Gifts and meanings

Released: Monday 13 December 2021

Bringing someone a gift should delight both of you, but in some cases both buying a gift and receiving it can be fraught with danger and anxiety.

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Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: And this week, we are going to be talking about not communicating in the way we talk, but also a thing which goes alongside it. We’re talking about gifts. What shall we bring? Gifts and meanings. This is something that I’m really interested in, particularly it’s good to talk to you about it, because I think you’re very good at presents, Tom, and I don’t think I am.

Tom Salinsky: I’m okay. I’m okay. I think I got a lot of points in the bank early on in my relationship with Deborah, because I was sort of lucky in that over the first few months, I happen to kind of clock a few things and file them away and think “that would be good.” So like a book that she talked about reading when she was a child, which she couldn’t find any more, I was able to find a copy of that, that sort of thing. And now we’ve been married a long time. After all, you run out of that kind of thing, and you just say – what’s on your Amazon wish list?

Alex MacLaren: Yes, that is true. And I think it’s also the case that it is harder to give gifts to people who are just older. I mean, buying things for kids is dead easy, because they haven’t got anything and they want everything. And so you’ve got a lot of things that you can choose from. They very easily have things that they’re faddish about and interested in. And therefore, you can simply go and get something from the toy shop. My son, he changes his latest thing that he wants a present all at the time. But he’s always incredibly happy with something that we give him. And we’ll come back to that, I think in due course.

Tom Salinsky: I know in other cultures, there are some quite strict rules about gift giving, I worked for a while for an English guy who had lots of Japanese clients. And there were very strict rules that related to not how old the person was, nor how long you’d known them, nor how close your relationship was, but actually to their seniority in the company. And it was the monetary value of the gift that mattered. You had to buy something more expensive for the person who was more senior, something less expensive for the person more junior and so on all the way down the line. And if you didn’t, it was seen as a great insult.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s interesting, and also those rules often have to be learnt only consciously by people from outside that circle. Very often the rules are tacit, which are kind of soaked up over a lifetime, and you figure it out in your 30 years as a salaried person within a Japanese organisation. In fact, with that in mind, I had a conversation only yesterday with my sister-in-law, who is Polish by birth, and she’s only lived in the UK since about the last 10 years, or however long she’s known my brother Sam, and we were talking about this very question, because at her wedding, I noticed that one of the things that was a standard wedding gift, at a Polish wedding, is an envelope of cash. Now, for that to happen at the British wedding, it would feel like it would have a completely different kind of meaning. It’s absolutely the thing to do to help a young Polish couple get set up. And also it avoids that risk of getting too many teapots, which is something that happens, or can happen. And we in the UK, we avoid it by having a wedding list set up at Heals or John Lewis, which means that everyone can go along and select something which suits their pocket, and which has doesn’t duplicate something they’ve already been bought by somebody else.

Tom Salinsky: And that feels to us totally different from the envelope of cash. But actually, it’s more similar to the envelope of cash than what we think about as traditional gift buying, which is: Alex, I know you so well, that I’ve been able to find something that you will adore that you didn’t even know you wanted. Which, I think, is the kind of Holy Grail of gift buying.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, this is it. It’s like – oh my god, I would never have chosen this for myself, but now I’ve got it, it’s absolutely perfect. I’m going to go first with this, but I want you to think about it as well. When we think about the perfect gifts given to us in our life, very often it’s something like that. And I was just wondering it can you think of a particular object or thing which is absolutely in your life, still very much part of your existence, but which was a gift from somebody else – and I’ve got something. I’ve got a friend who’s very, very good at gifts. And when we first moved out of London and into our flat in Folkstone in Kent parcel arrived, I opened it up very excited. It was from my best mate from drama school. And he basically bought me this coffee machine, but it wasn’t a plugin Gaggia or DeLonghi, it was a manual object. It’s actually constructed, the engineering is like a corkscrew. And so you put in your coffee and sort of fill it up with normal coffee, like in a coffee machine that a barista would use. And then you pour in water at the top and then squeeze down two levers, and it’s that manual pressure that produces your espresso. Anyway, I absolutely love it. And I use it like four or five times a day. I’ve replaced most parts in it, it’s like axe that took off Anne Bolyn’s head, everything’s been replaced, but it’s still the same original thing. And it’s almost like, I barely remember almost as a present at all. It’s just entered into the fabric of my existence. And it is an absolute beauty. And I love it. Have you got anything quite like that?

Tom Salinsky: The thing that leaps immediately to mind is one of those things that I actually didn’t know I wanted, because I didn’t even know it existed until it was given to me as a present. And that was membership of the Wine Society – which is a curious gift because you’re being given the gift of purchasing. But you do have to be put forward as a member. So only another member can buy this for you as a gift. And it was given to me by someone who knows much more about wine than I do, at a stage of my life when I was buying more wine, and keen not to waste money on buying very expensive wine that I didn’t like. And so this turned out to be a truly excellent gift. And yeah again, something I’m still using – not every day, Alex, that would be upsetting – but something I’m still using very, very regularly.

Alex MacLaren: I was wondering for a moment whether it was me that joined you to the Wine Society. But when you said someone who knows more about wine than you, I knew it couldn’t be me.

Tom Salinsky: No, it wasn’t you. Where do you think gift giving fits in in the corporate world? When is it appropriate to buy someone a gift that you’re just working with? Or working for?

Alex MacLaren: Well, it depends on the nature of the gift, I think. Do you remember that episode of Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister in which basically a diplomatic gift is handed over, and there are very, very strict rules about what happens with diplomatic gifts in the United Kingdom. And so the whole joke is about whether or not Jim Hacker can take home this lovely vase and give it to his wife, Annie, or whether or not he has to declare it and hand it over to the Foreign Office for them to sell it or auction it or whatever. And so I think that if you were to take something kind of small and charming and personal along and present it to somebody, or take it to a meeting for you to share, for example, I think that feels less stressful. I think that can be quite a lot of stress involved in handing over a gift with some sort of meaning attached to it, which is substantial. Literally just the other day, a client got in touch with us and asked me to make a donation, I was asked to give something for their Christmas charity raffle. Okay, so there’s a whole load of things involved in that. I feel like I’ve got very happy to do so. But there’s also this sense of Gosh, how much should I spend on this? And what are they going to take from it? They’re not going to notice, it’s not going to make any difference to whether or not they give me loads more work in the next year or not. But it does feel like I need to be part of that gift giving circle and almost like part of that family in the way that I respond to it. So yeah, claim something over.

Tom Salinsky: I remember in an earlier, less digital age, we would regularly send Christmas cards to clients – something we haven’t done for at least a decade. But that was a regular feature of our November, getting a fun Christmas card printed up making lists of clients to send it to, sticking stamps on the envelopes.

Alex MacLaren: And it’s not just us that did it. And it’s not just us that doesn’t do. We don’t receive them in the way that we used to. It just seems to have faded out. And I do think it’s interesting that – and this happens in sort of private life as well as in work life – sometimes the receipt of a gift is not just necessarily the pleasure of having this lovely new thing, it also feels like there’s there can be an obligation involved.

Tom Salinsky: Yes, you don’t want to be overdrawn at the gift bank.

Alex MacLaren: It’s true. We keep a sort of an account book. Yes. I’ve had this situation myself, I have an old friend who’s very good at remembering things. She’s just got one of those organized memories. I’m terrible at it. So I’m always missing birthdays, and we had to confront it eventually. And I found myself saying, look the only way for me to deal with this is to occasionally when I find things to say do them on a whim, regardless of whether it fits with your birthday or not. But that’s helped to kind of ease off some of my natural kind of guilt and shame at not being good at remembering that people do need presents once in a while.

Tom Salinsky: Yes, because on the one hand, we don’t want to turn every relationship into a transaction, we don’t feel like that’s the way we want to go through life. Like I’m keeping this detailed ledger. And actually, I feel like I’m in debt to you, or you’re in debt to me, because I’ve done you favors or I’ve given you gifts in the past. On the other hand, ever since childhood, I think we’ve had this very strong sense that things ought to be fair. And if you are in a relationship of any kind with someone else, where you are constantly doing all of the giving, all of the providing, all of the accommodating, you can start to feel like, ahh… this isn’t fair. This isn’t right.

Alex MacLaren: Absolutely true. And what you’re saying does begin in childhood, that sense of justice. I’ve got three brothers. And when we were small, I remember my aunt Moira, she did this every year, she instituted a family birthday, in order to level up the ledger for any of the birthdays that she’d forgotten. And so in order to make that feeling of fairness happen every year, there would be like an extra Christmas in the middle of the summer holidays in order to balance it all out. Because you don’t want it to feel unfair. And now weirdly, as an adult, I always am very scrupulous about sending presence to her. Because it feels like she laid down a lot of really excellent gift-giving early on in our relationship. And now she deserves for it to be coming back in the other direction. Here’s a question. Do you like surprises?

Tom Salinsky: I’m not averse to surprises. But I am someone who, given the choice, likes to plan things out. I sort of like to know… Where I’m trying to get to in my life – and this is possibly a topic for a whole other episode of this podcast – where I’m trying to get to in my life is a point where I can have a detailed plan for everything. And I can simultaneously have the ability to throw that plan away the second it isn’t helpful.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah. And when you’re on the receipt of a surprise present, that’s not something which is entirely in your control.

No, it’s not.

I mean, I know people who are actually averse to surprises. So when I give Zoe a presence – these days, I’ve sorted it all out long in advance, she knows exactly what she wants, she’s ensured that I’ve got it, and the surprise is removed. In some ways I’ve had to take my time letting go of that, because part of the pleasure of giving a surprise gift is for the giver to see the face of the surprised person as they peel open the wrapper and see what they’ve been given. And look, isn’t it gorgeous. What a pleasure. So for people who don’t like surprises, it can be quite hard for them to actually say to their loved ones, I need to be able to tell you in advance what you’re giving me.

Tom Salinsky: And so if for example, you’ve had somebody come and speak at your event, and they’ve done a really good job, and they want to say thank you by sending them flowers, your rewarded for that – because you will not be there when the flowers arrive – your reward is the person who’s received the flowers needs to call you up. Not text you, not send you an email, but call you up and go “Oh my god, I can’t believe it! They’re so beautiful!” and almost kind of play-act that strong emotion and give you that catharsis you’re looking for, that release, that the flowers arrived, and they’re appreciated, and you get that moment where – that’s why we wrap gifts, even gifts that, as you have described, have been carefully pre-arranged. Because that moment where you peel the wrapping paper off and see, maybe with surprise and delight, or maybe with relief that the silly idiot has managed to mess this one up, that it is what you hoped it was going to be.

Alex MacLaren: No, it’s funny. This I think touches on why this is particularly relevant thinking about when we talk to other people and it goes back to something we discussed before, which is this question of authenticity. Because there is such an obligation when I open the present that you bought me Tom that I like it, that I’m probably going to make that face even if I don’t. I mean if it’s obviously something really offensive, then I’m gonna have to bring it up. But otherwise, I’m gonna have to go “Oh, I love it,” even if I don’t. And husbands and wives often know this about each other. It’s like oh god you’re making the face you make, which I’ve seen you make when you don’t like it, for other people, and now you’re making it for me. And I think that’s one reason why this goes back to these questions, again, is that sometimes gifts can produce that pretending and can produce the fakeness and then that can sometimes feel like it’s damaging, rather than actually helping make the relationship a better one.

Tom Salinsky: Yeah, because relationships certainly are never built on inauthenticity and lies, but at the same time with people who are only just getting to know, a policy of radical honesty may not necessarily bear fruit. So just as authenticity is a virtue, I would say so is diplomacy. And sometimes diplomacy means oh my god, I love it. Thank you so much.

Alex MacLaren: It does, it does. I was saying to a friend the other day that one of the great happy accidents of my life, certainly as it wasn’t his intention, is that my 11-year-old son is, I think, the best receiver of presents, that I know. In that if you give him something, he will always be delighted when he opens it. And then he’ll start talking to you about why it’s marvelous. And it’s all totally authentic, I hope he never loses it. Because that quality is really, really wonderful.

Tom Salinsky: It’s very appealing quality. This, I think, is a specific version of something much more general. In the theater, we know that something has happened when one person is changed by another. And I say theater, this obviously does apply to film and TV as well. But film and TV are often as much about the spectacle, as they are about the transactions between the characters. But in the theater, when it’s much more about who is on stage and how they’re feeling, we know something has happened when one person is changed by another, when they get a reaction. And so if you’re talking to someone else, it doesn’t really matter if they are happy, miserable, somber, playful… What matters is – are you changing them? And if I have an interaction with you, in which I change you, then I feel connected to you. So if I give you a gift, and you open it and you look up and say, “Well, this is lovely, thank you very much,” where your face doesn’t change at all, I haven’t got that catharsis that I’m looking for.

Alex MacLaren: I’ve absolutely seen it happen. I knew somebody who spent a number of Christmases with my family. And I suppose this is where it first began, Christmas is coming up. We’ll talk more about this in future. But the way it would happen when I was little is that one by one people would be handed a present  from under the tree and everybody would witness the opening process. This may not be the case with everyone who celebrates Christmas, but that’s the way we did it when we were little. And I remember this person, his son, this is someone who was with us for a while, would open a present, look at it, and then just put it aside and there would be no thank you, it wouldn’t seem to change or alter their countenance at all. And so it was absolutely, initially, anxiety ridden. And then it was enraging. Because you’re right. It’s that sense that I did something which has now achieved some kind of impact. And I was talking about this earlier on last week when I was doing some work about chairing meetings remotely. This, I think, is fundamentally important in relationships, that it makes people happy, more than anything else, to know that they have made a difference. And so if by giving me a present, you have changed, and visually, you can see what’s happened to me, you can see that you have changed another person, that will make you think, and make you feel, that your existence was worthwhile today. Because there are a number of things that can make people happy. I mean, the happiness psychologists have written about three main themes. One of them is nice things happening, like getting a present. That’s lovely, wonderful. But it normalizes quite quickly, okay, just the feeling goes away. Tomorrow, you know, that will just be my coffee machine. And it will be nice to have it. But it the feeling happy feeling of opening the present goes. Second is the sense of being in a state of flow, when you’re so occupied and focused, that you’re not particularly concerned about whether you’re happy or not. Happiness is what happens when you’re doing other things, flow is the other things that you’re doing. But the most impactful and long-lasting source of genuine feelings of wellbeing is when you have had a positive impact on others. So the making a difference, feeling you’ve made a difference is tremendously binding and tremendously powerful. If we are people who make a difference to each other, that will make our relationships strong. And I think that that dimension is something which is crucial in business relationships, how do we trace the impact of things to the individuals that we’ve made those connections with? Our individual client, or our individual point person on the customer side? We’ll set some homework to do with that in a moment. But before we do, I just want to ask one final question, which is really important. Tom, what do you give the person who has everything?

Tom Salinsky: Well, I suppose the traditional answer is that what you do is you make something because somebody who is very wealthy, who, as you say has been on the planet for a long time and therefore has bought for themselves all the things they could possibly want doesn’t have something which only you can create. So if you paint them a painting or draw them a picture or sculpt them an ashtray, or whatever it is, you make them something really personal, even something like a photo of you and then in a nice frame that I think is something which is a bit more personal, has a bit more of you in it. And there’s a very, very good gag in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, which is a Christmas movie, where everybody who is giving and receiving a gift gives and receives the same gift, identically wrapped in silver wrapping paper, which is an executive decision-making toy. And what it’s saying is that there is something which was once so personal and so warm – giving someone else a gift, being thoughtful thinking of them – that has become completely depersonalized anonymized, and has had all the genuine warmth and joy and depth of feeling erased from it. And so, if I’m buying someone a gift, and I look on an Amazon wish list, and I get something nice, whether or not that’s something that they couldn’t have afforded to buy for themselves, then that’s lovely. If it’s, we’re just playing the game of I get you something, you get me something, and we both go over something nice, that’s fine. But if I’m buying for somebody who has lots and lots of things already, then simply me opening my wallet isn’t going to mean as much as me creating something which only I could create.

Alex MacLaren: It sounds like a great suggestion for my Christmas plans for those people. I’ll get to work on it. So your homework, everyone for this week, is to think of somebody either in your personal life, or in your professional world, who you think of as a great gift-giver, or someone who you think deserves a positive surprise. And either find them something which you think will suit them and buy it for them, or make them something real and special and specific and take it with you to your next engagement with them. And watch the relationship bloom.

Tom Salinsky: We do workshops of all kinds, generally centered on how to talk to other people. But that includes pitching for new business, presenting at conferences, running meetings, or just networking, getting to know people. We run those workshops, both online and in person. And if you want to find out more, you can get in touch with us by a number of methods. You can give us a call. You can send us an email, or you can send us a tweet and all of those links and bits of information are in the show notes.

Alex MacLaren: And we’d love to hear from you. Did you try today’s homework? How did you get on? Is there anything you hope we’re going to talk about that we haven’t yet and maybe other things that relate to what we have talked about that you want us to return to, please get in touch with us, send me an email or record your thoughts in a voice memo and we might play it on a future show. Until next time I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.