Gifts vs Transactions


Joshua Mitchell / January 05, 2020

3 min read

If you're giving a gift to someone who expects it, that's not a gift. That's a transaction.

There's nothing wrong with transactions. But I think there is something wrong when certain gifts are really transactions, but nobody acknowledges it.

For example, if you have someone (e.g. family, friends) who would feel bad if you didn't get them a gift for Christmas (when they got YOU one), that's not a gift. That's a transaction.

A gift that is actually a transaction defeats the entire purpose of being a gift.

Gifts are magical because they're serendipitous. They're heart warming and out-of-nowhere.

They're little symbols of LOVE. The kind that says this is about you and your happiness. This ENTIRE MOMENT is about me acknowledging the value you bring to my life. Nothing else.

If you are expecting a gift - if you, hypothetically speaking, would be sad or disappointed if nobody got you anything for Christmas, THEN THEY'RE. NOT. GIFTS!

They're transactions.

More specifically, they're called Covert Contracts.

(Covert Contracts are deals where at least one party makes assumptions about the deal that the other has no knowledge of.)

They're dangerous for any kind of relationship.

If you know yourself, and you want specific people to get you specific things for Christmas, you need to tell them.

It's not fair to make people play by rules they're not crystal clear on.

That way, when you tell them, they can tell you

  1. whether or not that's feasible, and
  2. what they want from you in return

If you're thinking, "Wow, well that takes all the fun out of it!"


It's not for fun. Planning and setting expectations are tools for reducing variance. Meaning:

  • the good variance (fun and serendipitous surprises), AND
  • the bad variance (hurt feelings, dissatisfaction)

The magic of gifts COMES FROM THE UNKNOWN. The lack of expectation and reciprocation.

You can't have it both ways. You can't expect serendipity.

For me, personally, that's what makes Christmas and birthdays so stressful and annoying.

Everyone wants to feel the magic of the holidays, but everyone also wants to keep their expectations about how holidays should go.

I, personally, would rather expect ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from anyone, so that when people DO, of their own volition, give me something, it means THAT MUCH MORE.

But that means I need to expect nothing in the first place.

Zero entitlement. All gratitude. The magic lives on.

What kind of Christmas do you want? The kind with magic (i.e. no expectations)? Or a transactional one?

That's not a, "duh, pick the first one, stoopid," kind of question. Both are totally legit philosophies.

I'm just saying that if you want magic, give up your expectations. Otherwise, tell people what you expect.

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