Peter McGraw talks to Kinneret Lahad and Iris Schneider about the substantial costs that singles pay, subsidizing and supporting couples with gifts and attendance at weddings, rehearsal dinners, showers, baptisms, and gender reveal parties. Lahad is the co-author of a paper that investigates single women as exhausted givers and careful complainers—complaining about the asymmetry that comes from what used to be a tradition: I support you when you get married, and you support me when I get married. That was fine when everyone got married, but what happens when a substantial number of people remain single, and there is no opportunity for reciprocity?
Listen to Episode #121 here
Singles as Exhausted Gift Givers
I bring back guests from one of my favorite episodes to talk about the substantial costs that singles pay subsidizing and supporting couples with gifts and attendance at weddings, rehearsal dinners, showers, baptisms, and gender reveal parties. My guest is Kinneret Lahad. She is a Senior Lecturer in the NCJW Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel-Aviv University.
Her research interests are interdisciplinary, spanning the fields of gender studies, sociology, and cultural studies. She is the author of the open-access book, A Table For One: A Critical Reading Of Singlehood, Gender and Time. Kendra is the co-author of a recent research paper that investigates single women as exhausted givers and careful complainers, complaining about the asymmetry that comes from what used to be the tradition.
“I support you when you get married and you support me when I get married,” that was fine when everyone got married, but now with the substantial number of people who remain especially unapologetically unattached, there is no opportunity for reciprocity. Iris Schneider returns as a guest cohost. She is a behavioral scientist from the Netherlands.
After obtaining her PhD in Psychology, she lived and worked in the US before moving back to Europe. Iris is an incoming professor at the University of Dresden, taking on a new position. She studies mixed feelings, conflict, judgment, and choice, but she does not have mixed feelings about her views of marriage and asymmetry. I hope you enjoy the episode. It is a good one. Let’s get started.
Welcome back, Kinneret.
Welcome back, Iris.
Thank you. I am happy to be back.
It is nice to bring the two of you together. For the new readers, my two guests participated in one of the most meaningful episodes, entitled Waiting. I would encourage you to check that out. There is nothing more selfish than a destination wedding. Obviously, that is a joke, but according to a paper that Kinneret co-authored in the Journal of Sociology suggests that there are other people who agree with me.
The title of the paper is It Is My Turn Now: How and Why ‘Single’ Women Complain about Non-Reciprocal Gift-Giving. I am going to give you the highest praise that I can, Kinneret. That is, I wish I wrote this paper. In the world of academia, that is one of the highest praises that you can get. Let’s start with how you start the paper. You talk about an episode of a show that has had great cultural significance, Sex and the City.
Thanks so much for inviting me here. It is a pleasure to be back. I want to emphasize that it is a co-authored paper. I have written it with Michal Kravel-Tovi, who is an associate professor in Tel Aviv. She is an anthropologist. I am a sociologist and this was a gift we also gave to each other. It was such a joy writing into writing it together. The scene from Sex and the City is a scene many of us are familiar with, which had a huge impact, not only on Michal and myself but also on hundreds or even more viewers who have been influenced by that episode because, in many ways, it reflects the politics of singlehood.
We are in the phase of singlehood studies that we are moving beyond an analysis of stigmas and stereotypes to the analysis of what is political in studying singlehood? How can we make and think about singlehood as a political category through which we can reflect upon injustices and inequalities? I do not know who wrote that absolutely amazing episode, but first of all, if they are reading, by any chance, my hugest admiration, because every line there and every scene in that episode is a masterpiece. In many ways, what happens is that Carrie is invited to a baby shower for the third child.
She was not asked, but she was required to leave her Manolo, a super expensive shoes, outside so as not to bring dust into the holy apartment. The shoes get lost or stolen. When she asks her friend in a very uncomfortable way to re-compensate her for the loss of these shoes, a friend accuses her that she is selfish and she does not have a life.
As a married couple or as a mother, they have responsibilities and do not buy Manolo shoes, which cost $400. The conversation Carrie has with Charlotte while they are eating ice cream and strolling in New York, which I think many of us have never had because it touches upon a taboo and the unwritten rules of gift-giving because Charlotte tells her, “You will get a gift once you are married.”
Carrie says, “What if I do not get married? How will I ever be compensated for all the gifts that I have given to my friend for her wedding, bridal showers, and engagements?” She made the call to relation. The calculation summed up to $2,000 and something and she said, “She is not willing to pay for my shoes.” What is brilliant in this episode is that it unveils a couple of things. First of all, it unveils the logic of the gift that this is a very important topic in sociological and anthropological theory, but to the best of my knowledge, it has never been portrayed in such an interesting way, at least in the popular culture I am familiar with.
Secondly, which is much more relevant to our episode is how come many single people spend entire lives giving and celebrating the celebrations of others while never having the opportunity to receive anything back, and birthdays are not included in that kind of gift-giving. As a Sociologist and Anthropologist, I was fascinated by the theories of gift-giving. It made me fall in love with Sociology many years ago. I never thought I would become a sociologist, but reading the famous book by Marcel Mauss, The Gift, in my mid-twenties made me realize that Sociology is one of the most fascinating things I can study. It made me fall in love with what I do now.
With Michal as an Anthropologist, as this is a major topic in Anthropology relating to issues of exchange, politics, and emotions, how does reciprocity work and how is solidarity created? All of these are many questions that preoccupy many sociologists and anthropologists. The major question we highlight in our paper is, “What if I don’t?” as Carrie says. If we go back to the book by Marcel Mauss in which he outlines, and this is something that was very much quoted many years, the basic rule of the gift, you have to give, receive, and you are obligated to give back.”
What happens if, structurally, there is no opportunity to give back? If you are not getting married or not having children, then there is an inherent injustice between the wedded and the non-wedded people. I would love to know your thoughts about it and experiences or whatever you feel like responding with. This is something which we try to highlight. Hopefully, it is another step toward the unveiling of the injustices in singlehood’s everyday life.
Let’s set the stage here before we get into the nuance of gift-giving. Let’s talk about who the players are, not in this episode, per se, but in general. What you are highlighting is a world of people who are riding the relationship escalator and the ceremonies associated with that who celebrate it, the attendees who are friends and family who may have already rode the escalator, who may want to, and who may never. Your focus in this paper is on weddings and associated activities. It is bridal showers, bachelorette parties, and rehearsals, but in the case of this episode, there are also baby showers, baptisms, children’s birthday parties, and gender reveals parties.
Bar and bat mitzvah then weddings of the children of your friends who are getting married and then their grandchildren. It is a long life for gift-giving.
I am not going to my friend’s kids’ weddings. That is not going to happen. I am putting that on the record and you can hold me accountable. If you are reading, you are my friend, and you have a child. I love you and your child is wonderful, but I am not going to the wedding. The costs. We have not just money that goes into the gifts, but the time that goes into these. There are gifts, travel, hotel costs, airfare, rental cars, haircuts, dresses, makeup, the vacation days that people spend going to destination weddings that they would rather be going on a destination vacation, and all of the situations that go into this.
If you do not pay attention to this, you do not realize how many of them there are. All of this starts to add up. These costs are non-trivial. In the case of this one situation in the episode is a few thousand dollars in the case of a destination wedding when you would rather be doing a destination vacation of your own choosing. This is not a trivial amount of time, effort, or money when you start to add it all up.
Gift-giving also involves emotion, recognition, and happiness. Many women who wrote about this said, “It is not that we are not happy for them. We just want them to recognize our efforts. We do not want to be invisible.” For many, they emphasize that it is not only in relation to money and time. A lot has to do with being recognized as a constant giver and being aware that this is an unfair deal. There are all kinds of voices that we have identified. The emotional part is also very important.
What strikes me most about all these events is, first of all, that they seem completely out of proportion. You are getting married. Why does this have to be a six-day event with 500 people? You do not even know 500 people. On the one hand, I can also see that many people are there for a décor, “This has to be the best day of X. This has to be the best baby shower.” There needs to be an audience to witness and sacrifice at this alter. Sacrifice is also a bit rough.
There is this wonderful subreddit. It is called Our Wedding Shaming. It is bright, zealous, and stuff. I am like, “I am glad I do not know these people.” Sometimes you see pictures of people. There is a bride and groom, the groomsmen, and the bridesmaids. There are seven people there, and it is like, “How do you have seven close friends? I do not get this. Is this like bridesmaid for rent? You fly them in for money.” They have to pay for themselves. It is bridesmaids for free. What strikes me most is that there is this total acceptance and shamelessness around having other people finance your life and life choices.
Especially when you look at the registry, “Buy your own sheets and household goods. Why do we have to furnish your house? Why do you ask for these very menial things?” The same with kids, “Why do you have to buy your kids clothes? Buy your own kids’ clothes.” It is weird. When I go to a birthday, for instance, not like one of these, but my dad’s birthday. I do not buy him stuff for his house. I buy him something that he likes, maybe a book of poetry with some thoughtful quotes or something. The gifts, registries, asking for money, and donations are also instrumental. It is what I do not get about it.
That also makes it different from other gift-giving. There is a little bit of work in social psych on gift-giving and people like thoughtful gifts, and sometimes self-made gifts just because it shows that people put the effort in. These registries are not thoughtful. That is basically you can’t afford to move or something.
I will share a story. I think that emotions are an interesting concept that I have not given much thought to. This goes beyond gift-giving in the traditional sense of, “I am giving you a present for this meaningful milestone,” but it is that prop element about being there that is important. It is important because you want to support the people that you love.
When it starts to cross over to being a prop, as Iris has identified, it can be annoying. I will tell you two quick stories. I have a friend whose brother is getting married. The couple spent over $100,000 on this wedding, a tremendous amount of money that they are spending. Everybody has to wear black except for the bride who is going to wear white. That means if you do not own a black dress, you have to buy one in addition to traveling to this thing.
All of this is amplified by social media, the Instagram economy around this, which certainly, magnifies all of this. I will tell you a little minor story about how absurd this can be. I have a friend who got married in his second marriage. I was the groomsman in the 1st and 2nd marriages. I am supportive of the second marriage and traveled for it happily.
All the groomsmen were wearing tuxedos. I own my own tuxedo to show you how many events in my life required tuxedos, but I did not want to buy the traditional ruffled tuxedo shirt because I think it is a little bit passe so I bought a variant of that. I was informed that that would not be acceptable, that I needed a ruffled tuxedo shirt because it would ruin the pictures, which is a bit much.
I bought another one. I have freakish proportion. I was like, “It is just going to be easier for me to buy another one and have it shipped to me. Unfortunately, it did not arrive in time. I had to go to a tuxedo store and rent one anyways, which took a tremendous amount of time, and additional expense, especially on top of a shirt that I was not going to buy in the first place etc.
I did not complain about it, but it bothered me in the sense that this non-ruffled shirt was going to ruin these photos. These are people I love and care about that. I can only imagine the feelings and the emotions that this must-have when you are pouring multiple thousands of dollars and, over time, hundreds of hours supporting not just one but all of these people who come and go in your life through your 20s, 30s, and maybe even beyond.
Our article can be read not only in relation to singlehood but also as many articles do, which point to this craziness of the wedding culture of the commodity and the utter madness. I think whether you are single or non-single, you realize that this has got totally out of hand in terms of spending these amounts of money, time, and putting so much importance on a ritual, which constantly has to be the most amazing ritual and celebration in the world. In relation to single who attend many of these events and your story resonates with many of the stories we have read, in which you sense your effort and your love, it is totally taken for granted. You are expected to be there and be happy for them.
Being a constant giver, as Michal and I term that, being someone who goes again and again to these parties, but one is rarely recognized with the effort and the time. Often, that is something that we did not touch upon. There are many depictions of that also in popular culture, but also in studies on single life and single woman that often these celebrations can be quite humiliating. You are put on the children’s table or around people who do not know what to do with your uneven numbers. All of these kinds of situations have furnished many romantic comedies with being the object of pity and curiosity.
In these cases, often your singlehood is even more accentuated because these parties often are like Noah’s Ark. Everybody comes in couples but that is something we did not touch upon. What was important for us is to think about the injustice of how it is unjust in terms of the deal, that one of the basic laws of the gift is not sustained, and it is okay. It has been years like that, and it is perfectly fine. No one is talking about it except these amazing woman who has written about it very courageously.
We are talking about not really gifts, and the rules of gift-giving, receiving, and giving back do not apply. The reason may be that these are not gifts because how voluntarily are they given? Are they gift, or do we call them gifts, but they are not gifts? They are basically paying tribute or sacrificing on the altar of marriage. One way to see it is that this instrumental support of couples’ lives is wrapped up as a gift, but it is not a gift. It is basically a demand put on people around that couple to facilitate and support their life in instrumental material ways.
One of the things is there was a time when everybody got married more or less. We can refer back to our previous episode together. You are waiting your turn, and in the meantime, you do these celebrations. After you have had your turn, you do these celebrations, and depending on your class and fitting into a particular band of class, it all works out. What comes in, what goes out, ends up balancing the ledger.
Everybody puts into the public good, and everybody takes out as they need. I do not think it is a public good that is widely agreed upon anymore now that not everybody gets married, but we are still stuck with this kind of collective responsibility for a certain way of life that we once all had. We could all benefit from adding to this collective. Now maybe that is no longer the case. I have been thinking about how did this evolve because it is also different than other gift-giving.
I have had a birthday. I turned 40 this 2022. You do not open a registry for turning 40. It is a celebration, but you do not ask for the types of gifts or support that you see at more linear life path-related events, let’s say. I talked to a friend about this and she said, “It used to probably be that people lived with their parents. They would go get her and they needed a whole household.” Naturally, everybody chipped into this public goods thing.
Now we talk about it as if it is a gift, but maybe it is not a gift because there is something in your paper here as well that struck me, and that is the power dynamic. Normally, the person who gives a gift holds some power over the recipient because they owe them something now. That is also not the case in these kinds of situations. They owe you only in a specific circumstance to give back. Nobody is going to say, “You gave me this great thing for my wedding. It is your birthday now, here is a Vitamix.”
This is something that Michal and I were fascinated by because the literature on gift-giving is often geared around the question, “Is there a free gift?” Many philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists have different answers to that question because, evidentially, if you have the duty to give and to receive, receiving is also a duty. You have to reciprocate as a duty.
It creates these kinds of social laws and social obligations for many years to come. What is fascinating here is exactly the point you are referring to that instead of feeling uncomfortable and obligated, it is obvious that there is no need to return or at some point, you will get married or you will become a parent and then I will give back what you have given me.
Like Carrie Bradshaw asks, “What if I do not?” What you both have referred to is maybe we can use this time in which many norms are changing to think about the madness of wedding culture, consumer culture in general, and having a party out of every little thing that happens in your life. This Instagram culture that we live in is entirely out of proportion.
As a devoted socialist, I always think about how many people you could feed with these glamorous, and it is disgusting to spend so much money on this when there are many poor people in the world while other people are spending so much money on this. It drives as many points, which go beyond the single question.
The inception of this project actually came from previous work you have done on self-marriage, which is interesting. Could you talk a little bit about what self-marriage is? It seems to be an outgrowth of holding marriage to be the opposite of what Iris thinks of it, which is like, “You got married, congrats.”
I am curious how it is in Dutch culture because it should be noted that the American culture is very different, for example, from weddings in the UK or Germany. Israel is much more similar to the wedding culture in the States than in the UK. There are many parameters that totally changed this. How has it in the Netherlands, Iris?
It is like, “You are getting married. Nice. Good for you.” Many people do it for practical reasons, but I have a little bit of a bubble. My experience is that extravagance is not as excessive as in American culture.
Also, Indian culture and some Asian cultures. It is not just a Western phenomenon.
It is smaller and more on the connection with friends and family. I want to celebrate my love and our connection with others. That is also what I have seen here in Germany at weddings. They are quite intimate. I have never seen a registry in the Netherlands or in Germany. That is also not a thing. One thing I find really problematic about the idea that the day has to be perfect is that the wedding in itself is an accomplishment, especially for the woman. I find that sad.
That should not be a life goal, your best day ever or where you put all your effort in. It is a wonderful celebration, but it is not an accomplishment. Can you see the difference? I know that wedding planning is difficult. The devotion to it would be better channeled into other domains. I think that is sad. That is a bit demeaning, to be honest. I have not seen this in Germany or the Netherlands, although I never get invited because I do not bring gifts.
That is a huge taboo. I talked to some of my friends that there is a certain risk in saying, for example, what Iris said, “I do not bring gifts,” which people who take this tense might be put in a position first that might lose some of their friends, or they might be upsetting someone by even complaining. This is why we have categorized the second part of our paper we have titled, The Careful Complaint, because it is not that we are not glad for them, we are not happy, or we do not want to give.
We are happy to give you this money, but you do not see us. How about our life path? How about celebrating what is important to us? One of our favorite sentences, which Michal and I kept laughing at when we wrote the paper, is one single woman who says, “Even single people once blender. We also want the Vitamix.”
I can appreciate this careful complaint because I just made one. Think about how I talked about this tuxedo shirt situation, which, as I called it, absurd. There is part of me that hopes that my friend who was involved in this does not read this episode because of the awkwardness it could create. Even though they are anonymous, I had to say how much I love them and how self-supportive I was because I seem like the bad guy complaining about buying and renting shirts on this very important day. We learn it in real-time here.
Not only did we not have enough space for that, but I think if you work in a big company and you are single, you are often invited to weddings and bar mitzvahs. In Israel, I worked in a big institution for ten years, and I kept buying gifts for weddings and bar mitzvahs. We also have various occasions knowing very well that I will never get back any of the money that I have put in. It is a social norm. You can’t be a bad colleague. You have to participate. Our paper is also an attempt not only to discuss the injustice towards single people but also to talk about these unwritten rules that we are embarrassed to discuss, like why is it so difficult to discuss non-reciprocity?
If we think about the kind of political conversations we are having, it is not that we are in a good place, but we have more tools to discuss non-reciprocity in terms of race, class, or gender. Why can’t we talk or non-reciprocity between single and non-single or non-reciprocal cities when it occurs in relation to gifts? We can ask again, “What is the free gift?” which is something many have dealt with in beautiful ways, from Marcel Mauss to Delhi Da and the beautiful works on that topic because this is one of the most basic ways in which you have to create solidarity and society from the different barters to the gifts.
I want to say two things. First, I do bring gifts to people, just not like extravagant gifts. The second thing is, what is interesting about these careful complaints is what is disclaimed. The disclaimer is, “It is not that I am not happy for you or that I do not love you.” That means that the idea that you are not having fun is directly related to whether you love them or not.
Otherwise, you would make another disclaimer. You can also think about a careful complaint that says, “It is not that I am not having fun at your wedding,” or you could also do a disclaimer where you say, “It is not that I do not like the food,” but we make the disclaim on a very specific domain. You shared happiness and love for the other person. That says a lot about how these two things are connected in people’s minds.
For the reader, a careful complaint expresses emotional support for the receiver while also expressing frustration. I want to make sure that people understand what it means by a careful complaint, and that you identified it. It is emotional support and love. It is not something else.
These material investments are directly linked to emotional support. Apparently, we understand emotional support through material and tangible things like holidays, buying dresses, or buying gifts. I think that is interesting. It is also taboo in other types of relationships. We have talked about it before in this show.
The idea is that people have different motivations for relationships, and one can be intrinsic, “I like you. You are funny and sweet.” Motivations can be more extrinsic or instrumental, “I think it is cool that I can drop your name and maybe you can borrow me money sometimes, or get me invited to Venice,” but we are not allowed to talk about that. Our relationship must be based only on emotional appreciation, acceptance, and value.
When you start talking about what all of these things are costing you in material things, you are breaking that rule. You are saying, “Our emotional relationship is costing me material things. You are expecting that of me and I am not getting anything back.” That is the taboo that you are raking. You are not supposed to talk about the fact that there are instrumental and external motivations, reasons, or at least currency in a relationship. That is why people do not want you to talk about it because you are breaking their trust, and we say, “It is not that I do not love you or I am not happy for you,” to prevent that from happening.
Iris had mentioned there is literature in Social Psychology around gift-giving. Early in my career, I did work with Phil Tetlock and Alan Fiske about relational schemata, the rules of the governor relationships. Two of those rules we have been talking about directly or indirectly. One is the notion of what is called Equality Matching.
Those are of tit for tat relationships. That is the nature of reciprocity that Kinneret is talking about. The other one, which Iris has identified, is called Communal Sharing. The rules around communal sharing are more of give what you can and take what you need. That way, score-keeping does not happen. A parent does not present a bill to their child on the eighteenth birthday. They have not kept score.
They are not tracking all the money that has been spent on them and are looking for repayment of some sort. These two things are getting mixed up, which is that many of the people that you are involved with, you have a communal sharing relationship with them, but the nature and the norms of these exchanges around weddings and all the children things end up having this of unstated. No one ever goes, “I know you were pissed about your tuxedo shirt, but I will get you later.” It will all work out in the end, kind of a thing.
It is like I am treating this as a single person as a communal sharing element, but the rules are built on equality matching. As you have identified, there are these brave women who are writing about this. Maybe we can talk a little bit about the data analysis that you did. It will be interesting for people to know how you made these discoveries beyond the observations you have in your own personal life and then brought to the little screen by Sex and the City.
I am spoiling the party because I just want to add something to what you said. Your analysis was so mind-blowing and I absolutely loved it. First of all, I am grateful for that. I want to add to what you have also said, the moral component of being a good friend and colleague. The risk is definitely an emotional risk of hurting the friend or the colleague that you care what they think about you. It is also a question of morality, which has to do with status and power. It is not only about the tuxedo shirt. It is about who you are? What kind of calculations do you make? How do you wish to see yourself and others to see you?
In this kind of very trivial negotiation, “See me. See what I have invested in your life.” It pinpoints some of the most basic social components of our lives. How do we get out into the world? What do we expose about ourselves? How do we see as moral? As a sociologist, there is a wonderful book following your example on parents, which I think is great because many parents do calculate, but it is taboo. It is not that parents do not calculate. They often say, “I have sacrificed my life for raising you, you ungrateful daughter and son.”
We all constantly calculate and we display these calculations in various ways. It might not be words. It could be in resentment or in all kinds of ways. What I want to add to the morality component, there is a beautiful book by Jennifer Mason and Janet Finch, two amazing sociologists which wrote about Negotiating Family Responsibilities. One of their very important, striking, and compelling observations is that morality is not something that is abstract. It is constantly negotiated and situated according to various parameters. In many ways, when we think about these non-reciprocal arrangements, we also bear in mind these various parameters that come into play here.
Let’s talk about the data collection process because what you do is identify women who have gone public with their complaints, careful or not.
It was surprising. We did not expect that when we collected our data. The amount of writing and is due to these popular portals like Huffington Post, Yahoo, The Atlantic, and the journalism that many of us are reading instead of watching the news. These portals are very significant and they are very immersed in questions in relation to our personal lives.
This has become quite a thing in recent years to openly discuss this uncertainness of gift-giving in various ways. One of the most surprising findings was one of the columns in a bridal magazine, which I saw quite a surprised to find quite a critical piece on that. One of the women getting married said, “I have never acknowledged the amount of money others have put into my marriage or I am going to put in my marriage.”
We followed the text because we said, “I proposed that our previous paper on self-marriage that we were surprised by how to grant this phenomenon is.” In a similar vein, this was quite a surprising find because I thought that it was only Carrie Bradshaw in my head, to be honest. I am exaggerating, but maybe five more people were thinking about these issues.
Plunging into the internet and seeing so many articles, which convey in different ways of articulating, but they made a complaint. Some of these complaints were careful and some were not careful at all. Some of them said, “Enough is enough. I am not going to another wedding full stop. I am not attending any of these. I am breaking the rules of the game. I have had enough. I am not participating in this anymore.”
That is the exhaustive givers, as you detail.
There is an exhaustion of it, but it is not personal exhaustion. If we think about it in a political way, this is not personal exhaustion or resentment. As we analyze it and offer to view it, it is a call to follow Bella DePaulo. We can see this is another way of singleism, in which single people are discriminated against for years.
These are practices that are not only related to weddings. These are also related to family dinners or different occasions with friends when the wishes, priorities, and time constraints of single people are taken into account. There is a significant issue here of recognition and acknowledgment. We are returning to the issue of emotions and morality, but this is a political stance. It is not only about being personally offended. This is a pattern.
There are two things that came to mind when reading your article. One thing also a very practical thing is that when it comes to gift-giving. Couples gift one gift and singles gift one gift, but couples never give twice as big a gift as a single person. Maybe 1/3 bigger, but not twice as big. That is also crappy. Maybe they have more people that they need to give gifts to because you have more people than that, but still, I think that is lame.
It is not true, Iris. Single people who have more friends are more involved in their community than married.
That is also a bit unfair. Money is economic power. We talked about this before in many ways, and that is the political part of it. Somehow this drains single people from becoming more independent financially and having more economic and political power.
I want to try to put a number on this with a personal story. All of us were in graduate school. For people who are not familiar with getting a PhD, you work for a small stipend. You work as a teaching assistant or research assistant, typically for a small stipend. From 1997 to 2002, I was in a Psychology PhD program. My starting salary was $13,000 a year.
When I graduated, it was maybe $14,500. That is the amount of money I was living on. I was 27 to 32, so I was right in the middle of marriage season, more or less. I had numbers. If I was invited to a wedding, I gave a $100 present. If I was invited in and was unable to attend, I gave a $50 present. Think about what you want about that amount of money, whether it is generous or it is cheap. That stretched me.
That was 1/4 of my rent for the month. It was not a trivial amount of money. There are big opportunity costs that come from that. I ate less during those years because I was subsidizing the people I loved. This is only a personal thing and I do not expect anyone to feel bad for me, but to give you an idea, it was a stretch. I can’t imagine that version of me having that conversation because it is taboo to be able to do that.
I thought you were going somewhere else with this story because when I did do a PhD, I had a huge party with food and everything after I defended. My reasoning was I probably never get married. This is going to be my big celebration for an accomplishment or for a moment. It was wonderful.
We are going to get to in a moment, the so what of all of this, like, how do you sort of navigate this? When I was 34 years old and I took my first job at the University of Colorado, my hunch was that I probably would never get married. What I did was I threw myself a bachelor party. I had fifteen friends fly in from all over the country for a weekend of activities. I put them up in my apartment. I rented my neighbor’s apartments.
These fifteen friends came for a weekend of hiking, tailgating, whiffle ball tournaments, poker tournaments, and obligatory bar crawl. We had a great time. In the invitation, I said, “If I ever do get married, you can skip my ‘real bachelor party.’” That was my solution. A bachelor party that features a true bachelor is the best kind of bachelor party because you do not have to behave yourself. Did anybody give me a gift? Absolutely not. They gave me the gift of their presence, flights, and time.
When I turned 40, I also did a huge party. I rented a place and it was an open bar. I told people, “Do not bring gifts. Your presence is enough.” People insisted on bringing gifts, probably reflecting that it is a norm. I said, “Make a donation. This is a charity that I hold dear. If you want to give away something, donate to this charity.” People did not like that. Some appreciated it, but they also found it quite difficult. Maybe I broke the reciprocity thing or something, but I felt if I had the money to spend on an open bar and have a party for 30 or 40 of my closest trends, then I do not need additional monetary support.
I rather have this abundance shared with other people. If we can all afford, we do not need it. That was my idea behind it. I have abundance and I am showing that abundance so clearly now, “Please do not offset it, but let’s share it in an indirect way.” People found it difficult. Maybe it is because I broke the receiving rule with that. Like you, Peter, I do not shy away from celebrations, even though there are not a couple of related.
I love to host a good party. What was your second point?
It is totally unrelated. It has to do with the fact with what Kinneret was saying about the discrimination of single people and how people think about single people. I was talking about moving to another city and then somebody said, “You do not have a family?” I said, “I did not hatch from an egg. I do have a family.”
In some ways, I did hatch from an egg, but then I was already now down this road of making this comparison. Luckily, the person I was talking to is a totally sweet person. It shows that what people consider family is very narrow. If it is not your child or a husband, you do not have a family. I do have a family and my relationships with them influenced my decision-making. They are part of my life and the choices I make.
Apart from that, outside my blood relatives, there are people that matter to me in a big way. I did not feel like it reflected any bad intention or so, but it did reflect a little bit on how we think about family and what is worth considering and not. Kinneret made me think about how the way single people love and have relationships is, in some ways, less valuable than how couples have relationships.
I had an episode called Solo Thoughts where I defined what it means to be solo. In it, I talked about how singles have a lot of love to give. In many ways, they have more love to give because they are allowed to give it more broadly than rather to a small number of family members. I get to say, I love you a lot and to a lot of different people because I have love in my heart for them, but then I allow myself to express it. I am free to express it because it does not undermine the love I have for a wife or a child in any way. In close, I want to do the impossible. I want to try to address the so what of all of this and what to do.
Iris and I have talked about our own personal approaches, throwing ourselves celebrations, bachelor parties, graduation parties, or birthday parties that do not have these norms associated with it that feel much more communal, in a sense. I will put it out there and let you two work through this. One of the things that come up to me is there are two types of singles.
There are the singles like Iris and myself, and you also you, Kinneret, which do not imagine ever getting married, and then there are the Carrie of the world who probably won’t or might, in some way. They are left in this in-between space which is, “I might get all of that coming back, but I might not.” Some of the solutions, I do not know if it depends on the profile of the single, or maybe if I am even thinking about this in the wrong way.
I thought about something completely different, but this is something that I might have referred to in the previous show of non-capitalist views of value and sharing. In order to express love, share, show appreciation, and share happiness, does it have to be commodified? Why does it have to be linked to objects and to objects which cost a lot and create more waste?
We can adopt a non-capitalist and eco-feminist view on this whole industry and say, “Why are we participating in it to begin with?” We have analyzed the text, shown what we found, and obviously in our previous people, which I did not have time to discuss, but to me, we were struck by how women still want to have the best day of their lives, even if there is no special person out there. They go ahead and marry themselves for different reasons I won’t go into at the moment.
Especially following what you have so beautifully articulated, but also something which we did not have space to say in the paper, it is also my personal take on this is like, why do we need these lavish weddings, gender reveal parties, huge birthdays, huge amounts of money? Let’s rethink how we distribute resources in society.
Let’s think of other ways in which we can say to that person, “Are you getting married? Mazel tov. Have a great love. I am giving you a hug. I wish you all the best. When you need me, I am there for you, not as a witness to these seven bachelorettes. You are a good friend of mine. I will be there when you need me, which is not related to this display of the most important day of your life.”
As a sociologist who loves theory, I am not used to thinking about solutions. I am used to complicating things. This is something I am deeply uncomfortable with. This is not a comfortable position for me as a sociologist. As someone who cares a lot about society and justice, that is what I personally think. Why are we cooperating with these mad rules of the expenditure of waste? Enough is enough. Stop this now.
I appreciate you acknowledging your limitations.
It is not the limitations, but on the contrary, it is liberty and privileges.
I mean in terms of solving the world’s problems as a sociologist. I am going to turn it over to Iris to do that. What are your thoughts in terms of maybe on the more micro side of these things?
I am reading a book about sobriety. I stumbled across it. It is The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober. I was checking out your website and I saw you also made a reference to drinking alcohol, drinking less or no alcohol. I came across it through Courtney Carver. She sends out a lovely newsletter each week. I started reading it, and it was interesting, but around alcohol, there is also a very strong norm that you need to drink.
It is very acceptable to ask, “Why don’t you drink?” in an offendant way. People are nodding. She also talks about like how you navigate to things like you do not want to go to a party because it is going to be boozing or that you are planning to exit a party as soon as it becomes too drunk for you because you might be triggered as an alcoholic.
She basically argues for vulnerable honesty. It also connects to non-violent communication strategies. It is saying, “I love you, the disclaimer is needed, but I can’t afford this. I live in the US. I have three holidays a year. I can spend it on this because I want to do other things.” If you are just a prop that might not be appreciated, it might also go relatively unnoticed because you are replaceable. If it is somebody who cares about you, I can’t imagine that people would be offended. If they are well, it reveals something.
You do not have to break off the relationship, but you can say, “I do not feel comfortable with this.” I am not saying you need to break up with your friend about the ruffled shirt, but I think we need to be honest with each other around these norms. It might be painful, but it might go in unexpected directions because the way it is spiraling now seems not to work. We should be honest with the people we love. We owe them that.
That is a wonderful sentiment to close on and a hopeful one. It echoes the tone that I strive for in this show, which is vulnerability and honesty. Thank you for that, Iris. I am thrilled to have smart friends like you and to have us come back and do our lives beyond academia to talk about this important topic. Kinneret, you are on sabbatical in Venice doing creative things. I appreciate you taking the time to share this very important paper, and incredibly important ideas for people who I think will feel liberated. At least they will feel seen as a result of this episode. Thank you.
Thank you so much for this invitation. I will also like to thank Micha for writing this paper together.
Thank you both. This was wonderful. It is very inspiring and soul-nourishing.
- Kinneret Lahad
- A Table For One: A Critical Reading Of Singlehood, Gender And Time
- Iris Schneider
- It Is My Turn Now: How and Why ‘Single’ Women Complain about Non-Reciprocal Gift-Giving
- The Gift
- Negotiating Family Responsibilities
- The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober
- https://Twitter.com/be975e7997b04c8 – Kinneret Lahad
- Waiting – Part 1 Past Episode
- https://PeterMcGraw.org/Waiting-Part-2/ – Past Episode
About Kinneret Lahad
Kinneret Lahad is a Senior Lecturer of NCJW Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel-Aviv University. Her research interests are interdisciplinary, spanning the fields of gender studies, sociology and cultural studies. She is the author of the open access book: A Table for One: A Critical Reading of Singlehood, Gender and Time.
About Iris Schneider
Iris Schneider is a behavioral scientist from the Netherlands. After obtaining her PhD in psychology, she lived and worked in the US before moving back to Europe. Iris is an incoming professor at the University of Dresden. She studies mixed feelings and conflict in judgment and choice.