Gifts are an interesting kind of social contract. When you give a gift to someone else, you make an elaborate show of saying that it is given with no expectation of anything in return, that it is done for a generous motive and as a gesture of friendship and affection. But this is a polite social lie. If the gift is not reciprocated at some point in the future, this is seen as impolite, almost insulting. There must be a return gift. When the return gift is delivered, the social contract is completed, and bonds of friendship and affection are strengthened. If it is not, resentment and tensions grow instead.
Depending on a variety of circumstances which vary from culture to culture, the gift may be of lesser, approximately equal, or even greater value than the first gift. But in functionally every culture and throughout all of human social history, gifts come with the unspoken (even denied) expectation that there will be a return gift.
Enough theory. Here’s the practical issue: some friends have invited us to see a play with them tomorrow evening. We enjoy this couple’s company but gift protocol is a problem with them because their personal tastes and habits are much more particular than ours.
In characteristic fashion, they have already bought the tickets for the event, at thirty dollars a head. They will not take money from us to repay them for the cost of the tickets. We offered to meet them for dinner, with the idea that we’d pick up the tab for dinner, but they declined that offer.
“Dude, get them a good bottle of wine, already,” you might say. “We know you’re able to pick out a prince at the BevMo.” Indeed, wine is a perfect gift for things like this — it is easily portable, you can spend any amount of money based on the quality/prestige of the label, and it carried a degree of high-falutin’ elegance that makes it a classy gift.
Except this couple doesn’t drink at all — they’re complete teetotalers. They’re also vegetarians (not vegans), which may be why they’re not really in to going out to dinner with us (we will drink and eat meat freely).
So what object might we get them, in the neighborhood of fifty to seventy-five dollars, that would suffice as a return gift for the tickets to the play? They have small, yappy dogs, if that’s any help.