous with gifts had better success at attracting and retaining mates both in the short and long-term. Women, on the other hand, were less likely to use gifts for mating purposes and more often gave gifts to family and friends to strengthen social networks.
Types of gifts
Selecting the perfect gift can seem like an impossible challenge sometimes. Research from the University of California examined the motivations and symbolism behind the gifts we give and proposed that there are four main types of gifts:
Gifts that are symbolic of the self and of the giver
Gifts that are symbolic of the giver’s knowledge of the receiver
Gifts that are symbolic of the occasion
Gifts that are expressive and contain an array of significant meanings
In the paper Motivations and Symbolism in Gift-Giving Behavior, Mary Finley Wolfinbarger argues that the favourite gifts often fall into the second category and are gifts that the receiver wants but wouldn’t have bought themselves. Least favourite gifts were too symbolic of the giver and had little to do with the receiver. However, Wolfinbarger argues that most gifts are actually a compromise between what the receiver would like and what the giver would like the receiver to have.
Selecting the right gift
Social media, experiences and gift giving
Social media has become a platform that we can use to project our desired self-image, changing the gift giving game as well. If somebody treats their partner to a romantic holiday, there is a good chance that this experience will be shared on Facebook or Instagram. These opportunities for sharing provide ‘social media currency’ and can elevate the giver’s social standing through the picture’s ability to convey their benevolence, or it may very publically symbolise their commitment and devotion to the relationship.
Most popular gifts and gift ideas
So, what types of gifts are popular in today’s society? Research shows that 63% of Brits buy entertainment related gifts like CDs or DVDs, while 57% buy clothing and 47% buy food and drink-related gifts. Other common gift ideas include gift cards, personalised gifts and experiences.
Recent research from the University of Toronto Scarborough reveals that giving an experience strengthens your relationship with the receiver more than a physical gift. This is primarily due to the fact that experience gifts elicit stronger emotional responses while they are being enjoyed. For example, speeding around a go kart track releases adrenaline while massages provide relaxation. Nonetheless, when selecting an experience it’s still important to consider the recipient to make sure you choose something that’s appropriate, which they will look forward to.
From driving to flying adventures and everything in-between, you’ll find some excellent experience gifts at Activity Superstore. We make it easy to find the perfect experience as you can shop by occasion or location.