Ask Ariely: On Resentful Recipients, Exciting Exercises, and Ungrateful Guests

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Hi, Dan.

For many years, I have given elaborate gift baskets to my friends and family for Christmas. Last year I learned that some of them felt the need to reciprocate with a gift of a similar cost, which made them uncomfortable. I give these gifts because I enjoy it and because I love my friends and family, not because I expect anything in return. How can I communicate that it is okay to just send me a Christmas card and nothing more?

—George 

It might be impossible for the recipient of a gift not to feel obligated to reciprocate in some way. The need for reciprocity is one of the beautiful things about human nature: It is a building block of society, and we wouldn’t want to eliminate it even if we could. So while you might not need any gifts, I wouldn’t deprive your friends and family of the chance to give you something. Instead, encourage them to find a gift that is meaningful but simple and cheap.

Last year, when I turned 50, I faced a similar dilemma: I wanted to have a big birthday party and invite my friends, but I didn’t want them to feel any pressure to give me gifts. Even if I had asked them not to bring gifts, however, it’s unlikely people would come empty-handed. Instead, I asked everyone to give me a copy of their favorite book and to write on the first page why it was so important to them. This way, I got a shelf of books to read for the next year, and my friends got to satisfy their urge to reciprocate.

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Hi, Dan.

My husband is 72 years old and recently retired. He goes to the gym about twice a week, but his doctor has told him that physical activity throughout the day is very important for him, since he has hypertension. How can I help him get into the habit of moving around? We are a pretty low-tech family, but should I get him a pedometer so he can track his steps?

—Florence 

I don’t think that tracking steps is going to get the job done by itself. Tracking devices operate on the premise that, if we only knew we exercised too little, we would change our behavior. But the truth is that most of us already know we don’t move around enough. If I were you, I would ask family members to encourage your husband to go for walks several times a day. Even better, tell him that you want to go for a walk and suggest that he come with you. That way you will create social pressure on him to get moving.

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Dear Dan,

We take pride in our home and expect visitors to treat it with respect. But we have a relative who does not share that sentiment: When she visits, she slams doors and spills food without cleaning it up. How can we bring this up to her without causing a rupture in our relationship?

—Anonymous 

I would start by telling her that different people have different preferences for how they want their home and possessions to be treated and that you are meticulous about your things. Tell her that while she has the right to treat her own things however she likes, when she is at your place her behavior distracts you and makes it hard to fully enjoy her company. Hopefully this will be sufficiently gentle but still make the point.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.