Q: My husband and I attended his niece’s wedding two years ago. Our gift was money to pay for their honeymoon. We were miffed we never got a thank-you note. We recently got a note that they’re expecting their first child. We sent a card but no gift, as we never got any response for our wedding gift. Yesterday, a card came in the mail, thanking us for our generous gift and telling us about their honeymoon. We suspect they’re realizing that wedding guests who didn’t get thank-you notes are holding back on gift-giving for the baby. Should we buy them a baby gift, or should this be a time for tough love?—Resentful
A: Sounds like you’ve discovered the gift-seeking couple version of the dude who stops returning a woman’s texts, only to resurface weeks later at booty o’clock—texting the 12:31am “Hey, whatchu doin’?”
Understandably, you and your husband weren’t hot to go unthanked for another extravagant gift. Your reticence to fork over again to the unappreciative duo has a long history, stemming from the evolutionary need to distinguish cooperators from freeloaders. Ancestral humans who let themselves get ripped off had less access to resources, making them more likely to wind up genetic dead ends.
We humans evolved to have a built-in drive for reciprocity. Our emotions are reciprocity’s worker bees, putting out feelbad emotions when we get scammed. We’re motivated to rid ourselves of those rotten feelings, which we do by trying to right the balance or avoid getting scammed again.
That said, in close relationships, we aren’t looking for 50/50 reciprocity like in business. In this case, a 55-cent first-class stamp on a thank you card would’ve done the job.
In other words, you’re ultimately reacting to a lack of gratitude—an emotion more vital to human connection than it gets credit for. Gratitude (in response to somebody’s generosity) is an important display of what evolutionary psychologist Julian Lim and his colleagues call “social valuation”: how much another person values our well-being. Their showing high valuation of our interests is ultimately a form of social insurance—a sign that when the chips are down, they’re more likely to be there for us.
When people don’t seem to value our well-being highly enough, we get angry—as you two did. I wrote in a recent column, referencing the work of evolutionary psychologist Aaron Sell, that anger is a “recalibrational emotion”: an emotion that evolved to influence our own behavior as well as someone else’s. Anger does its work through imposing costs and/or withdrawing benefits.
Complicating matters, parents of some or many millennials haven’t hammered them on the importance of thank-you notes the way parents (and grandparents) did with previous generations. Also, many millennials view writing messages in ink on paper and putting them in the mail as an exotic ancient practice, like paying cash or having a CD collection.
Granted, in this instance, you don’t say you required a thank-you on monogrammed card stock. You were just looking for a little acknowledgment, a little connection with the newlyweds, like a texted picture or two from their honeymoon, maybe with a “Thanks for this awesome love-cation.” That’s not unreasonable.
But to view these two more charitably, you might want to consider the effects of millennial culture. Culture is, simply put, what lots of people in a group do. Cultural attitudes are contagious, meaning they spread from person to person. In other words, the millennial cultural environment may contribute to good and kind nieces and their new husbands shrugging off rituals important to human psychology and coming off as rotten little ingrates.
Consider that they did ultimately end up thanking you—albeit belatedly. Taking the cynical view, maybe they just wanted baby loot. But if you believe they may have learned their lesson, you might be inspired to take a chance—splurge on that crib with the attached day spa, the Tesla of baby strollers, or robo-siblings to tide the kid over until Mommy and Daddy make human ones for him to blame and terrorize.