Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gifts: the giving of

It's that time of year when we get to buy gifts for friends and relatives. I've recently developed a tiny ethical problem with this, because I work from the paradigm that we, as Americans, already have way too much crap. Giving someone more stuff puts you firmly on the "part of the problem" half of the problem/solution continuum. Anything you give someone becomes something they need to devote mental energy to -- the recipient will need to store it, use it, pay attention to it, and generally make room for it in their lives. With a lot of gifts, it seems you're really not doing anyone any favors by adding it to their life. But it's that time of year, and I really do want to get gifts for people. So I've worked out a mental formula for acceptable and unacceptable gifts. It's something like this:
  • Acceptable: DVDs, music, and books. If you give someone a movie you know they'll like, you're doing them a favor. Ditto with music they'll listen to often, and books you know they'll read and enjoy. And the incremental cost of adding books, CDs, and DVDs to someone's household is small; they've already got storage and usage systems in place for them, and adding another book or DVD to someone's collection has no practical effect on their organizational system.
  • Also acceptable: software. If you know of a game or utility someone will enjoy or use often, it's a good gift. Games are also nice, because it's the kind of thing that people have trouble rationalizing buying for themselves.
  • Very acceptable: anything you know the recipient really wants, but is unwilling to buy for themselves.
  • Also good: gift certificates for services. Gift certificates can be impersonal, but really, so's a copy of Spiderman 2. And giving someone a gift certificate for a massage or spa services is a nice gift. You're treating them to something special without adding to their collection of stuff. On the other hand, I try not to pick gifts that might send an unintended message. I've got a friend who hates cleaning, but giving them a gift certificate for a maid service might seem like more of a hint than I intend....
  • Tools make great gifts, if I'm reasonably certain the recipient will use it and doesn't already have an equivalent tool.
And, things I try not to give:
  • Anything seasonal, that requires storage for a good chunk of the year.
  • Anything that inflicts my taste on someone else, unless I'm really sure it's also to their taste: wall art or sculpture or yard statuary are no-nos.
  • Anything cute/funny. Funny is temporary, and anything that's funny the first time, probably won't be funny after they've seen it often enough.
  • Any member of the "widget" family, unless it's so extremely practical that the recipient will use it every day and wonder how they ever survived without it.
  • Clothing. Not that clothing is a bad gift, necessarily; I like receiving clothing. But I'm aware that my taste isn't great, and that anything I give has a fair chance of never being worn.
That being said, some of my favorite gifts I've gotten don't meet my gift-giving standards. We got one of those nifty outdoor fireplaces from my brother, and we used it until it fell apart in a heap of rust. Back in my car-driving days, I got much enjoyment on a daily basis from my dashboard ninjas, even though they fail both the cute/funny test and the widget test. And I might be buying myself a post-Christmas gift of the LOLCats book, even though it's definitely of the cute/funny oeuvre....

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