Why gift giving is about power relations | Lifestyle | DW | 04.12.2017
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Why gift giving is about power relations

Do you manage to relax in December or is shopping for presents too stressful? Should we stop giving gifts altogether? Sociologist Elfie Miklautz explains why gifts are so important for our relationships.

DW: What is a present and what are the cultural origins of gift giving?

Elfie Miklautz: A present is something which you hand over, an object or service that you give to someone without expecting anything in return — at least on the surface. The recipient doesn't need to pay money for a gift.

Historically, gift giving was a practice for victims. People tried to appease the gods through offerings; these gifts were a gesture towards peace.

When two people from the same tribe met for the first time, they could use the exchange of gifts to build trust — that was without a question a part of the meeting.

Presents were also used to clarify hierarchies within social structures. Those who were able to give gifts freely were naturally in a superior position to those who could not.

That remains true today, where you are in an inferior position if you cannot adequately provide gifts for others. There is a power structure that is reinforced.

Shopping center with Christmas decorations (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt)

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In which ways has gift giving changed over the course of centuries?

In a consumer society like ours, where profits are at the center of every economic transaction, the gift-giving culture has broadened. There are increasingly more reasons created for people to give each other presents, such as Valentine's Day or Father's Day. But this trust-building component is still inherent in the act. Gift giving is a gesture that is initiated in order to offer the other a relationship.

That means, that whoever gives a gift has an agenda in the back of their mind?

Not entirely. In principle, people view getting a gift as something that happens without the other person expecting something in return. But in reality, that often isn't the case. When I give something to someone, it's implicit that I will obtain some form of answer. Even if that answer is a simple thanks. 

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Deutschland Heiliger Abend (Imago/Westend61)

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Why are there so many gifts given at Christmas time?

Christmas as a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ was established on the date of December 25 in the fourth century. That date wasn't chosen because people believed that it was the actual date of his birth.

It rather aimed to repress a pagan tradition. Celebrations held around that same date included rituals reversing people's status: Slaves were richly rewarded with gifts from their owners, and everyone celebrated and drank together. 

The Church wanted to hinder the excesses of this festival and changed it accordingly. Gift giving however remained a part of the celebration, as well as the notion that even people with the lowest status, especially the children, received presents.

Today, Christmas is celebrated as a children's holiday and that has a lot to do with this shift in status. Those who normally have no say in a society are suddenly put into a powerful position and given gifts accordingly.

Almost everybody participates in the Christmas shopping spree, and most people seem to be stressed out about it. Why is it so hard to find the appropriate gift?

That's because you need quite a lot of empathy to make the right choice. You need to put yourself into someone else's position, and you need to think hard about what might regale them. When it comes to the middle class, most people are able to buy whatever they need themselves. That means, the gift must be specifically geared towards that person's taste, as well as the relationship you have with that person, if the gift is to have an element of surprise.

Read more: Words you need to understand Christmas in Germany

Symbolbild - Weihnachten und Schenken (Imago/Westend61)

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The wrong present under the Christmas tree may even ruin the atmosphere on Christmas Eve. What does it mean if someone is offended or disappointed by a present?

That person probably noticed that the gift-giver didn't make an effort to find out who he or she really is, and what might delight them. That could irritate the relationship with that person, because what comes across is that the gift-giver didn't have a clue about the other person's wishes, and didn't much care about it.

But don't people simply expect too much when they expect to be given precisely what they were dreaming of?

Well, it's always a good idea to demand the impossible [laughs]. A gift as such is already something impossible in that it should be given without expecting anything in return.

In other words, this type of present cannot even exist  is that what you 're trying to say?

Subjectively speaking it exists, but objectively speaking, it doesn't — because some kind of recognition is always associated with it, like gratefulness. Or feeling generous on the part of the gift-giver. That is also something that comes back to the gift-giver. 

Elfie Miklautz (privat)

Elfie Miklautz, professor of sociology

So what's a "good present"?

Certainly something that doesn't focus on one's own expectations towards the other person. I'm thinking of children who receive a musical instrument in the expectation that they'll make beautiful music, or women who receive female accessories in the expectation that they will adopt a particular idea of femininity. Some gifts are given with the idea of making the other person change in the way we want them to change. That's an egoistic kind of gift-giving.

Can you give us some advice on how we should deal with Christmas and gift-giving?

I would advise you to be as relaxed as possible. Should you feel stressed out about it, however, you should see this as a kind of sacrifice you're making for your relationship with the other person.

Some people nowadays come to a mutual agreement according to which they don't exchange gifts. What do you think about that? Is that a solution?

Well, such agreements are a bit sad. Besides, you cannot be sure that the other person sticks to the agreement, so that in the end, you do receive a gift without having a gift for the other person in return. Exchanging gifts enriches our relationships as there is always a moment of joy. And we do want to be surprised or delighted, and to be recognized by the others. We want to be appreciated. Gifts are a means of communication that brings across such messages. To do without would make our world a bit colder.

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