© 20 September 2021 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Reflections on two types of presents.


Gifts are not part of my usual way of thinking. When I want something, I procure it. When I have surplus, I inform those I think might want it of that surplus and allow them to tell me if they want some of it. I very rarely make presents of things, and when I do it is usually to meet some social expectation that in a given circumstance a present is required.

But I have many acquaintances for whom the giving of gifts appears to be a central part of their sociality. For them, the giving of a gift is not a redistribution of surplus nor compliance with tradition, but rather a symbol of the relationship between the giver and the recipient. I have a great deal of difficulty parsing the meaning of these gifts. I know, from speaking with such givers about third parties, that some gifts are quasi-mandatory acknowledgements of social obligation, as meaningful as the “‍fine‍” that follows “‍how are you?‍” Other gifts are messages saying how much the giver sees, thinks of, and values the recipient, as meaningful as an unsolicited “‍I love you.‍” Because I cannot tell the one from the other, I am always wary of accepting gifts from these parties. People addressing me in a language I don’t understand makes me uncomfortable. But telling people they can’t speak to me in gifts is even worse; how would I feel if people told me I couldn’t speak to them in words?

The biggest challenge for me comes when I am offered something I don’t want. To take a concrete example, there was a week this summer when two friends both offered me the same produce item from their garden, something I had already acquired more of than I could eat before it spoiled. I told both of them this fact. One replied with “‍I have too much as well; do you know anyone else who might want it?‍” The other replied with “‍well, do you want this other item?‍” where that second item was a durable good and not something they had in excess. Thus I learned that the first was offering of their surplus and when turned down was still in a state of surplus; while the second was offering an expression of something and when turned down was disappointed in not being heard and scrambling to find a new way to say that thing.

Should I have accepted that which I did not need from either of them? Should I have taken the burden of surplus from the first, or accepted the unneeded expression of I-know-not-what from the second? I am of two minds on this point, and go back and forth on it. Sometimes I accept, and sometimes I turn down, and I’m never sure that I’m not doing the wrong thing in doing so.

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