Cash or Candlesticks?

Ha! Gift giving. If it's not the hardest negotiation we have as humans, I don't know what's harder.

First, it's according to which culture? In the culture of my upbringing, one could only comfortably accept gifts from family members of higher rank. Children, having basically no status, could accept gifts from grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. Token gifts from children were acceptable at birthday parties. Gifts from outsiders were tricky.

Not being a cultural anthropologist. I'm not going to try to unpack this.

From a cognitive perspective, I can tell you how we divide in what will catch our attention in a gift.

We perceive visual information in two broad categories. We perceive essential information. How useful is this thing? If it's useful, how well does it do what it's supposed to do?

And we perceive symbolic information. What does this thing mean? If it has meaning, what story does it tell? More on these two categories here.

Money is a useful gift. And it does exactly what it's supposed to do.

If you go for a gift that has meaning, you're probably going to miss. Lucky for all of us, the people we gift are usually as generous to us as we're trying to be to them.

Here's what's going to go wrong. You're trying to give something meaningful. Meaningful to you? or meaningful to your recipient? The expression, "It's better to give than to receive," is more true than we wish. We know better what we want to give than we know what our recipient wants to have. As a result, we have a better chance to feel good about our own generosity than the receiver has about the actual gift.

Of course we have a better chance at knowing our own minds than any others. And even there, I've gotten things for myself that missed. Has that ever happened to you?

Candlesticks or cash? The behavioral economist in me says cash.

However, the romantic in me says, go for it. I dare you. I double dare you. Make some meaning.

You're liable to miss. At the same time, you're liable to bring up the generosity of your recipient who will appreciate you for trying. After all, it's the thought that counts. And that gift of generosity back at you? All the better for them.

Warm regards,

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