Consumer Strategies For Averting Negative Consequences of Failed Gift Exchanges: Is Honesty Ever the Best Policy?

Catherine A. Roster, University of New Mexico
Clare M. Amann, University of New Mexico
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - The giving and receiving of a gift is an exchange process that symbolizes the social bond between relationship partners. Thus, gift giving presents an opportunity for the gift to either positively or negatively affect the relationship’s current status and its future trajectory, including future exchanges between the two parties (Ruth, Otnes, and Brunel 1999; Sherry 1983). Although gift givers often seek to delight recipients, not all gifts achieve this lofty goal. Gifts that fail to delight or surprise (Belk 1996; Durgee and Sego 2001), do not reflect the recipient’s tastes or interests (Otnes, Lowrey, and Kim 1993), or are inappropriately matched to the relationship’s status (Ruth et al. 1999) are hallmarks of failed gifts. However, as these characteristics suggest, the failure of a gift may more likely be attributable to the gift exchange process and the players involved, rather than the tangible properties of the gift itself. Because failure can be traced to any or all of the stages of gift-giving or either party involved (Sherry 1983), the failure of a gift to achieve its intended goals can aptly be termed a Afailed gift exchange@ (FGE).
[ to cite ]:
Catherine A. Roster and Clare M. Amann (2003) ,"Consumer Strategies For Averting Negative Consequences of Failed Gift Exchanges: Is Honesty Ever the Best Policy?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 373-374.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 373-374

CONSUMER STRATEGIES FOR AVERTING NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES OF FAILED GIFT EXCHANGES: IS HONESTY EVER THE BEST POLICY?

Catherine A. Roster, University of New Mexico

Clare M. Amann, University of New Mexico

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

The giving and receiving of a gift is an exchange process that symbolizes the social bond between relationship partners. Thus, gift giving presents an opportunity for the gift to either positively or negatively affect the relationship’s current status and its future trajectory, including future exchanges between the two parties (Ruth, Otnes, and Brunel 1999; Sherry 1983). Although gift givers often seek to delight recipients, not all gifts achieve this lofty goal. Gifts that fail to delight or surprise (Belk 1996; Durgee and Sego 2001), do not reflect the recipient’s tastes or interests (Otnes, Lowrey, and Kim 1993), or are inappropriately matched to the relationship’s status (Ruth et al. 1999) are hallmarks of failed gifts. However, as these characteristics suggest, the failure of a gift may more likely be attributable to the gift exchange process and the players involved, rather than the tangible properties of the gift itself. Because failure can be traced to any or all of the stages of gift-giving or either party involved (Sherry 1983), the failure of a gift to achieve its intended goals can aptly be termed a "failed gift exchange" (FGE).

Since evidence that a gift exchange has failed rests largely in the hands of recipients (Dodson and Belk 1996), they often resort to impression management techniques to disguise their disappointment with a gift, some of which necessitate dishonesty, and others, outright deception. Numerous studies in the gift-givig literature have suggested such strategies but questions remain. For instance, what factors influence choices of proactive versus reactive strategies in each stage of the gift exchange process? What factors prevent or facilitate recipients’ ability to be honest with givers about their disappointment? Last, what are the consequences when recipients’ attempts at managing relational outcomes fail? These were the key questions driving this exploratory study into the nature and consequences of FGEs.

Separate focus groups were conducted with 8 females and 12 males. Participants were either undergraduate or graduate business students or staff members of a southwestern university. Sessions lasted approximately one and a half hours and were both videotaped and audiotaped. Focus group participants were asked to respond to questions from the perspective of a gift recipient, although no restrictions were placed on the gift occasion or the relationship type. Participants were asked to think specifically about their reactions and responses to "failed gifts," which were defined as "those that for whatever reason 'missed the mark,’ whether it be the gift itself or any aspect of the gift-giving exchange situation." Transcripts were coded using content analysis, with an emphasis on coding themes representing behaviors and underlying motivations accompanying each stage of the gift-giving process. Intercoder reliability was 90%. All disputes were later resolved by the two judges.

Our participants described various strategies to mask their disappointment with a gift, both immediately following its receipt and afterward. They also described attempts to influence the gift-giving exchange prior to actual receipt of the gift, which serves to reinforce the notion that recipients attempt to manage relational outcomes at all stages of the gift-giving process. For instance, during the prestation stage, they described such strategies as feigning satisfaction, expressing subdued "thanks," and diverting attention away from the gift. After the exchange (reformulation stage), participants described "serving time" with loathsome or unwanted objects by storing or hiding them, using them inconspicuously, or prominently displaying or using them only in the giver’s presence. Disposal strategies included exchanging or returning unwanted gifts to merchants, re-gifting them, and trading or throwing them away. Participants also described strategies used during the gestation stage to ward off FGEs, such as giving hints, making lists, or offering third party observations about gifts received by others. A key factor that influenced the choice of strategies in all three stages was the expectation of future gift exchanges with the giver. Recipients appear to appreciate the fact that their responses to FGEs might come back to haunt them later, and therefore, they often manage their responses accordingly.

While gift recipients may resort to deceptive strategies in order to avert negative consequences, do they ever feel comfortable with simply being honest? If so, what factors facilitate or hinder honesty in FGEs? Findings suggest that recipients value honesty and regard the ability to be honest about failed gifts as the epitome of a truly close relationship. However, our participants cited several factors as important considerations for determining if and when they could be honest about a gift. These included: 1) relationship closeness; 2) relationship type; 3) the extent to which the giver appeared to have made significant investments in the selection, presentation, and symbolic meanings embodied in the gift; and 4) unique personality and individual characteristics of the giver. Overall, it was easier for recipients to be honest in close, non-romantic relationships and harder when givers had made significant investments or were thought likely to be offended or hurt. Gender differences also surfaced, as males appeared to be more reluctant than females to be honest under any conditions.

Despite diligent efforts, recipients reported episodes in which their attempts at pretense had failed. Some recipients failed to convince givers they were happy with the gift. More commonly, givers later embarrassed the recipient by asking about the gift when it was obviously not being used or displayed. In worst-case scenarios, recipients were caught "red-handed" disposing of the gift. Participants recalled such episodes reluctantly, and with evident remorse and guilt. Positive outcomes of getting "caught" included the opportunity to clear the air and establish better communications. Negative outcomes included strains on the relationship and heightened anxiety associated with future gift exchanges for both relationship partners.

Gift exchanges can strengthen social bonds, yet they present ample opportunities for both givers and recipients to disconfirm rather than affirm the relationship, either intentionally or unintentionally. The finding that recipients value honesty under certain conditions serves to further emphasize that relational dynamics rather than the gift per se can ultimately determine the success or failure of gift-giving exchanges.

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