Monday, December 19, 2011

Gift Cultures

I don’t think of myself as Scrooge, but this time of year the endless questions around “secret Santas” and informal gift exchange always crop up. Lesboprof’s take is particularly thoughtful. Having worked in a few different places, I’ve noticed that cultural expectations around gift exchange are strongly local. Rules that seem inviolate in one place would seem utterly strange in another; the folks who move from one to the other are expected to just know. I’m not a fan of expected cross-rank gift-giving. Having worked in a place where it was effectively mandatory, I saw it as an ethical time bomb and a constant headache. How much gift is appropriate? If you receive a gift, are you obliged to reciprocate? What else does a gift imply? (Gifts to the person who does your annual evaluation strike me as obviously thorny.) And it’s hard not to notice that strict reciprocity in gift expectations fails to account for different salaries. The folks on the bottom wind up getting hurt by that. Larger cultural issues obviously intrude, too. Not everybody is Christian, and not everybody celebrates holidays at this time of year. (I’m told, too, that Chanukah isn’t nearly as central to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity. Apparently, Passover is a much more important occasion than Chanukah.) Those who don’t shouldn’t be coerced into playing along, and/or subtly punished for not. That should be obvious, but the whole “put the Christ back in Christmas” movement has overlaid a layer of reactionary politics on the entire question. In this climate, opting out or playing it low-key can be taken as the equivalent of open hostility. (Similar issues arise around Christmas decorations. At a public institution, it’s fair to assume that some of the taxpayers whose money is being used don’t celebrate Christmas. But there’s always someone who insists on going over the top to make some sort of point about a perceived hostility to religion. I grant without argument that the issue may play differently at a religiously-affiliated college.) Some places have adopted the wonderful strategy of organizing gift-giving for some local charity, and/or for scholarships for deserving students. That way, people who would like to give have a constructive venue for doing it, and those who would rather opt out have the choice. Locating the beneficiaries outside of the workplace does wonders for the ethical issues, and restores some healthy progressivity to the impact. But some folks just can’t be content with that. The new-manager’s dilemma is in confronting long-entrenched practices that really don’t make sense. The first person to interrupt the circuit of cross-rank gifts is often considered the jerk, even if most people silently breathe a sigh of relief. (Actually, that’s a pretty good description of administration generally.) And getting the persecuted true believer to take it down a notch is always a risky endeavor. Wise and worldly readers, have you found productive ways to redirect gift cultures gone horribly awry? Alternately, have you found successful ways to get the most militant over-the-top decorators to tone it down without causing a huge issue?