Tis the season for giving gifts. There's been a ton of research on how good we feel when we give and receive gifts. Hormones are released and it creates a positive feedback loop. Someone is generous with you, which in turn, promotes you to be more generous with them and others. The question is, does it matter if the gift is new, used, or a re-gift? There is no real evidence that it matters. Instead our attitudes and beliefs about the practice seems to reflect a cultural shift we've made in the age of consumerism. If you think about it, before there were some many "things" giving people something you previously owned and valued was considered a great honor and gift.
When it comes to giving a gift you’ve received to another person, also known as re-gifting, there are plenty of opinions and rules. For instance, some may claim that it is never acceptable to give a gift away to another person, while others may assert it is perfectly fine but only under a limited set of conditions. The “never regift” camp usually revolves around avoiding hurt feelings. The “sometimes regift” camp might suggest that it’s acceptable if the original giver put no thought into the gift. Unfortunately, the reality is that we cannot know the amount of thought given. Plus, doesn’t this run counter to the idea that it’s the thought that counts? Does it only count if it’s enough thought?
I want to unpack re-gifting and make the case for changing our mind about the practice. But, before explaining why I think we should abandon the shame or secrecy surrounding re-gifting, let me just talk about gift giving in general. We are far from the only species to give gifts. Sharing something of value is pretty common in other species and there are several reasons other animals give gifts. It may be to make strengthen friendships, to show love and affection, to display status, to curry favor or, let’s face it, to get mating opportunities.
We don’t have to look very far to find an example of giving something of value away to show they want to make a new friend. Bonobos and other social primates often share food with friends and relatives, but bonobos take it a step further and also willingly share food with a stranger if there is the possibility for a social interaction. What is the potential benefit of such free-spirited gift giving? Researchers hypothesize that, by being generous with strangers, individuals may increase the size of their social reach. This, in turn, may yield future rewards of friendship and support in times of difficulty.
But does the recipient ever re-gift? Sort of.
Additional unfamiliar bonobos were permitted
entry and access to the food being shared. That
might be a stretch but it’s not that different from a
person receiving a batch of delicious homemade
cookies from a friend and then bringing them to
work to share all the deliciousness with co-workers.
That is re-gifting bonobo style. What is ill-advised
is taking a bite out of every single cookie and then
trying to share the gift. I think we, and bonobos,
would all agree that is re-gifting done poorly.
Here is why I think we need to change our perception of re-gifting. First, regardless of the thought (or lack thereof) behind a gift, if it’s something you don’t like and/or will never use, the best thing to do is be upfront and tell the person. We have built a culture around insincere gratitude out of politeness, abandoning genuine heartfelt communication. There is freedom and affection in saying, “Thank you so much for the gift but it’s not my style and I am not going to use it. Are you able to return it? If not, perhaps there is someone else we can share it with.” Some people argue that giving away a gift is deceitful, but I contend that expressing enthusiasm for a gift disliked that is truly harmful. Adélie penguin males bring females pebbles to build their nests. Females are quite particular about these “gifts” and reject pebbles that don’t measure up and instead only accept gifts that fit their needs. They also do this right in front of the male. How else will he know he’s gotten it right? The point is that it’s kinder to be honest and forthright with people. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, it’s still totally fine, in my opinion to re-gift.
The second reason for re-gifting something, even if it has been used, is because sometimes we outgrow things or they aren’t right for us but they could be really useful to someone else. This kind of re-gifting is similar to what hermit crabs do. Hermit crabs can’t grow their own shells so they have to find an abandoned shell or trade shells with another hermit crab. This is where the gift giving comes into play. The hermit crabs may exchange shells because one has one a tad too big and another has one a tad too small. Instead of saying “one crab’s trash in another crab’s treasure” they are basically saying “one crab’s treasure can be exchanged for another treasure”. Perhaps you’ve received something that you know would be just perfect for someone else. The best use of the gift is to send it to that person. You could let the original gift giver know or keep it to yourself. However, if you’re asked I do think an honest explanation is appropriate.
The third reason for re-gifting is to build community. Instead of using an animal example here, I will use a personal one I experienced this holiday season. I attended a party where the white elephant gift-exchange was planned. There was one rule: you could not buy a gift, you had to offer something you already owned. To be fair not everyone stuck to this rule, but for those that did there were quite a few gifts that apparently made a reappearance year after year. Old-timers were delighted when the newcomers ended up these gifts and everyone made bets as to which ones would show up again the following year. All in all, it was great fun and no one was offended. On top of that it helped recycle goods instead of having them land in the dump.
That brings me to the final reason: recycling and sustainability. At a time when human consumerism seemingly cannot be satisfied, I think the best reason to re-gift is to provide something useful to someone else so that they don’t have to purchase it. Many animals recycle, from the hermit crabs discussed above to the coconut octopus that recycles bits of coconut shell to build a shelter and dung beetles that make use of poop. We are burying ourselves in garbage but maybe, just maybe, making re-gifting trendy instead of tasteless can make a small contribution toward a solution.
Tan J, Hare B (2013) Bonobos Share with Strangers. PLoS ONE 8(1): e51922. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0051922