Most of us are overwhelmed with the worries arising from our daily relations with bosses, workmates or clients, and most of us take those worries with us, in our laptops and mobile phones, wherever we go - to our homes, for weekend strolls, in holiday hotels: we are never further thane a phone call or a phone message from the office, constantly at people's beck and call. Connected perpetually to the office network as we are, we have no excuse for not using Saturday and Sunday to work on e report or the project to be ready for Monday morning. 'Office closing time' never arrives. The once sacrosanct borderlines separating home from office, work time from so-called 'free time' or 'leisure time', have all but been effaced, and so each and every moment of life becomes a choice - a grave choice, a painful and often seminal choice, a choice between career and moral obligations, work duties and the demands of all those people needing our time, compassion, care, help and succour.
Obviously, consumer markets won't resolve those dilemmas for us, let alone chase them away or render them null and void; and we don't expect them to give us any of those services. But they can, and are eager to help us mitigate, even to quash the pangs of guilty conscience. They do it through the precious, exciting gifts on offer, which you can spy out in shops or on the Internet, buy and use to make some of those people who are hungry for your love smile and rejoice - if only for a brief moment. We are trained to expect the gifts supplied by shops to compensate those people for all those face-to-face, hand-in-hand hours we should have offered them but didn't. The more expensive the gifts are, the greater the compensation the giver expects them to offer their recipients, and consequently the stronger is their placating and tranquillizing impact on the giver's own pangs of conscience.
Shopping thereby becomes a sort of moral act... Emptying your wallet or debuting your credit card takes the place of self-abandonment and self-sacrifice that moral responsibility for the Other requires.
Zygmunt Bauman, Collateral Damage.
I think the above excerpt is very insightful, so I thought I'd quote it in full and add a few brief further thoughts on the same subject.
I think the idea that gifts are often compensation for not being around, or contributing enough, is quite true, along with the suggestion that giving a bigger gift can make us feel better. Incurring some financial 'pain' feels like we've made a sacrifice.
And yet there are some complicating factors that make me think this isn't the whole story. For one, what about the difference between cost and thoughtfulness? We can all think of occasions when a well chosen gift has meant a lot more than a more expensive one. I think that is at least in part because the recipient values the sacrifice of time/effort involved in thinking about what they would like and tracking it down. So gifts which have involved some sacrifice of time/effort can have more emotional firepower than those that cost us only financially.
Linked to this I reckon that fungibility is a negative when we think about the value of a gift. At the extreme, when we give people money as a gift aren't we often implicitly saying "you're too difficult to buy a present for" or "I don't know you well enough (anymore?) to know what to get you"? Giving vouchers is a really interesting mid-way point as we're kind of saying "I don't know what you would like but I think you'd like to get it from This Kind of Shop."
Finally, I think relying on expensiveness can backfire, socially speaking. Whilst giving a very expensive gift might be meant as an expression of financial self-sacrifice, it may be seen by the recipient as an assertion of financial power. the message that may be conveyed (whether intended or not) is not "look at the financial pain I was willing to endure" but "look at the financial pain I am able to endure". The emphasis may be read as being on the giver's financial capacity, not their willingness to sacrifice it.
One of the things going on, then, is that people are communicating in different ways through gifts. And, again, to rely on scale of expense could be seen as implicitly asserting that money trumps other concerns.
PS - should stress that obviously Bauman isn't trying to describe all the elements of gift-giving, just thought a couple of other points were worth making.