An Experiment In Giving For A Sated Society

Sated? You betcha! We’re in the age of immediate gratification, where everything we could wish for is just a click away. So we click. And click. And click. Want it? Got it!

Editor’s Note: This article was written with Dr. Gabriella Djerrahian, Professor of Anthropology at UQAM, Montreal

No wonder we find ourselves at Holiday season, mostly middle-class shoppers, spending ridiculous amounts of time and money to buy presents for other middle-class recipients who really don’t need them. Yet, every year, I find myself running amok from one shopping mall to the next, trying to come up with original gift ideas that will somehow outdo, or  at the very least, equal what I gave last year.

None of the awesome presents I buy, buy, buy are for me – at least not at first glance. Like other holiday shoppers, everything I purchase is, well, to be given away. Now, before we start patting ourselves on the back in approbation of our infinite generosity, let me remind you that by the time New Year’s rolls in, my pile of give-away presents has been replaced by a new pile of gifts that others bought expressly for me.

For one thing, the gifts we let go of come back to us through highly ritualized exchanges – gifting and counter-gifting (and in the not- so- secret practice coined by that famous philosopher, Seinfeld, “re-gifting”) in the commercial hoopla we call Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza.

So why go through the trouble of just moving stuff around from one person to the next, year after year, in a never-ending cycle of reciprocity? The answer is quite simple: gifting is a ritual that consolidates bonds between friends and families. It makes us feel good to show people we love just how much we care. And, yes, I feel like a five-year-old kid when I open my presents. It’s just plain fun.

This is one of the questions that inspired the brilliant French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) who wrote about it in his seminal essay called “The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies,” published in 1925. Almost a century ago, Mauss showed that what the gift does – the function it serves – is far more important than the actual gift itself. What power resides in the object given, he asked, that causes its recipient to pay it back? To answer that, he delved into historical cases of gift giving, solidarity, and social relations in ancient civilizations and tribal societies.

Of the various gift-giving practices that Mauss described, the potlatch, a complex gift -giving ceremony institutionalized by some Native American communities along the Canadian and American northwest pacific coast is one of the most fascinating.

For Mauss, the potlatch is nothing more than a system of gifts exchanged, or, as he called it, a “gift economy.” To put it simply, a chief would throw a huge party for a bunch of tribes. The objective of the ceremony would be for him to show off his high social standing by giving away his wealth in a way that competed with the guests’ ability to do the same towards the host (counter-gifting).

Outdoing one another through the act of giving away wealth was orchestrated by rituals that took place within a highly complex legal and political system. Mauss showed that gift giving is really a system of exchange and that gifting is not a random act of kindness, but rather competitive gifting and counter-gifting rituals that occurred within the framework of hospitality and rivalry. Sound familiar?

If we take a closer look at our own Christmas gifting carnival, it’s not hard to see how the expenditure of thousands upon thousands of dollars each year is, well, kind of silly.

I am not suggesting we should stop gifting or showing appreciation to those we love by way of presents. But we have gotten to a point of excess commercialism, which of course is a symptom of the consumption-based societies we live in. Of course, there are alternatives to status quo gifting practices, yet none of them have gone mainstream.

Most of us have a great sense of appropriateness in gift giving .The lavishness, the originality, the regularity of gifts we give one another is a finely entrenched, carefully constructed norm of reciprocity that has usually developed over the years in our relationships.

Of course, you could play it safe, but who really wants another fruitcake, cheese basket or case of wine? (and how do you know if your recipient isn’t lactose-intolerant, averse to alcohol or doesn’t fancy sweets?)

What if you could come up with the perfect gift for some of the people on your list, something that they would treasure and remember you for?
What if it was so perfect because they specifically told you this was what they want?
And what if it cost you –   0 money?
 And what if you could guarantee that you would get the perfect gift from your nearest and dearest, and not even worry that they had broken the bank to “gift” you?

This could be possible, as a version of Peer-Mentoring, as described in my new book, “A Swift Kick in the Can’ts – the New Peer Mentor Model for Success Now”.

Say your best friend really needs to polish her speaking skills and has told you this on numerous occasions. You could offer to give her some coaching and a few practice sessions over the course of the next few months.

And maybe she can offer to help with your Spanish, to get you ready for that business trip you’re planning to South America.

These “gifts” could be presented in the form of a beautifully wrapped “certificate”; you could still go through the ritual of giving each other a package during the Holidays. The difference would be a) neither of you will have had to burden their already-groaning credit card and b) the gifts are something each of you really, really needs and wants. c) this form of giving has a built-in feature of reciprocity since you both know and have to have agreed to what you consider a “fair” exchange.

The great thing about peer mentoring is that it does not necessarily require money since the currency is skill or other resources. Peer Mentoring is a process through which people identify their own resources and those of others and then create specific strategies of resource exchange for mutual goal achievement. It is a new adaptation of the age-old concept of reciprocity practiced by all cultures.

So, as you find yourself frantically searching for that “perfect” gift for someone on your list in a crowded mall (or mind-boggling website) think again. Is there another way to give exactly what your giftee wants and needs?

Happy Holidays!


Elaina Zuker
Elaina Zuker
ELAINA is the president of Elaina Zuker Associates in Montréal, Canada. She has taught seminars to hundreds of employees and managers at major corporations such as AT&T, IBM, American Express, and MCI International, and is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and industry events. She is the author of six books, on leadership, management, and communication. Her best-selling book, “The Seven Secrets of Influence” (McGraw-Hill), the recent Main Selection for the Business Week Book Club, has been translated into four languages and its new, revised 2021 edition is now available on Amazon in paperback and as an e-book on Amazon Kindle. Her new book about Peer Mentoring YOUX2 has also just been launched on Amazon. Her internationally successful program “Secrets of Influence ™ is now available as an online learning program, either as a completely online self-study program or in a hybrid version. The program, created with the latest educational technology, can also be customized for an organization’s specific requirements. Ms. Zuker holds a B.A. in Psychology, an M.A. in Management/Organizational Development, and is the 2004 recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award from New York Polytechnic University. To engage Ms. Zuker as a speaker or consultant, to book a seminar for your company or organization, or to learn how to become a licensed Affiliate for Secrets of Influence, visit or contact us at [email protected]

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