When is a gift not a gift?

A gift comes without a price tag, right? Well, there’s an exception in an old superstition that a gift with a cutting edge; such as a pocket knife or certain tools; should have a charge of the smallest denomination of money which is available – usually a copper penny, which is in the process of being discontinued in Canada by the way. Perhaps a five cent piece will be used soon by those Canadians who follow the tradition. Seems like a token charge anyway.

At any rate, this is the only time (which I know of) when money is charged for a gift but, could there be other ways of charging? Recently I saw a cartoon where a man was wearing a hat that was so oversized that he looked ridiculous, but his wife insisted that he wear it during his mother in law’s visit (she was on the way to their home) for the duration of the visit, since it was a gift from the man’s mother in law.

Then, an aquaintance of mine told me of how outraged he was when he bought a vase for a mutual friend who was very well off financially, but not wealthy. It seems the outrage was about the recipient not returning the favour with a gift back. Possibly a more valuable “gift” so that their contribution was relative in how much they gave in regard to their resources. Then again, perhaps not but … there was still an expectation of something.

These, and so many other examples, lead me to wonder if many an alleged gift is really no such thing, but rather the tip of a metaphorical lever to exert undue power and control on the recipient.

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4 Responses to When is a gift not a gift?

  1. Ian Argis says:

    David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” and more recently Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”
    both make the point that this is the facto mode of socializing, before the rise of commerce.
    This is a long talk, but very interesting nonetheless:

  2. steppenik says:

    True, that it is a fairly long commentary but, in all this detail, it does give a fair bit of data to support that which seems to be a claim to how our present standards of a gift evolved from when it helped balances differences in surplus, and shortage, of posessions – prior to the development of commerce. I do feel that the introcuction of commerce has changed the concept of a gift as less response, and counter-response, to a gift is now necessary. In short, I feel that we are freer now to give and receive without expectations.
    Since I don’t know if any of this has been subjected to the subjectivity of a formal, and high standard, peer review; I am unaware if the presentation is an acceptable theory, that’s been reviewed by peers in the field, or a hypothesis which loosely translates as, “less than a theory”
    I will, however, admit that a hypothesis can be have both great accuracy and value.
    Thanks for adding to my data source(s) as my search continues.

    • Ian Argis says:

      The ideas resonated with me since in my summer vacations, when visiting my grandparents (in Eastern Europe, ~30 years ago) I could still observe most of these in use. People were definitely accustomed with the idea of commerce and money as some would work in the nearby city and the village store transacted with money. But inside the community, gifting and lending were very much preferred to money transactions. People would prepare feasts, build houses, and ask help of people inside of their social (sometimes quite extended) circle whenever needed. At a later time when help was needed or simply to even the balance a counter-service or good was provided. At other times grain or other goods were lend and received back either in the same or in a different form as agreed. Sometimes an extra gift was occasionally added to show appreciation. You could argue this was bartering but the same people did not seem to barter with people from outside their circle, they transacted with money (if when building a house an outsider came he has paid, others were not). Hence, this was to me looking more like contracts of a social norm, rather than economic (this varied in its mix quite a bit).

      My dime 😉

      PS: I will check when I’ll have the chance Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” for further references on New Guinea’s similar customs.

      • steppenik says:

        Thank you for this. I recall visiting a large city in Ukrainia where my grandmother was born and where less of this was apparent than what one may find in the country. However, growing up in Canadian areas where the farm communities were influenced by Ukrainian immigrants from the 1880’s revealed a lot of helping each other and doing very little to count the balance; and that view of the assessment seemed to mostly favour need.
        This is can probably be found in agricultural places worldwide but, your commentary appears to also reflect a distrust of the Soviet economic system which I believe I saw.
        While I don’t see your commentary bringing major, or core, changes in my view I have had to mke adjustments toward a better understanding.

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