Gift giving

Francis Ford Coppola - The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola - The Godfather (1972)

A brief sociology of gift giving, by Jean-Claude Kaufmann

Receiving a gift is a heavenly surprise hidden inside wrapping that we try to rip open as fast as we can (despite all the annoying sellotape, ties and ribbons in the way!). Some people love to give gifts, but far more people enjoy receiving them. However, some people are more reserved about it, a small minority are downright against it and this begs the question, why? They say they prefer to choose what they want themselves and that it wears them out to try to source a gift that may give pleasure. In reality, they feel intuitively that the gift takes them to hidden depths that they find scary – the whole world of attachment and intimate bonding, love and friendship.

Traditional sociological research has shown that the significance of gift constitutes a map of an individual’s personal bonds with others. We may love a friend, uncle or cousin, others a little less, some not at all: gifts given can measure the depth of our feelings in some way. However, this is not always 100% reliable. The well-known scenario of a husband offering jewellery to his wife to be forgiven for something he has done reveals that sometimes a gift can mask more complex realities. But enthusiasts know all too well that these presents, whether constrained or compensatory, are rarely beautiful gifts. The beautiful gift has three features that make it stand out amongst thousands of others.

Firstly, this is obvious but it should be said, it is beautiful, sophisticated and its revelation aims to stun and surprise.
Then, and this is far more difficult, it reflects the secret desires of the receiver. The gift that creates the strongest sense of wonder and surprise is the one the receiver would have liked to buy themselves but had not thought of. It shows how much the other person who is giving the gift knows you (and this is what those who don’t like giving gifts find exhausting and a bit frightening).
Finally, the astonishment, surprise and shared intimacy of gift giving can create a magical moment that pulls you away from daily routine. For a few moments, you feel a sense of glowing abundance. Something some people describe as happiness.


Jean-Claude Kaufmann is a sociologist.