December 6, 2013

The Christmas "Buy me this" list, and the disappearance of spontaneity

When I was growing up, there might be one or two things that we knew we were getting for sure, a handful of other things we'd put on a wish list (some we'd get, some not), and at least half of our gifts came without being asked for -- that is, spontaneously.

But spontaneity makes folks who suffer from OCD get all frustrated, and surprises creep them out, so that form of gift-giving has given way to the orderly "Buy me this" list. Sure, you might get a handful of things unsolicited, but they're minor / background gifts. Typically gag or novelty items, or inoffensive and generic stuff, both of which are not meant to be gifts for you in particular. The things meant specifically for you, the individual, are requested by you and fetched by the gift-giver.

Where has the sense of anticipation, mystery, and surprise gone on Christmas morning? (Sperg response to all three: "Borrring. Where's the stuff I told you to buy me?")

It's like a diva actress drawing up a shopping list and handing it over to a team of assistants who will go out and tick the items off, only with cash out of their own pockets, rather than her credit card. It's too forward, presumptuous, and perfectionist to harmonize with the spirit of gift-giving.

Plus the odds of two or more gift-givers buying the same thing go way up when there's a small finite list of things to buy the recipient. So now they have to hold a conference and text or email back and forth about who got item #1, I got item #4, Hey I already bought #4, Well that's the only one I can afford, OK I'll cancel my order for #4 and get #7 instead, etc...

And then there's the fail-safe option of "Just give me money and I'll buy my own gifts after Christmas." Like you guys would just bungle the job, so I'll take over instead. Once again, money could not be more generic of a gift (ditto gift cards). I actually did give my brothers cash one Christmas, though only because they were acting like such sarcastic, ungrateful brats beforehand that I figured they didn't deserve a thoughtful gift. Write a letter to Santa Claus.

The new way also sparks ingratitude afterward because typically not all of the wish list items will be received, and those that you do get, you might not have ranked the highest. At best you feel completely neutral when you get the things you really wanted (they were predictable outcomes, the prediction came true, no emotional rush), and at worst unsatisfied with the things that you only kinda wanted. When everything is preordained, it doesn't feel like a wish that came true.

"Yeah, I guess I'm OK with not getting everything I want, but if they had to leave some things out, it should have been those Skullcandy headphones. I mean, I guess they're OK, but I really could've used the PS4 controller more. Maybe next year... ah screw it, I'll just buy it myself. I swear, it's like they're trying to be idiots sometimes..."

All that brat deserves is to get sodomized by a giant block of coal. Really, what's the next development -- rank-ordering the items on your "Buy me this" list?

And not getting everything you asked for builds character. It teaches you that you can't just go barking around orders to others and keep getting your way. It also gives you experience in being a polite recipient when you don't really care for what the giver got you. Displeased Millennials cannot conceal their frustration in cases like that in real life, and I'll bet their helicopter parents just asked them what they wanted for Christmas growing up, and ticked items off the list. It's made them into sore losers and poor winners.


I wonder if the impaired social skills of a cocooning society also makes the gift-givers less able to figure out what to get other people. I don't mean perfect mind-reading -- if they want something that badly, they can buy it themselves. But "the kind of thing that so-and-so would enjoy, perhaps without even knowing about it." Or even joke gifts -- the kind of thing that so-and-so would find funny. Inside joke gifts are more personal still -- you don't tease people you don't care about, and it relies on shared experiences and common awareness. (If you come from a Scotch-Irish family, you know how important prank gifts are for expressing affection without getting all sappy.)

I don't think this is one of those phenomena that require a conscious Movement to reverse. Just don't give out "Buy me this" lists yourselves, and don't adhere so rigidly to them when they come in from others. First folks have to unlearn their perfectionism, then they can relearn how to enjoy surprises.


  1. I've noticed this happening in my life as well. Although I think I'm partly to blame. I want to get nice gifts for everyone, and I often feel I give lame gifts because my budget is so small. So I want to make sure I get things people will enjoy. I agree with your take though.

    Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving. Drove through your old haunt on the way to my Thanksgiving destination!

  2. Yeah, what I find with gift giving is I often feel perfectionist or anxious about it, so it ends up with a fuck-it random, inoffensive gift that gets me out of the anxious zone or I ask them what to get, to avoid the possibility of failure.

    Perhaps this anxiety relates to how social relationships and more disconnected and tenuous these days, and so gift giving feels more fraught, as its an opportunity to confirm and strengthen the relationship.

  3. You've got the causal mechanism wrong. People weren't any better mind readers in rising crime times, people back then learned how to drop hints, and how to calibrate them for the audience. Hinting that you need an Xbox at people who are going to buy you a $20 gift, or even a $50 gift, doesn't do you any good. Letting those friends know you got an Xbox, or are getting one, is useful, because the game are in that price range. But nobody drops hints about $20 items, you just go out and buy it.


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