Archive: Dec 2009

NoChristmasTree1For the first time in my life, I had a non-Christmas on December 25th. No tree, no gifts, no cards. I wish I could say this was motivated by a noble, conscientious objection to commercialism, but really, it was just a combination of pregnancy-related austerity measures (i.e., saving money for the Blessed Event) and plain old bodily fatigue (I can’t bend over to tie my shoes, so there was no way I could wrangle a Christmas tree into a tiny top-floor apartment).

Little did I know I was joining a movement of sorts. I mean, I’m familiar with projects like AdBusters’ “Buy Nothing Day,” and “Buy Nothing Christmas,” whose creators have done a genius parody of the commercial nexus with their Buy Nothing Catalogbuy nothing christmasAnd I’ve heard of people spending the day doing volunteer work, giving charitable donations in the name of a person for whom they’d ordinarily buy a gift, or making homemade gifts and cards for one another.

But no gifts at all? Not even the homemade kind? That’s practically a breaching experiment–a deliberate violation of social norms. As Barry Schwartz put it in his 1967 classic article, “The Social Psychology of the Gift,” gift-giving is a key mechanism of social control–a form of exchange crucial to maintaining social structure across all kinds of settings, from contemporary North America to the ancient cultures of Papua New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands.

One reason gifts are so fraught with social tension is that giving and receiving them inevitably tangles us in a web of signs and symbols–particularly those related to identity. To quote from Schwartz,

Gifts are one of the ways in which the pictures that others have of us in their minds are transmitted (1967: 1).

And vice-versa: when we give gifts to others, we signal something about how we see them. The potential for hurt feelings is virtually limitless, which is one reason for the proliferation of websites devoted to the theme “Worst Gifts Ever.”

So for some people, opting out of gift-giving can bring blessed relief from this social challenge. But another challenge remains: how to fill the gap left by eschewing the ritual exchange?

After Googling “Christmas without gifts,” I was surprised to find a remarkable diversity of ideas for gift-free  celebrations. They were not just clever, but also sweet and appealing (to me, at least). Here are two of my favorites:

1. Random acts of kindness toward strangers–aka, “Christmas spirit” (from someone’s “43 Things” page):

“On Christmas day, we go to Waffle House and eat breakfast and we leave her [the waitress, presumably: Ed.] a $100 tip.

Obviously, not everyone will have the wherewithal to leave a $100 tip. I certainly don’t. But even when I can’t leave a big tip, I’ve sometimes written thank you notes to wait staff on the back of my bill; at one of my favorite restaurants, I regularly wrote my thank yous in haiku form, which became a source of amusement for the whole staff (laughing at me or with me, it didn’t much matter).

2. Traditions that involve doing seasonally-specific stuff with loved ones, without spending anything:

“My personal best Christmas memories involve family Christmas traditions like looking for the Star of Bethlehem on Christmas eve, and making Christmas wishes in the starlight. Others go caroling, some build snowmen.”

To these terrific ideas I can only add The Gift of Sloth. Meaning: a vacation from doing anything you dislike.

Sloth-in-a-Box: for the Best Christmas Ever
The Gift of Sloth

Hate making the bed? Skip it! You can give the same “gift” to your loved ones: if it’s someone’s regular household chore to wash the dishes, they get the day off. Woohoo! Merry Slothmas!

Note: This is ideal for that hard-to-buy-for-person-who-already-has-everything. Instead of giving them more stuff, take some away!

Now what about you? If you’ve celebrated Christmas–or some other traditionally gift-focused holiday–without presents, what was it like? What did you do instead of exchanging gifts?

This isn’t so much a post as the exorcism of an idea that has been rattling around in my brain like a poltergeist for the past 10 days: to wit, the eerie similarity between a certain well-known Monty Python sketch and responses to the taunt leveled earlier this month by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the failure of the “Anglo-Saxon market model.” From the high dudgeon expressed by the UK government and financial authorities, you’d have thought that Sarko had called Gordon Brown a “son of a silly person.”

I blow my nose at you,  so-called Gordon-Brown, you and all your silly Anglo-Saxon capitalist models!
I blow my nose at you, so-called Gordon-Brown, you and all your silly Anglo-Saxon market models!

But Sarkozy was just expressing a bit of Gallic glee at seeing a Frenchman–Michel Barnier–named as the EU’s new financial regulator, with authority over the economic powerhouse that is the City of London, home to 80 percent of Europe’s hedge funds, over 500 banks, and weapons-grade smugness. Who can blame the French President for a bit of what his neighbors to the East would call schadenfreude?

What a strange person...Is there someone else up there we could talk to?
What a strange person...Is there someone else up there we could talk to?


Meanwhile, rather than simply ignoring Sarkozy’s snark, UK political and financial authorities have engaged in what can only be described as a collective freakout. The Telegraph warned that the City of London would meet the same fate as former financial capital Antwerp in an opinion piece subtly titled “City in Danger of Falling Victim to EU Wiles.” Wiles! Oh those wicked, wicked froggies, with their delectable baked goods, and their supermodel First Ladies, and their wily ways!

Then The Times of London claimed that Sarkozy had “gloated” with “an edge of menace” at the announcement of Barnier’s appointment. The article was titled, with a War of the Worlds flourish, “We Are in Charge Now, Sarkozy Tells the City.” That the Times’ editors failed to caption Sarko’s picture with the words “Resistance is useless!” can only be described as a tragic oversight.

Making up for that missed opportunity, another publication quoted the chief executive of the British Banker’s Association responding to Sarkozy in language normally associated with Marvel Comics villains:

“If anyone in the European project thinks for a minute that they are capable of subverting the years of effort it took us to make the UK the world’s financial centre, they are sadly mistaken.”

Ooohhhh…”sadly mistaken”!?! The next lines of the quote must have been something like: “You’ll be sorry, Sarko-man! We shall be avenged for this impudent taunting of yours! Bwaahahahah…” [Flies off into the night, presumably back to the BBA Bat-Vault. You know there is one.]

Honestly, it’s almost funnier than the Monty Python “French Taunting” sketch. If this is history repeating itself, can the first time be comedy and the second time farce?

Another way of monetizing infidelity: these t-shirts seemed to crop up for sale online seconds after speculation began about Woods cheating on his wife.
Another way of monetizing infidelity: these t-shirts seemed to crop up for sale online seconds after speculation began about Woods cheating on his wife.

In all the public discourse surrounding Tiger Woods and his alleged infidelities, one of the primary topics of interest has been the millions of dollars he may have paid to silence his mistress(es) and mollify his wife. While there has been a lot of speculation about who got how much, I haven’t seen anyone question the idea of linking money and monogamy.

The same linkage underlies another contemporary phenomenon: the “bad boy clause” in some pre-nuptial agreements, in which one spouse (oddly, it’s usually just one, not both) agrees to pay a financial penalty for cheating on the other. It’s hard to say how common this is, but such contracts are apparently enforceable and have been upheld in court.

The money-monogamy link raises a number of questions in my mind, including:

  • What are these payments supposed to mean to the wronged spouse?
    Say Tiger Woods has really paid millions to his wife as a result of cheating on her—is his wife supposed to understand that money as a conciliatory gift, like an XXL version of a bouquet of flowers with an “I’m sorry” note attached? Or is she supposed to receive it as a form of compensation, like the victim of medical malpractice who gets a big settlement in return for the loss of her health?

    Economic sociologists will recognize here the outlines of Viviana Zelizer’s (1996) taxonomy of exchange types and the kinds of social relationships they imply (“Payments and Social Ties”).

    Either way—gift or compensation—there is acknowledgement that a wrong has been done, which is probably valuable in its own right. What I’m asking, however, is the question implied by the Zelizer article: what kind of payment is this, and what kind of relationship does it imply between the spouses? Typically, gifts are associated with private life and emotional intimacy, whereas compensation forms of exchange more often occur in the public sphere. Gifts are (at least nominally) personal and emotion-laden, whereas compensation is impersonal, with legal-bureaucratic associations.

    The distinction would seem to matter for the future of the relationship: a gift would imply that there was still intimacy and a personal bond left to repair, and perhaps a hoped-for future together; in contrast, framing the payment as compensation has a kind of “cashing out” finality to it, shifting the relationship onto ground usually occupied by adversaries who have no intention of remaining connected to one another.

    In more concrete terms, if you’re the spouse receiving the kind of multi-million-dollar payment that Elin Nordegren Woods is supposedly getting from her supposedly cheating husband, what does that exchange mean to you in terms of the relationship, and your own self-image?

    It’s easy to be glib about this, and focus on her ability to “take the money and run.” But that ignores the emotions involved: if Elin loves her husband, the money may seem both totally inadequate as compensation for a broken heart and broken dreams, and inappropriately impersonal as a gift; if she doesn’t love him, she may still feel angry at the public humiliation she has experienced as a result of his behavior, and feel that neither gift nor compensation can fix the damage to her dignity.

    In other words, one can imagine situations in which the offer of money by a cheater to his wronged spouse could actually come across as adding insult to injury—as a cheap substitute for real understanding of the impact of infidelity, as if the wronged spouse is a kind of coin-operated machine, whose sense of betrayal can be assuaged with the application of sufficient funds to the wound.

  • Do financial penalties deter infidelity?
    From the perspective of the spouse who has been or might be unfaithful, does paying out a large sum of money alter his or her future behavior? If Tiger Woods has in fact paid millions to control the damage of having extra-marital affairs, should we expect the experience to make him think twice about cheating on his wife going forward? Or does someone who signs off on a “bad boy clause” in a pre-nuptial agreement really run through a mental calculus weighing the costs and benefits of having an affair?

    Causal linkages of this sort are implicit in the money-monogamy link, but I’m skeptical. I don’t think people are that rational, especially when it comes to governing their appetites for sex, power, admiration, or whatever extra-marital affairs may signify for them.

    Social scientific research established decades ago that humans are boundedly rational. And philosophers reached that conclusion even earlier: 18th century Scottish thinker David Hume—a rough contemporary of Adam Smith, and like Smith, an economist as well as a moral theorist—famously argued that emotions drive our decision-making. Rationality, he claimed, enters into

    David Hume, who probably would have scoffed at "bad boy clauses." And pre-nups.
    David Hume, who probably would have scoffed at "bad boy clauses." And pre-nups generally.

    the decision process at the end, in the form of rationalizations applied to obscure the true nature of our choices. In Hume’s own formulation,”Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

    Social psychology provides another reason for skepticism about the money-monogamy link, emphasizing the power of context over character in shaping human behavior. One consequence of this is the fundamental attribution error. As I’ve written elsewhere, the lesson I take from this literature and from my own research is that rationality is not so much a property of individuals as of situations.

    Schemes involving payment for infidelity represent one attempt to change the context of extra-marital affairs—to introduce a negative consequence. But there have long been other negative consequences of cheating which many have found all too easy to ignore, such as causing pain to one’s spouse and other family members, loss of reputation or social status, and even loss of one’s job (cf. former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer). If none of that has been sufficient to deter infidelity, why would a financial payout achieve better results?

To answer these questions, we’d really need to hear from people who have faced this situation in real life: both the cheaters and the spouses they betrayed. Unfortunately, we rarely—if ever—hear about the money-monogamy link except in the context of gossip magazines, where any commentary given by the parties involved is bound to be primarily about impression management. They’re certainly not the place to look for reflection and insight.

What’s really strange to me, however, is that in the absence of any evidence that say, “bad boy clauses” actually deter infidelity, people still use them. And that may be the most compelling evidence for interpreting them as purely punitive devices.

But that just raises another set of questions, like: why would you want to marry on those terms? When one spouse seems so likely to cheat that it’s necessary to have a “bad boy clause” in the pre-nup, and the other spouse spells out how s/he plans to exact retribution for any infidelity, I have to wonder why the couple are bothering to marry in the first place. The whole arrangement just has “train wreck” written all over it.

And why stop at infidelity when you could enumerate all the other deal-breakers in the relationship, like snoring and hogging the remote? Turns out people actually do this! For a bracing example of taking ideas to their logical extremes, check out this list of “14 Popular Provisions in Pre-Nuptial Agreements” from the Irish Times:

    1. Who will do the housework, what type of housework, and how many times a week.

    2. How many times a year is suitable to go on vacation, and where.

    3. No contact with people from previous relationships.

    4. No cheating, especially with people from previous relationships. Sometimes known as the ‘bad boy’ clause. Taking a second spouse is also sometimes forbidden . . . in Islamic pre-nuptial agreements.

    5. No snoring.

    6. No leaving the toilet seat up.

    7. How many times a week it is acceptable to expect sex.

    8. The division of seasonal tickets to sports games and the theatre.

    9. How many times a year is suitable to visit the in-laws, and for how long.

    10. A declaration of who owns the remote control.

    11. A limitation of how much can be spent on a shopping spree, and how often said sprees should take place.

    12. A declaration of the monthly plastic surgery budget.

    13. Who takes out the rubbish.

    14. No weight gain beyond an agreed point.

Each one of these provisions could be the basis for a short story—probably something really bleak and despair-inducing, à la Raymond Carver or John Cheever. And remember, these are just the “popular” ones: imagine what might constitute an uncommon stipulation in a pre-nup. The horror…the horror.