Special Session Summary the Meaning of Gifts and Greetings


Russell W. Belk (1996) ,"Special Session Summary the Meaning of Gifts and Greetings", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 13.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Page 13



Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

Giving presents is a talent; to know what a person wants, to know when and how to get it, to give it lovingly and well. Unless a character possesses this talent there is no moment more annihilating to ease than that in which a present is received and given (Pamela Glenconner, Edward Wyndhan Tennant: A Memoir, 1919; npn, chapter 5).

Gift-giving is attracting a growing amount of attention in both consumer research (e.g., Otnes and Beltramini forthcoming) and other disciplines (e.g., Carrier 1994; Derrida 1992; Hendry 1995; Miller 1993; Schmidt 1995; Waits 1993). Nevertheless, numerous questions remain intriguingly unanswered involving the basic meanings of gifts and gift-giving rituals. For gift-giving does not accord well with assumptions of self-interested rationality. It is known to be a highly symbolic, highly emotional, interpersonal medium that helps us say things that we find difficult or impossible to say in words. At the same time, it appears that few of us speak this symbolic language well and miscommunication, disappointment, and failure are frequent. Since this language and attendant rituals are culture-specific, we will need to frame our research cross-culturally. The papers in this session explored the symbolic role of greeting card exchange, cross-cultural differences in the role of mothers in family gift-giving, and reciprocal Christmas gifts from young children.

The presentation by Greta Pennell (dressed in her Pip the Elf costume) turned prior work on its head by using participant observation as Santa's helper and a content analysis of children's letters to Santa Claus to find that children actively participate in a reciprocal gift economy with this commercial deity, rather than simply act as greedy recipients of Santa's largesse. Pennell's findings take the perspective of the child into consideration and demonstrate that far from being a passive recipients of gifts, even very young children engage in a number of distinct types of reciprocity with Santa.

A cross-cultural and familial examination of gift giving among Anglo-Celtic, Sino-Vietnamese, and Israeli mothers was presented by Constance Hill and Celia Romm. These cultures were chosen to exemplify different points on the power distance and individualism/collectivism cultural continuua suggested by Hofstede (1980). The study examined the implication of these differences for that chief keeper of gift-giving rituals: the mother. Meaningful differences in gift motivations, selections, presentation rituals, and recipient reactions were detected in their depth interview data, as will be seen in the paper.

The third paper by Kimberly Dodson and me examined the role of birthday cards in interpersonal relationships. While there is a small amount of literature addressing birthday celebrations (e.g., Chudacoff 1989; Linton and Linton 1952; Mooney and Brabandt 1987; Otnes and McGrath 1994; Shamgar-Handleman and Handleman 1991) or examining selected effects of greeting cards (see the paper), a comprehensive examination of the intended and actual messages communicated by these cards has been missing. Focusing on both card givers and recipients, the study detected a "mine field" of miscommunication possibilities.

Following the presentations, Cele Otnes led a lively discussion that focused on cross-cultural differences in gift-giving and the difficulties of such cross-cultural work, on gender differences in card-giving and the research possibilities introduced by personalized greeting card machines, and on the materialism versus altruism revealed by children's requests to Santa Claus. The only disappointment in an otherwise stimulating and enriching session was when "Pip" stepped out to find a toilet and was told by hotel personnel that they had no toilets for elves.


Carrier, James (1994), Gifts and Commodities, London: Routledge.

Chudacoff, Howard P. (1989), How Old Are You?, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1992), Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, Peggy Knauf, trans., Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hendry, Joy (1995), Wrapping Culture, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hofstede, Geert (1980), Culture's Consequences, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Linton, Ralph and Adelin Linton (1952), The Lore of Birthdays, New York: Henry Schuman.

Miller, Daniel, ed. (1994), Unwrapping Christmas, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mooney, Linda A. and Sarah Brabant (1987), "Birthday Cards, Love, and Communication," Sociology and Social Research, 72 (October), 106-109.

Otnes, Cele and Richard Beltramini, eds. (forthcoming), Gift-Giving: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press.

Otnes, Cele and Mary Ann McGrath (1994), "Ritual Socialization and the Children's Birthday Party: The Early Emergence of Gender Differences," Journal of Ritual Studies, 8 (Winter), 73-93.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric (1995), Consumer Rites, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shamgar-Handelman, Lee and Don Handelman (1991), "Celebrations of Bureaucracy: Birthday Parties in Israeli Kindergartens," Ethnology, 30 (October), 293-312.

Waits, William B. (1993), The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving, New York: New York University Press.



Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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