When the Thought Counts: Friendship, Love, Gift Exchanges and Gift Returns

Margaret Rucker, University of California, Davis
L. Leckliter, University of California, Davis
S. Kivel, University of California, Davis
M. Dinkel, T. Freitas|M. Wynes|H. Prato, University of California, Davis, University of California, Davis| University of California, Davis| University of California, Davis
ABSTRACT - The present study investigated gift exchange behavior of opposite-sex and same-sex pairs. Findings indicated that in only the condition of males estimating female economic contributions did underestimation occur. In all other conditions, contributions of partners were overestimated. Furthermore, males were more likely to use price as a basis for judging equity of the exchange whereas females were more prone to consider whether both partners liked the gifts. A relatively high rate of return for clothing gifts was noted and economic and social reasons for this phenomenon were proposed.
[ to cite ]:
Margaret Rucker, L. Leckliter, S. Kivel, and M. Dinkel, T. Freitas|M. Wynes|H. Prato (1991) ,"When the Thought Counts: Friendship, Love, Gift Exchanges and Gift Returns", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 528-531.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 528-531

WHEN THE THOUGHT COUNTS: FRIENDSHIP, LOVE, GIFT EXCHANGES AND GIFT RETURNS

Margaret Rucker, University of California, Davis

L. Leckliter, University of California, Davis

S. Kivel, University of California, Davis

M. Dinkel, University of California, Davis

T. Freitas, University of California, Davis

M. Wynes, University of California, Davis

H. Prato, University of California, Davis

ABSTRACT -

The present study investigated gift exchange behavior of opposite-sex and same-sex pairs. Findings indicated that in only the condition of males estimating female economic contributions did underestimation occur. In all other conditions, contributions of partners were overestimated. Furthermore, males were more likely to use price as a basis for judging equity of the exchange whereas females were more prone to consider whether both partners liked the gifts. A relatively high rate of return for clothing gifts was noted and economic and social reasons for this phenomenon were proposed.

INTRODUCTION

As a universal behavior with important economic and social functions, the gift giving process has been examined by scholars from a variety of perspectives. The significance of gift exchanges in romantic relationships has been suggested by Baxter (1987) in a study of the symbols of relationship identity. In comparing romantic and friendship relationships, it was found that physical object symbols were especially important for the former while behavioral action and event/time symbols were more prominent in the latter. Frequently, the physical objects were gifts that one partner had given to the other.

Although the folk definition of gift implies a voluntary contribution with no expectation of compensation, scholars from Mauss (1925/1967) on have acknowledged the reciprocal nature of gift exchanges. Pin and Turndorf (1985) talked about the "dynamism of reciprocity" being true Of all gifts. To distinguish between economic exchange and gift exchange, they contended that economic exchange generally does not forge a personal link between the two parties and consists of exchanging two objects of equivalent value. On the other hand, gift exchanges affect social relations and the recipient can decide how to repay. However, to maintain a friendly social relationship, repayment must be commensurate with the gift.

Belk (1979) observed that while it is normally important to have a balanced exchange, what is seen as "adequate" repayment may vary with the recipient's resources. Moschetti (1979) analyzed situations in which classes of people receive more than they give and concluded that receiving more than is given is associated with social dependency. The asymmetric exchange is a symbolic reminder of the agentive power difference. Cheal (1986, p. 434) specifically points to gender positions as one of the social statuses that affect symmetry of the exchange. He found that even when economic factors were controlled, sex was still related to exchange values. He described the unequal exchanges as "ritual enactments of the support/dependence relationships that are conventionally assumed to exist between men and women in general...." In an expansion of that theme, Bailey (1983) noted the importance of public gifts in symbolizing what the man could afford and what the woman was worth.

A major thesis in an article by Schieffelin (1980) is that reciprocity itself is a process for making social distinctions and defining identities. He suggests that understanding of different types of exchanges could benefit from determining how the norm of reciprocity is related to other patterns of cultural thought. Prior to that, however, one must determine what attributes of the exchange are considered important in judging reciprocity and how partners might vary in their perceptions of these attributes. Attributes that have been suggested in the literature include cost, value, number and variety of items (Belk, 1979; Caplow, 1984; Moschetti, 1979)

The present study was designed to extend previous work (Rucker et al., 1989) on perceptions of cost and equity in exchange situations by collecting data on same-sex pairs as well as opposite-sex pairs. It was also designed to investigate attributes other than price that could affect perception of equity, as well as factors affecting gift return decisions.

METHOD

Subjects were obtained by placing advertisements in a university newspaper and on a campus bulletin board. Volunteers had to have exchanged gifts with each other within the previous six months and both partners had to agree to be interviewed separately. A small reward was offered for participation. A total of sixty couples completed the interview.

Items in the interview included questions about overall evaluation of equity in the exchange, cost and estimated price of the gifts, and gift return attitudes and practices. The interviews were taped and transcribed for later analysis.

RESULTS

Data from the male/female couples on costs and estimated prices of their gifts were similar to findings of the 1989 Rucker ct al. study and so were pooled for the first analysis. As shown in Table 1, females were more prone to overestimate the monetary contributions of their partners whereas males tended to underestimate. A comparison of same-sex couples with opposite^sex couples (Table 2) indicated that underestimation characterized only males' evaluations of gifts from females. The combination of results failed to support the proposition that males were underestimating female contributions because they were infrequent shoppers and so would underestimate prices of products in general. Rather it seems to suggest that perceptions of contributions are being adjusted to fit sex status stereotypes.

TABLE 1

MALE/FEMALE COUPLES' ESTIMATES OF COSTS OF GIFTS RELATIVE TO GIVERS' REPORTS

TABLE 2

ALL COUPLES' ESTIMATES OF COSTS OF GIFTS RELATIVE TO GIVERS' REPORTS

Work by Bums and Hopper (1986) has shown that estimates of influence can be affected by the resources contributed to a dyad. Specifically, they found that husbands underestimated influence of wives when resource contributions such as income were low. To see if a similar effect could be depressing males' estimates of females' gift-giving contributions, average price paid was computed for males and females in same-sex and opposite-sex dyads. The results are presented in Table 3. These results suggest that lower overall contribution of females is not a factor in influencing underestimation by males; females actually paid somewhat more on the average than their male counterparts. Males' contributions were also lower when same-sex pairs were compared. In addition, when opposite-sex pairs in which the male paid more were compared with opposite-sex pairs in which the male paid less, it was found that males were slightly more likely to underestimate when the female paid more for the gift than they did.

The next question concerned attributes used by partners in assessing the equity of an exchange. These data are shown in Table 4. Content analysis of all answers to the equity question indicated that price was most often considered, closely followed by whether the partners liked their respective gifts. In reviewing the less frequently reported attributes, it should be noted for "surprise" that the comments were generally positive and reflected a sense of not expecting anything and therefore being pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, it was also used to explain the inequity that resulted when one person was so caught by surprise that he/she had little or nothing to offer in return. With respect to "permanence," durable goods seemed to be valued more highly than nondurables for two reasons. As noted by Camerer (1988), gifts can serve as signals of intentions of future investment in the relationship. Nondurables were viewed as a lack of commitment, and therefore as a negative cue by some respondents. Also when one partner received a durable gift and the other a nondurable, there was some resentment over continued enjoyment by only one person.

When only the first response concerning attributes used to judge equity was compared for males and females, it appeared that males placed more emphasis on price whereas females were more concerned with how much both partners liked their gifts (Table 5). The test for difference between two proportions resulted in Z scores that only approached significance, but the findings are consistent with communications research that indicates women talk more about relationship problems whereas men talk more about money (Haas and Sherman, 1982). They are also consistent with the vast body of related work on sex-role standards and gender-related traits which identifies nurturent activities as feminine and business skills as masculine (e.g., Broverman et al., 1972; Spence, 1984).

TABLE 3

AVERAGE AMOUNT SPENT ON THE EXCHANGE

TABLE 4

ATTRIBUTES USED TO EVALUATE EQUITY OF THE GIFT EXCHANGE - ALL RESPONSES

TABLE 5

USE OF PRICE AND LIKING IN EVALUATING EQUITY BY SEX-FIRST RESPONSE

A comparison of couples' opinions about the equity of their exchanges is presented in Table 6. As might be expected from the previous findings on prices actually paid and price estimates, opposite-sex couples were least likely to have both partners report that the exchange was equitable.

In response to questioning about gift returns, only five (4%) of the respondents reported that they had returned the gifts they were describing in the interview whereas 91 (76%) stated that they had returned other gifts on at least one other occasion. The 91 respondents who had engaged in gift return behavior were then asked to describe their most recent return experience.

For both sets of data on gift returns, clothing was the type of item mentioned most often. Finding clothing to be the type of product most often returned was not surprising in light of previous work listing clothing as one of the most frequently given gifts, at 25% to 35% of total gifts (Belk, 1979; Caplow, 1982). However the values for clothing as a percentage of returns far exceeded the values for clothing as a percentage of gifts. For the interview gift, clothing accounted for 3 of the 5 returns (60%) and, for other gifts, 77 of the 91 returns (85%). Respondents' explanations of return actions suggested that economic and social factors prompted more willingness to return clothing than other products. A bad fit and the wrong color were viewed as socially acceptable reasons for a clothing return. Indicating that one just did not like a gift, as would be necessary for many other types of products, was often noted as overly rude or hurtful. In economic terms, clothing was cited as generally being of sufficient value to make the gain from a return worth the effort expended in making that transaction.

TABLE 6

COUPLES' OPINIONS ABOUT EQUITY OF THEIR EXCHANGE

CONCLUSIONS

This study has implications for equity and gender theory by showing evidence of both the affective or romantic and marketing model of value and equity in the gift exchange process. The existence of two competing perspectives becomes problematic when models clash in male/female relationships, since males are more prone to take the marketplace view and underestimate the economic contributions of their female partners. The study also has implications for the gift market itself by suggesting the range and order of attributes that can affect consumers' gift selection decisions. In addition, the information on product returns can be useful in anticipating changes in inventory following holiday seasons.

REFERENCES

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