Opinion | How to find the right Valentine’s Day gift

By Harsh Hiwase, For The Pitt News

“So what did you get me for Valentine’s Day?”

“Make a guess!”

And with that, my partner listed out everything that she secretly wanted for Valentine’s Day — making my gift shopping so much easier.

The age old tale of St. Valentine is one shrouded with mystery. My favorite take on the classic story of St. Valentine is the one where he gave his life to perform secret marriages for young soldiers in love, against the orders of Emperor Claudius II. In commemoration of the sacrifice made by St. Valentine to allow love to blossom in the face of adversity, we celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is celebrated all around the world today and is not just limited to couples. We celebrate with anyone we love — friends, family, colleagues and occasionally even ourselves. But as I pressed the checkout button on my online orders for Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was doing this out of love or out of social convention.

I’m sure everyone has considered that Valentine’s Day is just another corporate hoax to get people to buy crappy presents that nobody really wants. Economist Joel Waldfogel argues that we pay more for gifts than they are valued and because of this, Americans incur up to $13 billion in deadweight loss every year from gift giving. In order to counter this, he proposes to give cash gifts instead of crappy gifts from local stores.

This is one analysis of where gift giving can be ineffective. I would go further to take issue with the fundamental expected value of a gift that society has internalized through social convention. Through many occasions of gift giving and receiving, we have come to expect a certain standard of gifts. If the gift falls short, we make critical judgments of the person we received it from, and if the gift exceeds expectations, we think highly of the person we received it from. We also tend to compare our gifts to other people’s gifts to gauge if what we received is good, instead of accepting the intrinsic value of the gift.

I posit that there is an obligation to give gifts and with that, comes disappointment when receiving gifts. We are obligated by social convention to gift, and to give a monetary value equivalent to what most other people are giving.

The National Retail Federation estimates that the average person will be obligated to spend $175.41 this Valentine’s Day. This number has been rising since 2009 when it was only $102.50, which still outpaces inflation. What is truly contradictory is that the percentage of people planning to celebrate has been inversely affected and has dropped from 63% in 2009 to 53% this year. In short, people are obligated to give larger amounts of money, but a smaller proportion of people are giving in to the obligation.

I find that these trends only further encourage consumerism and are an inefficient way of expressing love. Gregory Mankiw points out that gift giving is more a mode of “signaling” love and affection than actually expressing love and affection. The inefficiency is when the gift received by one’s partner falls below their expectations, which leads to doubts about one’s feelings for their partner. When a gift falls below a partner’s expectations, it raises doubts about their feelings toward them. Gifting in such a manner can also be an easy way out of expressing emotions sincerely because the simple fix to the difficult task of showing love is by throwing money at it.

In the long run, I believe that solely relying on gifts to signal love is unsustainable in a relationship because it doesn’t reflect genuine thought about the person. Hinging one’s feelings about a person on the value of their gift is also problematic because it doesn’t give due respect to any other efforts made by the person to express their emotions. The onus is on both gifters and recipients to solve this complex problem by changing their expectations when it comes to gifting on Valentine’s Day.

I recognize that it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to have time to make a hand-made card or have the artistic skill to create a personalized gift. I also believe that we should not completely shun consumerism and the convenience that comes with it. The nuance of my stance lies in the thought that comes along with the gift being given.

Gifts should be personalized experiences and should reflect the thought put in when purchasing them. Gifting chocolates, soft toys or flower bouquets is very popular, but also very generic. It is better to spend on items that the person will actually use on any other day than Valentine’s Day or to spend on experiences that the person will cherish after Valentine’s Day. My personal ideology is to always have something thoughtful to say when giving a gift, so that the recipient knows that it is a personalized way of showing affection to them.

This Valentine’s Day, before you pick up that overpriced box of chocolates or that poorly made teddy bear, take a second to ask yourself why the gift reminds you of the person you’re buying it for. If nothing comes to mind, I’m sure you will find a better gift somewhere else.

Harsh Hiwase writes about ethics and is a self-proclaimed love guru. Write to him at [email protected].