The Pleasure and Pain of Being Close: Men's Mixed Feelings About Participation in Valentine's Day Gift Exchange

ABSTRACT - Most studies examining gift-giving employ women in their samples. This study focuses entirely upon men's attitudes toward a salient holiday in America, that of Valentine's Day. Specifically, it expands upon our earlier finding that men have different attitudes toward the holiday and toward Valentine's Day gift-giving than women. By a qualitative analysis of open-ended questions, we examine what men believe about the purpose of Valentine's Day, what they like most and least about the holiday, and why they did or did not participate in gift-giving activities.


Cele Otnes, Julie A. Ruth, and Constance C. Milbourne (1994) ,"The Pleasure and Pain of Being Close: Men's Mixed Feelings About Participation in Valentine's Day Gift Exchange", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 159-164.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 159-164


Cele Otnes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Julie A. Ruth, University of Washington

Constance C. Milbourne, Leo Burnett, U.S.A.


Most studies examining gift-giving employ women in their samples. This study focuses entirely upon men's attitudes toward a salient holiday in America, that of Valentine's Day. Specifically, it expands upon our earlier finding that men have different attitudes toward the holiday and toward Valentine's Day gift-giving than women. By a qualitative analysis of open-ended questions, we examine what men believe about the purpose of Valentine's Day, what they like most and least about the holiday, and why they did or did not participate in gift-giving activities.


In recent years, topics related to gift selection and gift-giving have received increased attention within consumer behavior. However, many of these studies employ women as their primary sample. Studies that have employed samples of both women and men have tended to examine differences between the sexes in a "breadth over depth" manner.

Yet because of the reciprocal nature of much gift exchange in America, men do engage in gift-giving, although perhaps not to as great an extent as women (Caplow 1984). Furthermore, men may approach gift exchange activities in a completely different manner than women. For example, some studies indicate men may have less positive attitudes about gift-giving than women (McGrath 1994) and may view gift-giving in a less altruistic manner, especially during courtship (Belk and Coon 1990).

Thus, the purpose of this paper is to provide an in-depth examination of men's attitudes toward gift-giving at one salient holiday in American cultureCValentine's Day. This holiday was chosen for study because cultural expectations may make it difficult for men, especially those who are romantically involved, to ignore the holiday or to delegate gift shopping to a female as they often do at other occasions (Fischer 1990).

Our own previous research (Otnes, Ruth and Milbourne 1993) revealed men had less positive attitudes about Valentine's Day gift-giving than women. Given this finding, we now investigate precisely why men had more negative attitudes toward Valentine's Day. As such, this paper will focus upon the following five research questions:

1. What do men believe is the purpose of Valentine's Day?

2. What do men like most and least about Valentine's Day?

3. What do men believe is the purpose of giving gifts at Valentine's Day?

4. What do men believe is the purpose of giving cards at Valentine's Day?

5. If men did not give gifts and/or cards, why did they not choose to give them?


The data were collected via a survey administered for extra credit to 105 male undergraduates at a large university in the Midwest. Forty-eight respondents completed the survey in the three-day period immediately after Valentine's Day in 1992 (February 15-18). In order to increase the sample size and confidence in our results, an additional fifty-seven respondents completed the survey immediately after Valentine's Day in 1993. Statistical analyses of the quantitative data (including number of gifts given, gifts received, amount spent on cards and gifts, etc.) indicated no significant differences between the two samples. Thus, we pooled the respondents into one sample.

Respondents were given a six-page survey on Valentine's Day gift-giving. We measured the amount spent on Valentine's Day gifts and cards, the number of people who received gifts or cards from the respondent, and the number of items the respondents received.

In addition to scaled responses regarding attitudes toward Valentine's Day, the survey featured six open-ended questions about participation in Valentine's Day gift exchange. These questions parallel the research questions examined in this study, with responses to what men liked most and least about the holiday combined here.

We analyzed our data by grouping similar responses into categories, revealing the emergent patterns of responses for each question (Wolcott 1990). We opted for this approach in lieu of content analysis (Holsti 1969) because it was apparent our units of analysis were the entire responses offered rather than individual words or phrases.

Upon completing this analysis, the first and second authors examined each others' interpretations, making suggestions as to more appropriate themes.


#1. Men's Beliefs in the Purpose of Valentine's Day

The first open-ended question asked men "What do you believe is the purpose of Valentine's Day?"

To Show Caring/Affection. By far the most prevalent theme among our respondents regarding the purpose of Valentine's Day was to show affection and caring for significant others, as the following responses indicate:

The purpose is showing someone how much you care about them.

Showing your appreciation for those who care most for you. Such as parents, good friends, "significant others" etc.

To let friends, boyfriends, girlfriends exchange objects, which lets the other person know you are thinking and care about them.

These particular responses capture a broad range of significant others for whom affection and caring is felt and shown. Other respondents, however, indicated that expressing romantic love for a significant other was the only true purpose of Valentine's Day:

To let the person know you care about (romantic) them.

To express your love for a significant other, be it a girlfriend, boyfriend.

To let someone know you care for them. Usually a girlfriend or wife, not really for family.

This finding is somewhat different than the results for women in our previous study, where women included many friends and family members in their Valentine's Day celebration.

The respondents also made it clear that the type and intensity of emotion to be shared depends on the type of relationship and/or "significant other." Many made important distinctions between the types of caring and affection that would be shown to different people, with the main distinctions made between romantic partners, family members, and friends.

Showing friendship to others and in some cases love if the friendship is that intense.

The purpose is to express deep love with a romantic partner, or convey friendship with those close to you.

To show that you appreciate that person. Depending on the type of gift, the emotion conveyed can range from soft to strong.

This result is consistent with the theories and findings regarding the categorization of emotions. More specifically, Shaver et al. (1987) observed that people categorize emotional experiences into five basic categories: joy, love, fear, anger and sadness. Variations on each of these "basic" types of emotions are considered to be subordinate-level members of the basic-level category (c.f., Rosch et al. 1976), capturing important differences in emotion type (i.e., relief is categorized as a member of the "joy" category but is different in character from joy) and intensity (i.e., a feeling of bliss is more intense than a feeling of enjoyment). Here, our respondents indicated that different types of affection could be expressed or felt, and could range in character (e.g., love, closeness, friendship) or intensity, depending on the type of relationship with the significant other.

Obligation. A second prevalent theme identified obligation as a primary purpose of Valentine's Day. Respondents also indicated the important role often played by the expectations of a romantic partner:

Truthfully it has almost gotten to the point of obligation rather than a true expression of one's feelings. Why only give gifts on Valentine's Day?

Primarily because people feel obligated. The holiday has been blown up so big that it is expected for not only significant others but family, friends, etc.

Because your significant other will get pissed off if you don't. That is the honest truth.

To show people you care about them and to keep them from being disappointed.

The obligation to participate is implicit in the "disappointment" or "anger" (Ellsworth and Smith 1988) that would be felt by the significant other if the respondent did not choose to participate.

Response to A Commercial Holiday. Another theme revealing men's negative beliefs Valentine's Day may be described as response to a commercial holiday. Respondents indicated that the "true" meaning of Valentine's Day was somewhat tainted by pressure exerted by business:

So Hallmark can sell a lot of cards, etc. But it does let people know you care still.

(Other than to supplement card companies' sales?) To pro-vide your friends/family significant others with some special recognition.

To show your love and perpetuate a card company Holiday.

Thus, the responses to this question reveal beliefs about the purpose of the holiday that might be best characterized as "mixed." Most respondents indicated that the holiday afforded an opportunity to show caring and affection for significant others. However, many respondents indicated that feelings of obligation, the need to meet significant others' expectations, and pressure exerted by the marketplace detracted from demonstrations of caring for others.

#2. What Men Liked Most/Liked Least About Valentine's Day.

Although we asked the general questions "What did you like most" and "What did you like least" about Valentine's Day, the responses clearly indicated our respondents' preoccupation with aspects of gift exchange.

Liked Best About Valentine's Day. The most prevalent theme emerging with regard to the "like best" question centered around Valentine's Day gifts, as the following responses indicate:

Just getting a card from my parents and "Significant other."

I got a rose from a girl I didn't expect to.

Spending a little too much, but spending it on someone I care about.

I received my first rose ever.

When you give your girlfriend the present you got for her it lights up her face and you know you made her happy.

Interestingly, a tendency for men to enjoy gift receipt more than gift-giving emerged. While gift receipt may always be preferred to gift-giving, this finding is consistent with the literature that indicates women are typically regarded more as the "givers" in America, while men are socialized to be the passive recipients of such effort (Caplow 1984; Sherry and McGrath 1989).

Equally as prominent was the tendency for our respondents to describe self-gifts as their favorite parts of Valentine's Day. Self-gifts can be defined as special self-indulgences that tend to be premeditated and highly context-bound (Mick and DeMoss 1990). These self-gifts took many forms. The most common was the time men enjoyed with their significant others during the holiday. Some descriptions of time spent together were quite poignant, and reflect how much this self-gift was valued:

The intimate time I spent with my girlfriend.

Being with each other and celebrating our first Valentine's Day together.

It is the first year that I spent this day with this particular person whom I care about.

I was able to share it with someone I cared about.

The value of time as a gift during courtship was discussed by Belk and Coon (1991; 1993), who note that men often place equal, or more, value upon intangibles as they do upon tangible gifts.

Moreover, we also support Belk and Coon's finding that sex is often viewed as an important gift during courtship. Sex can be viewed as a gift of self. Given that men may celebrate Valentine's Day primarily to commemorate romance, it is not surprising sex was mentioned as a favorite aspect of the holiday.

Another self-gift that emerged could be viewed as compensation for men's lack of romantic involvement at Valentine's Day. This gift involved socializing with other friends who were also not involved in a romantic relationship, or attending a special event on Valentine's Day:

Spending the day with other single friends.

I had a Valentine's Day dance and spent it with my friends.

I was with some of my closest friends I got here, and we had a small get-together.

I spent the evening with a good friend of mine, who is also single, and we had a ball.

While the pleasure expressed at participating in these events is no doubt sincere, for some respondents, spending the occasion with friends may have been important in order to help them alleviate the dissonance associated at being "left out" (e.g., single) at Valentine's Day.

A final form of self-gift male respondents reported receiving was their deliberate attempt to celebrate Valentine's Day in a "low-key" fashion. Respondents wrote:

It was relaxingCwe had a great time just being with each other.

No frills. Didn't go out of my way to buy something expensive. Just basic.

The fact that I was not obligated to buy anyone a gift.

For me it wasn't overhyped.

Thus, consistent with the responses regarding the purpose of Valentine's Day, being spared from a heightened feeling of obligation was viewed positively by the respondents.

A few males offered responses centering around the emotional fulfillment of Valentine's Day, without the mention of gifts. For example:

Knowing someone cares and wants to spend time with you.

Mutual expression of love and thoughtfulness.

Girlfriend and I expressed true feelings for each other.

The mood got me and my (ex) girlfriend to talk about "things."

Thus, while many of the "like best" responses did focus upon tangible or intangible gifts, some males valued the overall affective state that was achieved.

Liked Least About Valentine's Day. Perhaps it is not surprising that our respondents' most common answer to "What did you like least about Valentine's Day?" was the lack of a significant other. Like other occasions in America (e.g., wedding anniversaries), Valentine's Day can exclude individuals who do not meet (or feel they meet) the criteria for inclusion in the celebration. As such, legitimacy of participation may be a salient issue for respondents who perceive they are excluded from valid participation. Moreover, the emphasis upon romantic love and couples in America may reinforce feelings of inadequacy among those who are not romantically involved.

While many males simply wrote "Didn't have a girlfriend" in their response to the "like least" question, others were more articulate about why this was such a negative aspect of the holiday:

The fact that I didn't, or never have had, someone to celebrate it with.

No current girlfriend to really enjoy the meaning of Valentines' Day.

Not having anyone to spend time alone with.

I just ended a relationship, and I think V-day is for romantic partners. I didn't give anything nor did I expect anything while my dating friends could exchange things.

Furthermore, references to relationships that have ended reveal that for many single males, Valentine's Day can evoke unhappy memories of past romances.

Our assumption that Valentine's Day may be difficult for uninvolved males was reinforced by the emergence of another salient theme among our "liked least" responses, that of the social and psychological pressure emanating from various sources. Men often reported they were subjected to feelings of guilt, obligation or anxiety during the holiday:

The fact that media and society keeps reminding me what day it was and I didn't have a girlfriend.

Buying cards or even thinking that I had to buy something or else I would feel guilty.

The strings that are attached. There's no such thing as a non-committal Valentine's Day gift.

Feeling obligated to get something for a woman I have only seen sporadically for a few weeks. We are hardly a couple, yet I felt I had to get her something.

I disliked the tension I felt from trying to find the right gift.

I wish that people would not resort to "card companies" to show that they care. It is cheaper and just as easy to make a card. It could be as simple or extravagant as they want.

Therefore, even men who did celebrate Valentine's Day often felt manipulated into participating.

Three common patterns also emerged that were unrelated to gift-giving per se. These were: men's inability to be with their significant other; lack of time to celebrate and bad situational experiences (e.g., "Did not like my dinner."). Separation and lack of time probably stem from the nature of the college sample. Likewise, the situational comments did not seem limited to Valentine's Day in particular.

However, two other categories that also emerged less frequently did relate to gift-giving. First was the view of Valentine's Day (and gifts in particular) as too expensive. A second category that related to gifts is that men complained when they did not receive anything at the holiday:

I didn't get anything for the first time.

The fact that no one was obligated to buy me a gift.

Girlfriend still has not gotten me a card.

Not receiving a gift from my boyfriend, when I went through the trouble of buying him some things.

Thus, the above responses show how strongly Valentine's Day gifts and cardsCor lack thereofCfigure in men's enjoyment of Valentine's Day. Specifically, most positive aspects related to receiving gifts, while many negative aspects stem from the pressure of giving, costs incurred in gift-giving, or the lack of gifts received. Furthermore, the inability to participate in Valentine's Day because of lack of a significant other was clearly what made many men most unhappy.

#3 Purpose of Gifts

Consistent with the responses regarding the overall purpose of Valentine's Day, one main purpose of gifts was to show caring and affection for significant others: "To show people that I cared and that I was thinking of them;" "I wanted to show her how much I care." As part of this theme, respondents also indicated that the gift itself would help to demonstrate the importance of the person or the strength of feelings:

Because I wanted to make her feel loved and I figured something material would help.

To say that I care enough about the other person that I got her something.

In addition, respondents described feelings beyond caring and affection, by suggesting that enjoyment and surprise were also important aspects of the gift-giving process:

To let those people know I cared about them and to make them happy.

To make my girlfriend smile.

To surprise a good friend at another university .

To show that I really care and because the gifts were entertaining for me too.

Thus, the emotions related to the gift itself were different than those regarding the purpose of the holiday, where responses focused on the love and affection rather than joy experienced by either the giver or recipient.

Obligation. Respondents also indicated that the desire to meet expectations and obligations was a primary purpose of giving gifts. These obligations stemmed from expectations of significant others, desire to avoid negative situations, and the desire for balanced reciprocity (Belk 1976).

Because if there is someone special, it seems sort of expected.

Because if I didn't, I would never hear the end of it.

To perpetuate the holiday and not seem rude. I knew I was getting one so I had to give.

Altruism. Although not as prevalent as the two themes discussed above, a third pattern in the data suggested altruism: "Because I wanted to do something nice for these people;" "Because I wanted to;" "Because it's a nice gesture." This theme is consistent with altruistic motivations that have been reported in other studies of gift exchange (Wolfinbarger 1990; Goodwin, Smith and Spiggle 1990). However, it is interesting that the theme of obligation was more evident than that which expressed the desire to spontaneously give gifts.

#4 Purpose of Cards

The themes that emerged regarding the purpose of cards was consistent with the prevalent themes about gifts: to show feelings of caring and affection and to meet obligations. Yet respondents also indicated that cards had a particular role in expressing thoughts or feelings:

I'm better at expressing my feelings in writing.

Cards can say it a lot better than I can.

To express my thoughts and feelings in a different way that I wouldn't be able to do whether that is serious or humorous.

With respect to feelings of obligation, respondents indicated they felt pressure exerted by individuals or the marketplace to give cards.

Obligation to some, because I like them for others.

Guilt that I had to and common courtesy.

Sent card to grandma because my mom told me to.

Isn't that what card companies say you're supposed to do?

These types of responses are consistent with previous themes, where pressure was exerted from a variety of internal and external sources.

Accompaniment to Gift. Other respondents did not mention the role of expressing feelings but focused on cards as an accompaniment to a gift: "As tags for the gifts;" "It's part of the package." This theme suggests the card can play a fairly functional role in the gift-giving process and implies that some of our respondents have internalized a rule that packages are somehow "bare" without cards attached.

#5 Why Respondents Did Not Give Cards/Gifts.

Our final question asked respondents who did not give cards or gifts this year to indicate why they did not. The fact that the most prevalent reason was lack of a romantic partner reinforces the notion that for men, the holiday is primarily an opportunity to mark romantic relationships rather than to acknowledge the importance of other types of relationships:

I didn't choose to give a gift because I didn't really have anyone (a girlfriend) to give one to.

No girlfriend.

I don't have a girlfriendCso, no point. And I don't need to be reminded that I want one by giving it to a prospective (yet reluctant) Valentine.

For respondents who perceive Valentine's Day as relevant to those besides romantic partners (e.g., parents, siblings, etc.), the nature of the relationship seemed to dictate the rationale for not participating in gift-giving activities: "Grandparents not living. No girlfriend. Dad left. RoommatesCdon't like them."

Lack of Adequate Resources. A more pragmatic rationale for not giving cards or gifts also emerged. Here, lack of money and time were cited as reasons for not participating.

Laziness more than anythingCI wanted to but time and money hindered me.

Too busy and didn't see any reason to.

Didn't have the time to search for the "right" card.

Again, this situation may be due in part to our student sample.

Response to a Commercial Holiday. The notion that business exerts a great deal of pressure to participate emerged again in the reasons for not giving Valentine's Day cards or gifts. Many respondents expressed this belief in a variety of ways, with frequent references to Valentine's Day being a "Manufactured" holiday. One respondent expressed particularly strong feelings:

Giving gifts on Valentine's Day has become a superficial, trendy thing to do. It's mostly brought about by the media's brainwashing, capitalistic attempts at maximizing profits. Giving Valentine's gifts as a sign of love or friendship is OK if you feel strongly about itCbut not if you feel you have to because of what society says. The fact that I'm not involved in a relationship at the moment probably had something to do with it, however.

As suggested by the themes that emerged with respect to the purpose of Valentine's Day, for men the role of a romantic partner seems to be critical aspect in determining their satisfaction with, and participation in, gift-giving activities. As suggested by this respondent, the presence of a romantic partner might help offset negative perceptions of the commercial aspect of the holiday. This finding supports our general proposition that peopleCespecially menCwho are not involved in a romantic relationship may not feel like valid participants in the holiday.


Several themes emerged across the various questions regarding men's beliefs about and participation in Valentine's Day gift-exchange activities. Clearly, many men believe Valentine's Day provides an opportunity to show feelings of caring and affection for significant others. While many respondents indicated that Valentine's Day was most appropriate for romantic partners, others indicated remembering family members and friends. Consistent with the literature on emotions, our respondents made clear distinctions between the types of emotions shared with different types of people: feelings of closeness and friendship for friends, affection for family members, and strong feelings of love for important romantic partners (Smith and Ellsworth 1985; Shaver et al. 1987).

Feelings of obligation to participate, however, were quite prevalent throughout the responses. These feelings of obligation stemmed from pressure exerted by significant others and institutions (e.g., media and businesses). This result may help to explain why one particular theme emerged with respect to what men liked the most about the holiday: being able to celebrate the holiday in a low-key fashion, without feeling obligated to meet the heightened expectations of others.

Finally, although many respondents indicated the holiday included a variety of celebrants, the predominant "significant other" for most men was a romantic partner. Lack of such a partner was clearly the least liked aspect of the holiday for many respondents and was one of the prevalent reasons why men did not give cards or gifts. This result is not entirely consistent with women's activities. In our previous study, women indicated that they gave cards and gifts to many friends and family members.

These results provide important insight in the nature of men's perceptions about gift-giving at Valentine's Day and point to possible explanations for their perceptions of gift-exchange. In particular, men and women may perceive different levels of "appropriate" gift-exchange participation. While women may have been socialized as the primary gift-givers in our society, men may prefer a more "low-key" approach to marking this particular holiday (and perhaps many gift-exchange occasions). However, the predominant theme concerning what men liked most about the holiday dealt with gift receipt itself. These two themes, in combination, suggest that men enjoy receiving gifts but feel pressured into giving gifts. In fact, no respondent expressed a perception that they had received "too many gifts" or "too much" of a gift, whereas many respondents expressed a desire to feel less obligated to give gifts. A potentially controversial conclusion, then, is that the men in this sample wanted to receive gifts but did not want to invest the time, effort, or emotional or monetary investment to reciprocate.


This study has provided important insight into men's perceptions of the purpose of Valentine's Day and the purpose of gift-giving, including cards, to mark the holiday. This study is an important departure from other studies about gift-exchange for two primary reasons: (1) it focuses on men's perceptions and beliefs about a particular gift-giving occasion; and (2) it focuses on a holiday, Valentine's Day, that has received less attention than more prominent gift-giving occasions such as Christmas. This paper expands on our earlier finding that men hold less positive attitudes toward the holiday and delves into the reasons behind these less positive attitudes.

The study reveals that men view Valentine's Day as an occasion to show caring and affection toward significant others. However, the holiday is also associated with negatively perceived pressures to participate.

This study suggests the importance of exploring the gift-giving processes for both men and women in order to explore the commonalities of psychological processes and to explore differences in the perceptions that influence gift-exchange processes and activities. In addition, this study suggests an important role of emotions in gift-exchange activity. Our respondents made important distinctions between the types of emotions expressed through gift-giving activity. They also indicated a variety of emotions that may accompany gift exchangeCincluding joy, love, disappointment, guilt, and anger. Investigations of the role of emotions may provide important insights into the "mixed" feelings men experience during gift-exchange, both at Valentine's Day and other occasions.


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Cele Otnes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Julie A. Ruth, University of Washington
Constance C. Milbourne, Leo Burnett, U.S.A.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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