It’s the thought that counts
Giving a gift can be a stressful experience. What gift are you going to select? Will the recipient like it? Should you spend more than you normally would just to give the recipient the impression that you really care for them?
And then what about the recipient? Does the gift they have just received meet the expectations they have of the donor? Is it so awful or unsuitable that the only thing for it is to take it down to the local charity shop tout suite?
There are so many opportunities for something to go wrong. And then when the gift is unwrapped in the presence of the donor and it is so awful, not suitable or simply a disappointment, what do you say?
Few of us like to be confrontational and so we usually mumble some platitude like it’s the thought that counts. This rather mealy-mouthed phrase is intended to convey the recipient’s sense of appreciation of the time, effort and expense that the donor went to procure a present. It is just a shame that the end product was this garment that you wouldn’t be seen dead wearing.
The saying is attributed to a professor at Princeton University who also was a US ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Henry van Dyke Jr. Among his accomplishments was that he chaired the committee that published the Book of Common Prayer of 1906, the first printed Presbyterian liturgy. He also conducted Mark Twain’s funeral.
But for etymologists, van Dyke’s claim to fame was to coin the aphorism “it is not the gift, but the thought that counts.” It stuck, after all it is a clever way of getting out of a tricky situation with some grace, but over time the first part of the sentence is more often than not left unspoken, the auditor being left to fill in the gaps.
Some recent research suggests that the spirit of the phrase may not be totally misplaced. Researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Business, led by Frank Flynn, have shown that whilst givers assume that more expensive gifts will be more appreciated by the recipients, there is not a marked increase in the level of appreciation from the recipients.
In one study, conducted on-line, men consistently thought that the more they spent on an engagement ring, the more it was likely to be appreciated by their intendeds. But, conversely, fiancees did not consider themselves anymore appreciative, irrespective of how costly the ring was. Something to bear in mind if you are proposing to pop the question. And perhaps the takeaway is that the thought really does count more than the cost of the object.
The researchers also looked at more everyday types of gifts, t-shirts, wine, books, CDs (remember them?), household items. Again, they found that the extra spent on these gifts to make them really special had little effect on the overall sense of appreciation on the part of the recipient and even made them feel that in going over the top, the donor had wasted their money. That extra spend results in what the economists call a deadweight loss, money consumers could have spent better in other ways.
Perhaps Henry van Dyke was right. Food for thought, for sure.