The Interpersonal Hellscape of Sanctioned Gift-Giving

Christmas tree with presents underneath
Image by Clayton Shonkwiler / CC BY

My household subscribes to the Dollar Shave Club. I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the service, but if you aren’t it’s a subscription box that comes every month with fresh razor blades.

It’s pretty great honestly. The price is really reasonable, and I always have sharp blades to shave with, without having to ever remember to go out and get new ones. The whole thing is automated and taken care of for me.

Anyway, as part of the package, they always send this little magazine called MEL: Your Bathroom Reader (did some digging, and apparently they also have an online column here, although the exact content looks different than in their print edition).

The magazine is pamphlet sized, saddle-stapled, full color. They feature articles that are targeted towards men but full of practical advice. And depending on the time of year it comes out, they also feature seasonal content.

Giving Presents to People You Despise

I was reading the December 2019 issue when I came across an article called “How to Buy for the People On Your Naughty List.” Here’s an excerpt:

You’d rather forget about your annoying cousin on Christmas, or gift-wrap the nuggets from your cat’s litter box to let your brother-in-law know what you really think of him. But your relationship dictates that you have to play nice, so it’s best to suck it up and get something for that loathsome person anyway.

The rest of the article offers some psychological strategies for managing the unpleasant experience of giving a present to a person you hate, including giving a group gift to that person that includes them rather than an individual present (for example, addressing the present to Linda AND Jim when you like Linda but despise Jim – as opposed to giving separate presents to each).

They also advise a strategy of a thoughtless generic gift, one that you could give to literally anyone. The article doesn’t explain why this is a helpful strategy, but perhaps it’s because it’s the thought that counts so if you give something that required no thought, you’re basically not giving a gift at all, yet keeping up appearances that you are?

Finally, the article suggests buying a despised man a tie because no one ever wants a tie. It’ll be a passive-aggressive coup de grace.

Holidays Growing Up Were the Superbowl of Relationship Testing

Anyway, in general this publication is intended to be slightly entertaining and potentially helpful to its readers.

I also recognize I’m not necessarily their target reader.

But oooh boy. I literally found myself saying “what the Hell?” aloud in an empty bathroom.

In general, I’m a little iffy about holidays to begin with. I was raised by a mother who is adept at relationship testing (the act of inserting hidden challenges into interactions with other people designed to test how much they care for you) 365 days a year.

Holidays, however, were like Mom’s Superbowl of Relationship Testing. Presents were there to demonstrate how much you cared about other people, especially about her. And a lot could be gleaned, to her thinking, about how much money you spent on presents. Your behavior was also a kind of gift and a relationship test to her. You needed to act in a certain way. She wanted the Hallmark Holiday Movie Magic. Heaven help you if you strayed off script.

My gay older sister was disowned for nearly two years. One of her biggest sins according to my mother was bringing her girlfriend to Thanksgiving.

Aaaaaanyway, I’ve grown to be a person who doesn’t necessarily look forward to the holidays (depends on what I have going on, frankly), and who doesn’t view gift-giving as mandatory.

To my way of thinking, it’s more meaningful when people give you something because they want to and not because they feel obligated to.

And I’ve grown to be a person who views sanctioned gift-giving as an interpersonal hellscape.

The Risk of Being Primed to View Generic Gifts as Passive-Aggressive

I brought the magazine out and read the article aloud to my partner. “This… this is a hellscape,” I said. “This is why I don’t like sanctioned gift-giving. Why give something to someone else if you don’t like them? Why give them a bad present on purpose? This all sounds terrible.”

“That’s the life other people are living,” he explained to me. “That’s how it goes for them.”

I didn’t know what else to say. It all seemed pointless and depressing.

As I replaced the magazine, I thought of times when I liked someone a lot and wanted to give them a present but couldn’t think of something they didn’t already have but would enjoy. In those times, I’d resorted to a “generic” gift but perhaps coupled it with what I hoped would be received as a thoughtful note.

Had this act been interpreted by them as a passive-aggressive or thoughtless gesture? I wondered.

I thought of all the times in my life that people had mistaken something I’d done out of good faith as passive-aggressive. Particularly individuals who had been in relationships with a lot of deeply passive-aggressive people. In some cases, it had taken years for those friends or partners to learn that not everyone was passive-aggressive or even particularly sarcastic (I’m not a very sarcastic person).

It occurred to me then that people do end up in interpersonal hellscapes, sometimes of their own choosing — or at least with their begrudging consent. They end up “having to” buy a present for someone they hate. Because they don’t want to deal with potential consequences that might follow if they didn’t. And in that trapped state, they act out with a semi-ambiguous gesture that’s meant to offend but with plausible deniability of that bad faith acting.

It all makes me wonder if that, too, sets up people to view certain gifts or gift-giving strategies as passive-aggressive or intentionally thoughtless in later contexts. Ones where that isn’t going on.

For example, I can think of times when people gave me a group present instead of an individual one. And I never interpreted that as hostile or passive-aggressive. Same with generic gifts. But if I’d done so myself, given a gift to be passive-aggressive, perhaps I would have responded to those gestures defensively and not been so touched that someone was giving me anything at all.

Adults Get to Choose How They Celebrate Their Holidays (Or Don’t)

It’s all kind of a mess.

Anyway, I suppose the good news is that we get to pick how we celebrate a holiday (or don’t). When I was a child, that wasn’t an option (and so I can relate to being forced into giving a gift, although can’t imagine continuing to do so as an adult). Regardless of how trapped you feel, choices are made when you’re an adult — they just aren’t necessarily the choices you’d make in the best of all possible universes (but that’s life, right?).

And I’m happy with the way I approach holidays. The fact that this particular magazine article was so unrelatable and depressing to me is probably proof that I’m doing a good job building a life that’s right for me.

But wow.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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