What is a gift?

An embarrassing incident from my teens: I was over in Germany on an exchange trip. We – that’s me, my exchange mate and her mother – had gone into a supermarket. I picked up a can of coke. As I was waiting to pay for it the mother came up to me, pointed at the can and said “Gift!” “Thank you,” I said, surprised. I immediately got an even bigger surprise when my exchange mate burst out laughing and said “No, poison, poison.”

Turns out “Gift” is the German word for poison.

I was horrified. Not by the revelation that coke is ‘poisonous’ – but by the realisation that I’d taken something that wasn’t actually being offered to me. Inadvertent it might have been but I felt as though I’d presumed on my hosts’ hospitality. They in turn were equally embarrassed. As though they’d been caught short in the hospitality they were extending to me.

We laughed it off – but my exchange mate’s mother insisted on buying me the ‘poison’. A gift, even when given by mistake, can’t be ungiven it seems. On the face of it that would seem to be absurd because a gift, surely, is something that is freely given – voluntarily and without any obligation of reciprocation. Of course we all know that in practice this isn’t true. Gifts are often obligatory: covert social taxes, bribes and payment for services rendered.

Does that mean then that gifts are bad – a kind of social ‘poison’? I don’t think so. To me they’re a symbol of the necessary ambiguity of human relationships. We can never be sure of one another or the other’s perception of ourselves. We’re constantly trying to strengthen positive images, connections, bonds. We live in fear of social excommunication (sometimes even preferring to exile ourselves rather than to risk rejection). Yet we also live in fear of being socially subsumed – of being controlled, manipulated, robbed.

Which all sounds rather negative, but like a coin, when flipped over there’s an another side: we rejoice in our connections to others, we take pride and comfort in our willingness and ability to give to others and even, if we are wise, in our ability to receive.  And choosing (or even making) gifts, wrapping them, creating the context in which they’re given – these are all (or can be) creative and satisfying things.

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