White Elephants, Capuchens, and Human Behavior

present-147317_960_720.pngWhen you receive a gift, what do you expect?  Given the wrapping etc. most gifts are a surprise but that doesn’t mean we don’t have certain expectations for them. We hope for something thoughtful, useful, or beautiful.  We hope to not have to feign gratitude over something we immediately can’t wait to get rid of.  Even when we say we really don’t want/need anything, gifts we  receive can still be loaded with expectations nonetheless. As we enter into this season of gifts, I’m struck with the ways our expectations and our realities mesh and the ways we reconcile the differences when these things don’t match up.

It seems that more and more frequently, at least among my peers, white elephant gift exchanges are the preferred method of exchanging gifts within a group.  In case you aren’t familiar, Wikepedia gives a pretty solid explanation of this “tradition” and typical rules/expectations for how the game is played.  There are certain practicalities and an entertainment value to this approach and yet, even a white elephant comes with expectations.  Today I attended a networking event that included a white elephant exchange and, as usual, I just wasn’t sure what the tone of this group and their exchange would be.  My early experiences were that the items people brought to these exchanges were generally undesirable.  They included unwanted gifts from past years being re-gifted or other random/funky things that people dragged out of the backs of their closets to unload.  I was shocked (and embarrassed) the first time I participated in an exchange in which the gifts were actually nice!  I had contributed a giant can of V8 and a terrible book while everyone else had wrapped bottles of wine, gift cards, and more.  Since then, I’ve seen the whole gamut and, in come cases, white elephant organizers are adding rules and expectations to keep the group on the same page.

What’s ironic in all of this is that I feel like the best white elephants I’ve seen are the ones with the most random (useless) gifts.  The steeling is the most ruthless (which seems to be what makes these games so fun), the marketing of goods the most creative,  and ultimately, at least a few people go home happy with their newfound “treasures” and victories.  Somehow, the worst white elephant exchanges are ones where all the stuff is nice or where it’s a mix of nice things and junk.  It seems like people would be happier with the chance of taking home something decent instead of something funky, but I feel like these exchanges are often more laden with disappointment than joy.

These cases remind me a little of the experiments on  Capuchin monkeys and fairness.  In these experiments, the monkeys, who can see each other, complete the same task of handing a rock to the researcher but are compensated differently for it.  In this case, the first monkey receives a cucumber (a desirable treat) while the second receives a grape (an even MORE desirable treat).  While the first one realizes that he’s getting “paid” less for the same work, he quickly rejects the cucumber rewards, even throwing them back at the researcher, in protest.  Rather than be happy with receiving something for the minimal effort of handing the researcher a rock, the first monkey gets upset and refuses to play.

In thinking about the white elephant exchanges, I wonder if there isn’t something similar going on.  While the whole ordeal is a little silly (like handing a researcher a rock) we may be as hardwired as they monkeys to expect fairness.  If everyone just gets cucumbers, something  to give us a giggle but not do much else, everyone is happy.  In contrast, when some get the proverbial grape and others are stuck with cucumbers, we feel somehow cheated.  While we likely take it all in stride, it is only a game after all, there is still disappointment. What is it, however, that gives me the sense that the “all grape” white elephant exchanges, the ones with actually good stuff to take home, are not as fun?  Perhaps in raising the bar we expect more.  Perhaps our disappointment comes when our hopes (expectations) clash with a different reality.

If we expect something great and then feel the result falls short, we are sad. Check out the “Paradox of Choice” TEDtalk for more (albeit slightly different) ideas on this.  In contrast, if we expected nothing (or just junk) and get junk with a giggle, we leave happy.  The difference has little to do with the objective quality of the gift/reward but everything to do with how we feel about it relative to own expectations.  As I think about home workplace conflict, mismatched expectations seem to be at the root of many.

Many school/home discipline systems depend on clear expectations for behavior as a foundation.  Similarly, policies and procedures at work attempt to make expectations clear.  Even with this clarity, most of us need reminding from time to time and the expectations themselves evolve as children and companies grow.  Interestingly, as with the white elephant exchanges, it is immensely easy to get out of step with expectations.  Whether we get our hopes overly inflated or simply didn’t know which rules a group plays by,  misunderstandings and disappointment are commonplace.  How then, do we adjust?  What are the ways we continually re-norm and get the whole team on the same page?  How do we prevent such misunderstandings and what are the ways we communicate with our colleagues when our realities fall far short of our hopes?

As we enter into the holiday season, make some time to get clear on your own expectations.  Consider how reasonable they are and the ways you have made them clear to those around you.  Consider their expectations and whether or not you are clear on their hopes.  As you do so, don’t be shy to embrace the LOW expectations of an old-fashioned funky-junky white elephant “gift” exchange.  Often, in setting ambition aside and expecting to simply laugh with friends and colleagues can be an incredible gift to all!

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