Tag Archives: business

Should you really buy a Christmas gift for your second cousin twice removed?

When it comes to gift giving, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Don’t get me wrong: I really love giving gifts around the holidays and at other times (usually birthdays), and I naturally love receiving them as well. At least certain gifts.

When a gift is something that someone really wants or needs — or if you have a true burst of inspiration, it’s a wonderful, exciting feeling for the giver and the recipient. It’s not about how much money you spend, it truly is the thought that counts. Usually these are gifts for people we know very well…our immediate families, significant others, and an inner circle of friends. I have gotten some really great gifts over the years, usually from people who know me very well and often from those who have asked what I wanted to get.

But then there are the gifts we give to people who don’t really meet that criteria. You buy a token gift for the mail carrier, another token gift for your second cousin twice removed, and a third token gift just to prevent an unanticipated gift-giving emergency faux pas. It’s often considered to be more polite to buy a bad gift than no gift at all. I’ve certainly done it many times, so I’m just as guilty as anyone.

Even for the people we know best, we sometimes buy filler gifts. In addition to the nice, thoughtful gifts you have bought, you buy more little token gifts as stocking stuffers. Sometimes these are cute and good for a brief laugh or a small indulgence like candy. Sometimes there are some legitimate big-ticket gifts that just happen to be small enough to fit inside of a stocking. Jewelry comes to mind. But, most of the time it’s just filler. (Even the phrase stocking stuffers literally says that the gifts are purchased for the sole purpose of taking up space.)

We all get things that we don’t particularly like, and we all give things that we don’t really have high hopes for the recipient liking because we don’t really know most of them very well. But we do it just to be polite because, well, it’s the thought that counts. We feel guilty or awkward if we overlook someone, especially if we are going to see them in person, and advertisers prey on this.

It’s actually a substantial economic problem, and University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has been on a mission to help us fix it. His book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, explains that holiday gift-giving is actually quite wasteful.

What’s distinctive about all of this [holiday] spending is that, except for the prearranged gifts for teenagers, the choices are not made by the ultimate consumers. For the rest of the year, the people who will ultimately use the stuff choose what they buy. As a result, buyers normally choose things they correctly expect to enjoy using. But not at Christmas. As a result, the massive holiday spending has the potential to do a terrible job matching products with users. Throughout the year, we shop meticulously for ourselves, looking at scores of items before choosing those that warrant spending our own money. The process at Christmas, by contrast, has givers shooting in the dark about what you like, recalling the way the imaginary red tornado distributes gifts.

Joel Waldfogel, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

Every year, the media talks about the importance of the holiday shopping season as an indicator of the nation’s economic health. The logic goes that more consumer spending is a cause for optimism. But do they ever stop and ask if consumers are spending their money wisely? Do they stop and ask how much credit card debt they are in come January? According to Waldfogel, Americans waste about $85 billion each winter on gifts that people don’t even want.

Unfortunately, when people cut back on holiday spending in tougher economic times, they might still buy just as many gifts for just as many people but just buy less expensive or token gifts (again, just due to social pressures).

It’s not just a matter of money, it’s also a matter of time. Shopping is time-consuming, and homemade gifts are even more so. Aside from the financial drain, so many people feel overstressed and overcommitted during the holidays. They have too many people to shop for, and they often wander about aimlessly in search of inspiration they will probably not find…so they settle for just giving something in order to be expedient. Really, if it’s the thought that counts, how much thought was involved in buying a candle for ten different people on your list? These social pressures actually suck the joy out of gift giving and even gift making.

As a gift recipient, I’d prefer that the same amount of money be spent on fewer, bigger-ticket gifts — or even on necessities for people who are less fortunate than I am. I’d rather not feel obligated to give a bad gift to someone I don’t know that well and give better gifts to the people I do know well.

Wouldn’t you? So let’s put an end to the social pressures of obligatory filler gifts. Doesn’t your mail carrier have enough returns to deal with as it is?

Have you driven a Mercury lately? Neither has anybody else…

There have been many unfortunate casualties of the recent economic downturn. Companies have folded. People have lost their jobs and their homes in appalling numbers.

So in the midst of all that, it’s hard for me to be wistful about the demise of Mercury. For those of you who aren’t quite as attuned to all things automobile, Mercury is a not only a planet and an element, but also a brand of car under the umbrella of Ford Motor Company.

You can be forgiven for not knowing that because somewhere along the way, the Mercury brand became irrelevant to Ford in much the same way that Oldsmobile became irrelevant to General Motors and Plymouth became irrelevant to Chrysler.

Quite simply, a Mercury Milan is a Ford Fusion with a Mercury badge. A Mercury Sable is essentially a Ford Taurus. A Mercury Mariner is mechanically identical to a Ford Escape.

Mercury used to stand for something. It used to be Ford’s slightly more refined (but not pretentious) cousin. It used to be to Ford Motor Company what Buick was to General Motors…nicer than a Chevrolet but not quite a Cadillac. It had its place.

But then the weird economics of the automobile industry took over, and brands ceased to have meaning. Ford repackaged its Pinto as the Mercury Bobcat: an affront to the upmarket image Mercury was made to convey. Chrysler rebadged the low-rent Dodge Omni (I have firsthand experience with this horrible car) as the Plymouth Horizon. GM secretly swapped out the Oldsmobile engine for a Chevy power plant in the 1977 Delta 88 and ruffled the feathers of more than a few loyal Oldsmobile customers – after they had purchased the Delta 88.

The most egregious example I have seen in recent years is the Pontiac G3: a rebadged Chevrolet Aveo that offers not the tiniest shred of “driving excitement.” The only reason this car existed was so Pontiac dealers could have a “value leader” vehicle, regardless of how meaningless it made the Pontiac arrow.

For the nostalgic car people out there, the end of Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury may be painful to watch, but the mourning should have started a few decades ago when their parent companies started committing slow brand suicide.

Check your ego at the office door

I’m going to start this off by acknowledging one of my more significant flaws. I am not particularly good at being “self aware.” That is, there are a lot of things I do that I don’t even realize I do.

Additionally, I often make decisions without regard for the specific people involved. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t have regard for others or I dislike the people involved…merely that I don’t differentiate much between one person and another when making decisions.) I’m going to go about my business and do what is right, regardless of what people will think.

This is far less impressive than it first sounds. After all, most of our decisions are not big moral judgments but small, mundane tasks. For example, today I sent what I thought was a perfectly polite e-mail full of pleases and thank-yous asking for feedback from a manager of a different department (his name is Mark). I was on a tight deadline, so I added, “please respond ASAP.” It seemed reasonable enough to me, especially for a simple request. This was related to a conversation I had just had with my manager Cathy (who actually sits at the opposite end of the building from me), so I copied her on the message.

Within one minute, my phone rang. It was Cathy. Now Cathy is very polite and easygoing, but she was calling in a less-than-giddy tone to tell me that my message had the tendency to go over like a lead balloon. I must admit, I was puzzled.

Apparently, the request to “please respond ASAP” made the message sound like the recipient worked for me when really the relationship is the other way around and I was asking for a favor. He could have sent me that message in perfect decorum, but not the other way around.

I don’t have any evidence that Mark was actually offended, but Cathy said that I needed to be more careful for the future because I could have unintentionally damaged the relationship between our two departments. I don’t think this was a major problem, but I would like to avoid even the minor ones if I can…they add up.

I must admit this is not the first time I have been caught making this type of faux pas, but I honestly didn’t see it coming. I can’t imagine myself being offended if the roles were reversed, but I am not Mark. I cannot project myself because I am not like a lot of people in the business world. For one thing, you have to try pretty hard to bruise my ego. I don’t know of anyone who has offended me by accident. I plan to get a Ph.D. some day, but I refuse to be one of those people who gets angry when someone calls him “mister” instead of “doctor.”

That makes it all the more critical that I make every word I communicate at work as deliberate and careful as possible. Life can be a minefield that way.

Gray area is just a nice way of saying minefield

The Berlin Wall was a pretty imposing and horrible structure. On the east side of the wall sat East Berlin: a place gripped by poverty, despair and totalitarian government. On the west side of the wall sat West Berlin: a modern, affluent, democratic society. People were maimed and killed trying to climb over from East Berlin to West Berlin.

Still, with that wall there people always knew which side they were on. There was no room for interpretation and ambiguity. There was no gray area, and that wall was more or less impenetrable.

But what if, instead of a wall, there was an unmarked Berlin Minefield? Would you try to cross it knowing that either you could run to freedom or die instantly depending on where you stepped?

In my life I have dealt much better with black and white issues than with gray areas. In a gray area you don’t know where you stand. You don’t know who may be offended by your actions. You’re left to feel things out and guess, and I am a terrible guesser.

So if you’re dealing with me, please do me a favor and be crystal clear about what you expect…because otherwise there may be some unfortunate accidents.

Walking around in a fog

I often wonder what people think of me when they see me on a day like today. I find it hard to believe that nobody notices the sheer turmoil in my head. It’s tattooed on me by way of furrowed brows, downward glances, half smiles and pathetic attempts at masking it all with humor.

Yesterday was a roller coaster ride of a day with stratospheric highs and subterranean lows. Nothing really happened yesterday that will matter in the grand scheme of things, but this strange brew of experiences could be downright nauseating in the way that a carnival ride gives you motion sickness. And yet the ride is so thrilling that you want to get back on it even though you know you will live to regret it later.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that I’ve never been good at games of make-believe. I’m fond of saying that I’ve seen windows that are less transparent than I am. It’s true.

So all day today I’ve been trying to immerse myself in work, trying to be friendly to customers while I am struggling to compute the events of the day before. Do they notice? Do they walk back to their cars and ask their spouses, “What was with THAT guy?”

My other job also involves being friendly to customers, but at least those customers are on the other end of a phone line. I have a feeling that what happened yesterday will continue to haunt me well into tomorrow. So will those people sense what’s really on my mind? Will my personal life distract me from working or will working distract me from my personal life?

Maybe I can ask the boss for one of those voice scramblers like they use in the witness protection program to conceal a source’s identity. (I sincerely doubt this will work as my boss probably does not have access to such a device. Even if she did that would probably freak out the customers even more than me being a little off-kilter.)

So here’s my question to you the reader…how do you draw psychological boundaries between your work life and your personal life?