Friday, December 12, 2014

The White Elephant in the Room: The Gift of Subversion

Ah, the holiday work party. Free food, spending time with people you spend your whole day with already, and enough boozy libations to make things a bit more interesting. Here in North America, many workplaces engage in the gift “game” called the White Elephant Gift Exchange. On this topic, I'm basing today’s post on an article that I recently came across by Gretchen Herrmann in The Journal of Popular Culture where she dissects the Machiavellian nature of this little holiday game.

The White Elephant Gift Exchange (that I’ll abbreviate to WEGE, which you are free to pronounce as ‘wedgie’ even though no one does) is a pastime aimed to upend our normal conventions and beliefs of holiday generosity by celebrating and subverting the materialism. The goal is an unleashing of entertainment and satire, made all that much better after the first glass or two of eggnog.

I've written before on the topic of the perfect gift, concluding that considering someone’s interests and getting them something that you know they will love and use is the way to go. Herrmann generally agrees on this conclusion, pointing out that the ideal gift is a special item that is imbued with personal sentiment. This special item carries with it an emotional attachment that transcends the obligatory reciprocity of typical gift-giving. But object of the WEGE is exactly the opposite of all of that.

Actually, the name WEGE can vary depending on the type of gifts. The specific version of the game typically goes after a particular brand of holiday subversion: shrewd trading and parsimony (e.g., Yankee Swap, Scotch Auction), undercutting holiday beneficence (e.g., Dirty Santa, Evil Santa), turning Christmas on its head by those that are considered inscrutable and untrustworthy (e.g., Chinese Christmas, Chinese Gift Exchange), pointing to the dubious value of the gift or that it might be pre-owned (e.g., WEGE), and/or telegraphing personal gain at the expense of others (e.g., Stealing Santa, Rob Your Neighbor, Cut Throat Christmas).

Basically, the rules are these:

  1. Participants bring an anonymous wrapped gift that fits within prespecified guidelines (price, regifting, etc.) that they slip into the gift pile. 
  2. Everyone picks a number that is used to determine the gift-choosing order of the participants. 
  3. First Turn: The first person called chooses a gift from the pile, opens it, and then displays it to the other participants. 
  4. Second Turn: The next person has three choices. They can either a) steal the gift from the first person, sending them back to the gift pile for another, b) select, unwrap and keep a gift from the pile, or c) select and unwrap a gift from the pile and swap the unwanted gift with the first person. 
  5. All Subsequent Turns: Each new person can steal any unwrapped gift or choose a wrapped gift from the pile. However, a gift can’t be stolen more than once during a turn, and a particular gift can’t be immediately stolen back from the participant who just stole it.

WEGE it isn’t about the personalization, it’s about the stealing. The Machiavellian nature of the game is spelled out in its stealing, its taking, its greed. Rather than the generosity of the personalized, perfect gift, the emphasis is placed on personal gain, creating a series of winners and losers, and getting something for nothing with impunity at the expense of another. I think we can all agree that that is what makes it fun.

You want to make sure that you bring a gift that will engender group favor and can trigger a chain reaction of stealing and hilarity. For example, one of the most popular gifts I’ve seen at one of these events was a big battle axe. Yeah, a real one. How many times it was stolen = funny; who actually wanted a battle axe for their very own = hilarious. In other years, the same group went crazy over gifts like a big stuffed moose or a case of craft beer (I ended up with that one!). So is there a key to picking out the perfect gift for one of these events?

First is to consider your group. Do they appreciate the tacky, silly, and weird or are they more the classy, mainstream crowd? However, slipping a bizarre gift into the latter crowd’s pile will likely cause unexpected amusement. Second is to keep to those prespecified rules. Don’t spend a lot of money trying to impress people; keeping to the anonymity means they won’t know it was you anyway. Next is to not forget the creative wrapping and use it to satirize as well – although you might have to be equally creative to keep it anonymous as you walk into the party.

Herrmann explores the transient nature of both the receiving of the gift and your attachment to it. In the game, the gift itself can be arbitrary and that participants are forced to focus on the transience of possession instead. She cites behavioral economists who describe the “endowment effect,” wherein the brief possession of an item makes it worth more to the owner than other identical items. This extra value makes the stealing of this item even that much more poignant. However, she also points out what we’ve all heard during particularly rousing games: “Give me that! I want it!” so there is at least some value of the item too.

Herrmann breaks down the gifts into three categories:

Fetishized Commodities: Those items that are disproportionately coveted and stolen. My battle axe example is a good one. These gifts take on a life of their own as they gain more value every time they are stolen. A hierarchy of items can emerge as the game goes on. Within this hierarchy are also a series of substrategies like pointing out other gifts to take attention away from yours, loudly hawking lousy gifts in the hopes of trading up, sitting low and hopping no one will see and remember what you have, or even making after-game deals.

Booby Prizes: Of course, no one wants to end up with the “booby prize” or gifts at the undesirable end of the hierarchy. So much so that often the rules will stipulate that the final recipient must take it home with them. It can sometimes be difficult to predict whether a gift will be seen as a booby prize. Perhaps the battle axe was originally meant as a booby prize, a way offload an old D&D costume. But bad became good.

Lazarus Gifts: These are the items that make reappearances in coming years. They are the ones that are most commented on, laughed about, or pawned off. These resurrected gifts actually add to the layers of complexity and amusement of the WEGE.

Ultimately, the WEGE is about group bonding through entertainment. Perhaps that’s why it is so often played at workplace parties. There’s a ritualistic swapping of gifts, but you don’t need to go through the stress of finding the perfect gift. So this year, think of a creative, subversive, fun WEGE gift. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to steal all those good ones away too!

M. Herrmann, G. (2013). Machiavelli Meets Christmas: The White Elephant Gift Exchange and the Holiday Spirit The Journal of Popular Culture, 46 (6), 1310-1329 DOI: 10.1111/jpcu.12090

(image via The Lovely Journeys)

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