Before you whip out that credit card, ask yourself if the gift you're about to buy for someone is expressing your true feelings - or will it just insult them?
Once again, we're in the Season of Present-Buying. The advertisers are vocal, the wrapping paper is benign and sparkly. But beneath those ribbons lurks danger - embarrassment, obligation, even insult, as well as potential delight.
The supposed purpose of giving gifts is simple enough - to express our love, care or respect for one another. But wait ... the hay fever sufferer doesn't feel cared-for if they're given flowers, and I've felt utterly mortified at the sight of an expensive package from my ex. Every gift carries a message and some sense of obligation with it - and it's not always the message a recipient wants to hear.
Presents are communications buried in code. If we're the giver, the anticipation of the other's delight might make us feel proud, excited and powerful. As receivers we might be delighted, but we might also be disappointed or disadvantaged by what we unwrap.
From early childhood we've been carefully trained to arrange our faces into the right expressions and act out thankfulness, no matter what we feel.
Honesty is impolite.
If only, instead, we were taught the hidden language of gifts! When we reflect back somebody's taste accurately, we flatter them exquisitely. When we show insight into the identity a person most enjoys, our presents speak volumes. And we might actually touch somebody deeply by doing or saying something special, without buying a single thing.
But let's start with material giving. Beyond the simple exercise of the credit card, this is a highly individual affair. I've seldom been happier than when friends have found a quirky little item for my collection of Crown Lynn.
But when a chooser of presents fails to observe their recipient wisely, even lavish offerings may be met with woe: Take my friend Ellen, who always wears silver. This birthday her husband splashed out on hand-made earrings in gold. Ellen rang me, sobbing that her husband doesn't notice or care who she is. Girlfriends moan, when given useful, shiny labour-saving kitchen devices, that their partners think of them chiefly as domestic drudge.
In gifts from our loved ones, we hope to see ourselves reflected as unique, beautiful and fascinating.
I'm haunted by the memory of a boss who sent his secretary out to choose presents for his children. Even if I wrap up something valuable from my "present drawer", (a place where I stow gifts I've been given but never much liked), I'm ashamed because my gift lacks individual consideration. As in most matters of the heart, shortcuts seldom work: Ask what someone wants, buy it, and wrap it; while the object may be welcome, the process will have devalued the essence of our gift - embodied thought, time and bespoke observation.
Social messages urge us to be generous to others at Christmas. Meanness is certainly despised. Yet there are also unspoken perils in giving too much.
It's agonising to receive much more than you give. It's awkward to receive from someone you barely know or don't much like. And it's bittersweet to receive a grand present from someone who you know can ill afford it. No matter how apt and charming the present, someone else's financial sacrifice is seldom a joy. Equal dignity is often a kinder gift than redistribution of wealth.
I've noticed that one-off offerings somehow escape the taints of obligation. Treasures that were waiting for attention in my loft, antiques or home-grown olive oil always feel great to give and are well-received, perhaps because they are naturally priceless, specific and unique.
Generosity can be wonderful and give real pleasure when well-conceived. We excuse bad gift giving with the trite phrase "It's the thought that counts". In fact thought is just what's needed. We'd do better if we asked ourselves a few honest questions before we proceed to the checkout: Why exactly am I giving the present? What do I want to reflect back to this person? Am I expecting anything from this gesture, and how might I make the recipient feel?
Maybe iPods, gadgets and goodies aren't the best way to convey the messages we most want to give. Certainly, marriage counsellor Dr Gary Chapman noticed that everyone he had ever counselled had a "love language", a primary way of expressing and interpreting love. Alarmingly, he also discovered that, for whatever reason, we are usually drawn to those who speak a different love language than our own.
Of the countless ways we can show love to one another, five key categories proved to be universal. According to Chapman, everyone has a love language, and we all identify primarily with one of the five: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. Rather than careful shopping, a different sort of gesture might say more.
I for one, am an Act of Service girl. I'm grateful, years later, to my friend Silas for helping me move house and cook for friends. I never forget his generosity, yet when I think back, he's never bought me a thing. I love to help my friends in practical ways.
And I often notice how delicious it is when I or my partner manage to re-frame those tiny conflicts of preference - like curtains open or shut, lunch at this restaurant, not that - as opportunities for kindness. If we choose to compromise graciously from time to time, cheerily saying "I'll give you this one", we demonstrate something that money could never buy - true generosity of spirit. And that is the stuff that counts.
So we should pause for thought before we blunder into the annual ritual of Christmas shopping. Not just because buying less would be good for the planet or for our overdrafts, but because engaging in it without thinking might be counterproductive if what we want is to express our care and love.
THE LANGUAGES OF LOVE
(DR GARY CHAPMAN)
* Words of Affirmation
Actions don't always speak louder than words. If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. Hearing the words, "I love you," are important - hearing the reasons behind that love sends your spirits skyward. Insults can leave you shattered and are not easily forgotten.
* Quality Time
In the vernacular of Quality Time, nothing says, "I love you," like full, undivided attention. Being there for this type of person is critical, but really being there - with the TV off, fork and knife down, and all chores and tasks on standby - makes your significant other feel truly special and loved. Distractions, postponed dates, or the failure to listen can be especially hurtful.
* Receiving Gifts
Don't mistake this love language for materialism; the receiver of gifts thrives on the love, thoughtfulness, and effort behind the gift. If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous - so would the absence of everyday gestures.
* Acts of Service
Can vacuuming the floors really be an expression of love? Absolutely! Anything you do to ease the burden of responsibilities weighing on an "Acts of Service" person will speak volumes. The words he or she most want to hear: "Let me do that for you." Laziness, broken commitments, and making more work for them tell speakers of this language their feelings don't matter.
* Physical Touch
This language isn't all about the bedroom. A person whose primary language is Physical Touch is, not surprisingly, very touchy. Hugs, pats on the back, holding hands, and thoughtful touches on the arm, shoulder, or face - they can all be ways to show excitement, concern, care, and love. Physical presence and accessibility are crucial, while neglect or abuse can be unforgivable and destructive.