Toast For the Host? the Male Perspective on Gifts That Say Thank You

Margaret Rucker, University of California, Davis
Anthony Freitas, University of California, Davis
Jamie Dolstra, University of California, Davis
ABSTRACT - For the most part, previous research on gift giving has focused on major holidays and rites of passage and taken the female perspective. The present study was designed to investigate attitudes and practices associated with "thank-you" gifts and explore the male perspective regarding these small-scale courtesies. Analyses of data from 86 males indicated a substantial level of concern with matching gifts to the value of the hospitality (simultaneous reciprocity) and the value of any previous thank-you gifts (serial reciprocity). There was also some evidence of gender stereotypes and effects of age and ethnicity as well as situational effects on this type of gift giving.
[ to cite ]:
Margaret Rucker, Anthony Freitas, and Jamie Dolstra (1994) ,"Toast For the Host? the Male Perspective on Gifts That Say Thank You", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 165-168.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 165-168


Margaret Rucker, University of California, Davis

Anthony Freitas, University of California, Davis

Jamie Dolstra, University of California, Davis


For the most part, previous research on gift giving has focused on major holidays and rites of passage and taken the female perspective. The present study was designed to investigate attitudes and practices associated with "thank-you" gifts and explore the male perspective regarding these small-scale courtesies. Analyses of data from 86 males indicated a substantial level of concern with matching gifts to the value of the hospitality (simultaneous reciprocity) and the value of any previous thank-you gifts (serial reciprocity). There was also some evidence of gender stereotypes and effects of age and ethnicity as well as situational effects on this type of gift giving.


A number of studies have suggested that, at least in contemporary Western societies, women are the primary performers of gift-giving activities (e.g., Cheal 1986, 1988; Fischer and Arnold 1990; McGrath 1989; Sherry and McGrath 1989). From early in life onward, men appear to have less interest in, and are less adept at, providing others with satisfactory gifts (Corrigan 1989; Rucker, Freitas, Murray and Prato 1991). Quite frequently they enlist the aid of mothers, sisters and spouses or some other close female to assume the gift-giving obligations associated with occasions such as birthdays, weddings, Christmas and Hanukkah. Exceptions may include occasions when the recipient is a girlfriend or spouse, such as Valentine's Day (Otnes, Ruth and Milbourne 1993), or when other circumstances impel males into more active gift giving and receiving roles, such as the death of a close family member (Mallard 1992).

While these and other studies of gift-giving have contributed greatly to our understanding of the rules and gender roles involved in prestation, it should be noted that most of this work has been done in the context of major holidays and rites of passage. As previously suggested by Rucker and Dolstra (1993), an examination of gift exchanges associated with more mundane occurrences is necessary for a more comprehensive understanding of the gift-giving system.

The objective of the present study was to examine gift-giving in the context of reciprocity for hospitality and to determine how hosts and guests respond to what Lowes, Turner and Wills (1971) have proposed as a universal moral dilemmaCshould there be expectations regarding gifts in return for friendship and hospitality. Specifically, it was designed to determine the male perspective regarding this dilemma and speak to research questions that derive from males' relatively agentive orientation (cf Bakan 1966; Carlson 1971; Meyers-Levy 1988) and their economic approach to gift exchanges (Rucker et al. 1991). In addition, effects of age and ethnicity were examined. Because previous literature provided relevant cross-cultural data, and the two subgroups in our sample were relatively large, the majority of the analyses for ethnic differences were between Asian and White respondents.

General aspects of gift-giving that were considered in this study included selection of the product (type and value), how selection varied with sex and status of the recipient, and importance of wrapping the gift. Issues that were more specific to the gift-for-hospitality context included relative emphasis on simultaneous versus serial reciprocity (matching the gift to the style and value of the hospitality offered versus matching a previous gift from the host or hostess) and norms regarding the sharing of gifts.

With respect to type and value of the product selected as a gift, we proposed that males' tendency to take an economic orientation toward gift-giving would be associated with relatively high concern for appropriateness of price; within a given price range, however, there would be selection of some relatively unusual gifts. Some evidence for this proposition was reported by Morsbach (1977). In his study of gift exchanges in Japan, it was noted that for many Japanese gift occasions, exact monetary repayment is the norm. At the same time, although food is the most typical gift, any product can be an appropriate gift if it is easy to determine the market value.

An economic orientation toward gift-giving would also limit interest in elaborate wrapping of gifts since paper and bows are generally discarded and therefore do not typically add to the permanent economic well being of the recipient. In research conducted in a midwestern U.S. city, Caplow (1984) found that men displayed much less interest in wrapping packages than did their wives. Attention to gift wrapping may vary with ethnic identity, however. As noted by Witkowski and Yamamoto (1991), gift packaging is quite important in Asian cultures, particularly in Japan. The authors suggest that one factor prompting the emphasis on packaging may be the cultural norm of first viewing a gift in private.

How status of the host might affect gift selection is more ambiguous. Some authors have suggested that asymmetric gift exchanges occur as a reflection of economic and social differences (Belk 1976, 1979; Bell and Newby 1976; Cheal 1986; Davis 1973; Moschetti 1979). That is, those with lower status or fewer resources give less, at least in terms of tangible objects. As Gouldner (1960) has suggested, intangibles such as gratitude or deference may be appropriate repayment in some instances. In contrast, at least in some situations, those of lower status may make relatively high investments in gifts for their superiors in an attempt to elevate their own status or ingratiate themselves with powerful others (Cohen, 1958; Hurwitz, Zander and Hymovitch, 1968). In particular, in Asian countries such as Japan, business etiquette dictates that those of higher rank are given better gifts (Morsbach 1977).

Sharing of thank-you gifts by host and guests can reduce the gift's economic value to the host by an uncertain amount. Therefore, males may have some reluctance to share such gifts. Asian males may be especially reluctant to engage in sharing of their gifts but for a different reason, i.e., the cultural norm of opening gifts in private. Work by Furby (1978) suggests that age of respondent could also affect sharing norms. In her study, American subjects were found to have a less absolute conviction about the value of sharing and to make more distinctions regarding appropriate conditions for sharing as they grew older.

From an economic perspective, both simultaneous and serial reciprocity should be seen as important. However, in comparing simultaneous with serial reciprocity, we predicted that males would favor the serial reciprocity approach. Simultaneous reciprocity demands what Davis (1973) has referred to as "ingenious pre-estimation" in determining what one will receive so as to match it in value with what one gives. Serial reciprocity, or matching what one receives as a gift now with what one gives on the next occasion, is more likely to produce an economically balanced exchange.




As part of a larger project on gift giving, 86 male college students were asked to participate in a study of experiences with gift giving in return for hospitality. These students were selected from volunteers responding to an announcement on a campus bulletin board.

At the beginning of the research session, respondents were asked to complete a background questionnaire. Items on this questionnaire included age and ethnicity as well as how much they thought should be spent to thank someone for hospitality.

After completing the questionnaire, subjects were interviewed about their gift-giving attitudes and practices. Items in the interview included questions about types of gifts usually given, whether gifts were generally wrapped, whether they were generally shared, and whether status of the host or hostess would affect gift selection. To address the moral dilemma issue raised by Lowes, Turner and Wills (1971), respondents were also asked whether they had experienced any problems related to thank-you gifts and whether there were situations in which a thank-you gift should always be given or never be given. Another interview item asked for a description of a recent experience with gifts given as a token of appreciation.


Analysis of the demographic data indicated that respondents' ages ranged from 16 to 29 with a median value of 21. The ethnic composition of the sample was 50% Asian, 29% White, 8% Hispanic, 6% Black and 7% other. As noted earlier, due to the limited number of Blacks and Hispanics in the sample, the subsequent quantitative analyses for ethnic differences included Asian and White respondents only.

Analysis of the normative data on thank-you gift value was consistent with previously reported results (Rucker and Dolstra 1993). That is, the majority of males felt that such a gift should cost at least $20 or more. Analysis of variance of the normative values by ethnicity of respondent indicated that the difference between what Asian males expected to pay and what White males expected approached significance (p = .06) with Asian respondents reporting higher average values. An ANOVA for ethnicity on what was actually spent was run for the subgroup whose most recent experience with tokens of appreciation involved giving one rather than receiving one. The difference between Asians and Whites was not significant in this analysis, although again the average dollar amount reported by the Asian respondents was higher than that reported by the White respondents.

Analysis of the products respondents reported exchanging most recently indicated that the product most likely to be exchanged was an alcoholic beverage. However, as shown by the stepwise logistic regression results presented in Table 1, there was a significant difference in whether the gift was alcohol or food, depending on whether the respondent described a gift given or a gift received. Gifts given were more likely to be alcoholic beverages while gifts received were more likely to be food. Furthermore, ethnicity of the respondent added significant information to the equation; Asians were more likely to mention food and Whites were more likely to mention alcoholic beverages. This latter finding is consistent with observations by Morsbach (1977) regarding gift giving in Japan; i.e., food is the traditional and still one of the most popular gifts for just about every occasion.

Further qualitative analysis of the interview data suggested that while many males' thank-you gifts were low-involvement purchases of alcoholic beverages, a number of others were rather unusual high-involvement gifts such as an antique iron and automobile parts from Japan. Variety in gift types was more in evidence in the Asian subgroup than the White, again in keeping with Morsbach's observations that in Japan a range of products are acceptable to balance economic obligations. Males in ethnic groups other than Asian seemed either unaware of product-type norms within their culture or felt that cultural stereotypes regarding males' lack of expertise in gift giving allowed more latitude in choosing unusual gifts, especially for other males.

Data on wrapping of gifts indicated that contrary to our prediction, the majority of males felt it was appropriate to identify a thank-you gift as a gift through at least some semblance of decorative packaging. This could be as simple as covering the item in tissue paper or cellophane or placing a bow somewhere on the product.

However, they were also quick to point out how functional considerations influenced this aspect of gift giving. For example, hot or oily foods did not lend themselves to being wrapped and cut flowers, unless boxed, were apt to be damaged by wrapping.

Stepwise logistic regression analysis indicated that Asians and Whites did not differ significantly in their approach to wrapping thank-you gifts. Across ethnic groups, the pragmatic question of ease of wrapping an item appeared to be given priority over cultural norms.

Approximately 60% of the respondents stated they would give a more expensive or at least more labor intensive thank-you gift to someone of higher status than to a peer. The main reasons offered for this difference were need to make a good impression and to reciprocate for a better class of hospitality. A stepwise logistic regression analysis indicated that responses to this status question did not differ significantly by ethnic group.

Over 65% of the respondents reported that whether they were buying for a host or hostess would affect their evaluation of a product as an appropriate thank-you gift. This finding supports previous work indicating that consumers in general tend to be influenced by gender stereotypes in evaluating products as good or bad gifts (Rucker et al. 1991). Again differences between the two ethnic groups were not significant.

Respondents showed less agreement about the appropriateness of sharing thank-you gifts. About one-third of the sample noted that a number of situational conditions would mediate the appropriateness of sharing. For example, the nature of some products, such as the automobile parts, precluded sharing, while the nature of others, such as flowers, invited sharing. Another mediating condition was whether the gift complemented the meal. When situational characteristics offered no guidance on sharing, our respondents uniformly stated that the gift recipient should make the choice to share or not. As shown in Table 2, the stepwise logistic regression for these data showed that there was a significant difference by age but not ethnic identity. The data indicated that the older subjects were less likely to report sharing of thank-you gifts. This finding is consistent with the developmental trend noted by Furby (1978), i.e., older subjects were more aware of exceptions to a general norm of sharing.



Content analysis of recent gift experiences and problems as well as norms provided evidence of both simultaneous and serial reciprocity. A number of respondents described how the gift should match the hospitality. For example, it was generally agreed that a "nice" bottle of wine was appropriate for a formal dinner whereas beer went with a barbeque. At the same time, there was some recognition of the importance of serial reciprocity, including both value and product type. As one respondent put it, after he brought the beer to his friend's dinner, he expected the friend to provide the beer when the dinner invitation was returned. And since he provided better than an inexpensive generic, he expected his friend to do the same. (Fortunately, for the sake of the friendship, his friend provided an upscale import.)

Analysis of the data did not elicit much that could be construed as reflective of a moral dilemma or problem as was proposed by Lowes et al. (1971). Responses focused more on what to give rather than whether to give in return for hospitality. Respondents were concerned about how to select an item that would be appreciated by the recipient and gave a number of examples of gift failures. These ranged from bringing an alcoholic beverage to someone who did not approve of drinking or was trying to quit, to giving politically and culturally incorrect gifts, such as flowers for a feminist.

The data also gave some additional evidence of gender stereotyping. Two of the males expressed the opinion that if the invitation was from a female, a gift was necessary. On the other hand, one male said he would never do that for fear the girl would misunderstand his intentions. Other circumstances that were mentioned as inhibiting gift giving included frequent hospitality exchanges (in which case, one invitation served to reciprocate another), knowledge that other guests were not bringing a gift, and dislike of the host. For the most part, however, our respondents had no difficulty with the concept of hospitality meriting some tangible token of appreciation.


There was some limited support for propositions derived from the economic model of male gift giving, primarily in expressed concerns for both simultaneous and serial reciprocity. However, contrary to the initial expectation, there seemed to be more emphasis placed on simultaneous reciprocity than serial reciprocity. With hindsight, it may be that simultaneous reciprocity is less problematic than usual for this type of gift-giving situation. That is, it may be easier to pre-estimate what type of hospitality will be offered than what type of product will be purchased as a present.

Other findings reinforced previous advice to examine situational constraints in a given area of consumer behavior before applying general rules of thumb (cf Belk 1975; Scammon, Shaw and Bamossy 1982; Sherry 1983). For example, type of gifts often precluded the attention to special wrapping that is given to items for other occasions. In addition, the data provided some support for considering not just cross-country differences in analyzing gift giving, but also ethnic identity within the population of any one country. Age was of limited value as an explanatory variable due to restriction in range, but analyses did suggest that additional attention to changes with age in attitudes toward sharing possessions might elicit useful information on both human development and relationships between possessions and social systems.


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