What do you think of me? No, I mean, what do you really think? Normally, we read faces for clues. If desperate, we snoop in diaries. This holiday season, try reading the gifts you are given—the message under wraps. The good thing about gifts is that you can choose the interpretive direction: They illuminate what the giver thinks of you and, in turn, what you should think of him.
Some are obvious. That hunk of diamond on a black-velvet backdrop means he loves you. Or at least he thinks he does. Beware of big diamonds, though, that are designed to impress as well as woo. Wasn’t it Narcissus who flaunted the huge rock he planned to give his lover before toppling into the water? A diamond should be discreet, at once stunning and humble. Anything else spells trouble.
Gifts of a technical nature always bode well for a relationship. BlackBerries, Palm devices, sleek silver phones, and computers crammed with gigabytes should hearten. Whether from a spouse, lover, friend, or parent, they are bids for more communication, signifying a hand held out, a desire to connect, a willingness to spend a lot of money on you. They are gifts made of memory and, as such, imply not only a shared future but a shared past worth preserving.
However, perishable gifts are a sign of hidden hostility—especially fruit baskets. If a lover gives you apples and bananas, think about couples counseling, or back away from the relationship. Fruit is often considered the symbol of fertility and rebirth, but in a gift-giving context, apples are believed to represent poison. They are often an unconscious Jungian redramatization of Grimm’s Snow White, who was in denial about how much her stepmother hated her, and so fell down as though dead. Don’t make the same mistake.
In short, food is bad. But kitchenware is good. A person who gives pots and pans or slotted spoons feels an uncomplicated affiliation. He wants to break bread with you—and, just as important, he wants you to break bread with others. The one exception to this is anything by George Foreman. In studies like the Stamford-Brown Gift Giving Rating Scale, GF products have been correlated at 1.00 with interpersonal psychopathology. Cultural critics, anthropologists, and literary scholars proffer competing explanations. The simplest: Foreman represents raw American entrepreneurialism. Those who give his grills are market-driven hogs of the hierarchy, their feet on your head.
When a dog gets a gift, the dog should feel confident that the gift giver has trouble in positions of interspecies authority. On not quite the other hand, people who give dogs as gifts have a secret wish to domesticate the recipient and leash his life; think pooper scoopers, walks in all weather, kibble. Watch out especially for poodles, Shiba Inus, and black Labs.
Some gifts are meaningless. (As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”) They usually come in the form of cash or a card. You might feel hurt, as the giver likely has a lukewarm attitude toward you. But fan the money at your fingertips. Make of each bill a little paper boat, or an origami bird, before you do what all our countrymen do, whether Democrat or Republican. We share the same mandate: Spend it.