I was only half-listening to a radio or television program—I don’t know, it may have been news, maybe a documentary, I was distracted—when I half-heard a remark that struck me later, when it surfaced in memory. Only later did my brain process that background noise, that odd statement that stuck with me, though its context did not. “When you go to someone’s house for dinner, you may bring a bottle of wine, but you don’t bring a cash equivalent.” That is not verbatim, but it conveys the concept.
Giving your dinner host a bottle of wine—or a loaf of bread or flowers—is appropriate. Showing up with a gift card to Target? Not so much. The idea makes me shudder in awkward discomfiture. Why is that? What is it that makes the idea of giving one’s host a gift of cash or a cash-equivalent so uncomfortable?
I suppose the reasons for the discomfort are legion, but probably they spring from a deeply personal, utterly human emotion best captured by the phrase, “you can’t buy my love.” A gift of wine or bread or cheese or flowers is almost universally perceived as an expression of appreciation and recognition of the host’s hospitality and generosity. Replacing that gift with cash or a gift card would cheapen the expression of thanks and turn it into a financial transaction, a payment, as if dinner with the host were simply an alternative to a restaurant meal. Cash carries with it the coldness of purchase; a gift brings the warmth of respect and friendship.
That argument satisfies me. But it doesn’t hold up, not when it is so common for gifts on birthdays and Christmas, for example, to take the form of cash or gift cards. Why is it that a cash gift to a host would be crude and embarrassing to both parties, but a cash gift for Christmas is, to some, perfectly acceptable?
Granted, it’s sometimes easier to simply give money than buy a gift. And the recipient often would be more appreciative of cash than a cashmere sweater. But isn’t giving a gift card taking the easy, and the crass, way out? A gift is, or should be, so much more personal. It suggests the giver has consciously considered what the recipient might want and has invested the time and effort—and money—to find it. Better still, a handmade gift suggests the giver deeply values the recipient and has invested time and personal initiative in the gift.
Ah, but doesn’t that fall apart when the host’s gift is a bottle of three buck Chuck wine from Trader Joe’s? My gut, my emotional reaction to that question is that it doesn’t fall apart with that cheap bottle of wine. But I can’t quite put my finger on why. And I still can’t quite get to the point of being comfortable with the cash or cash-equivalent birthday or graduation or Christmas gift, though I’ve given and received such gifts. When I’ve received them, I’ve appreciated them. And I’m always willing to give the experience—as recipient—another try.
I would not go to Kroger and attempt to pay for a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes with a hand-turned writing pen I made on my wood lathe. Aside from my concern that my attempt to do so might result in my being detained for a mental evaluation, it’s just absurd. I know I must pay for my tomatoes with cash or a cash equivalent. Similarly, I don’t give my dinner host a $20 bill because it’s not an appropriate way of showing thanks. The appropriateness, or lack thereof, may be purely a social construct, but it’s one that’s been drilled deeply into my psyche. It would feel wrong. But the logic still eludes me. But so does the logic of the grocer’s refusal to accept a pen that might be worth $40 in payment for a $2 can of tomatoes.
Ultimately, I suppose, the difference is that the can of tomatoes is a commercial transaction involving a financial obligation, while dinner at my friend’s home is a social engagement with no such obligation. The bottle of wine is not payment for a product or service, it is an expression of gratitude for friendship and hospitality. There, that answers it.
But, still, there’s the issue of the graduation gift-card. It seems to me we may be mistakenly allowing our expressions of appreciation and regard to morph into social and personal financial obligations. That disturbs me. I’m convincing myself that cash and cash equivalents are not appropriate gifts. Gifts should not be confused with financial obligations. Gifts should not be perceived as obligations of any kind.
I know, like so many things, gift-giving in the form of cash and cash-equivalents is not black and white. I may change my mind about it, as I so often do about so many things. But for now, I’m thinking back to the times I’ve given money as a gift and wishing I’d given something requiring more intimacy and more consideration.