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How to Give a Great Birthday Present During Coronavirus

My wonderful mother-in-law was having a milestone birthday last month. In normal times we could have flown down to visit her, had a big party, and celebrated in style. But obviously, we can’t do that. So we needed to figure out a different way to celebrate her big birthday.

So what do we get for her? As a kid, I remember the gifts I didn’t like. I would get upset when people, mainly my relatives, would send me a card in the mail with a check that my parents would promptly enter into my bank account.(1)Now that my kids are older, checks are great presents. We let the kids buy their own stuff and they know it comes from a specific relative’s check. I vowed never to do this and give proper gifts to my nieces and nephews. This strategy worked well when we were giving gifts to tiny people. We would give them toys and clothing that our kids liked, but once they started getting older it became really hard. What do you get your six-year-old niece or a twelve-year-old nephew?(2)Really, if you have advice on buying presents for tweens, I’d love to know!

After a while, we realized that we weren’t sending anything at all, which was far worse. We realized that giving gifts is mostly about showing someone you care. Giving a great gift is sharing a piece of yourself, whether it’s your money, your thoughts, or your attention. It’s about sharing something meaningful, and nothing matters as much as giving up your time.

These days it’s hard (or maybe impossible) to give the level of attention to people that we used to. With coronavirus, we’ve been thrust into a digital world where birthday cakes have been replaced with birthday Facebook messages, disappearing as quickly as they were sent. Think about religious services. In normal times, you dress up, go to a building, and focus only on the service. These days, I’ve been at funerals with people (sometimes me) Zooming in t-shirts, many of whom don’t even have their cameras on. Funerals are about being there for people and paying attention to them. It’s about visiting people, sitting with them, and just keeping them company. All of this is impossible in a digital world, and there are too many tempting distractions to truly focus our attention.

In a digital world, it’s hard to show that you really care. Technology is about making things more efficient and making it easier to do a million things at once. In the pre-digital, analog world, writing a letter was a big investment. You needed to write a letter, pay for a stamp, and put it in the mail. In addition to sending your thoughts, you were sending your time over. With an email, the first email takes time to write but you can cut and paste or CC everyone in the world with no additional effort. Going to a birthday party used to require the commitment not just of the time you spend at the party but also of getting there and back. Now you can just Zoom in for a few minutes to say hi.

I think about this when I get an automated message calling a customer service line. I hear “Your call is extremely important to us,” but I’m thinking, “If my call was so important to you, why didn’t you pick up already!” I recently got a happy surprise when I called Vanguard with a brokerage question. When I was placed on hold, instead of the standard automated voice message about how long the wait would be, the president of the company recorded a short message introducing himself and personally apologizing for the wait. It made me feel like someone cared. But then I was dropped into the standard hold queue and an automated message came on which broke the spell.(3)Companies that really care spend the time to do, “warm handoffs” where the call center rep stays on the phone with you until they can find the right contact. Or they can set up a time to call you back when it’s convenient for you.

During the pandemic, we’re all living in this digital world which is about efficiency and multitasking. If giving a great present is about paying attention, what can we do? Is there a way of taking all of this caring that you’d get from a birthday party and package it digitally?

We came up with something pretty close to the feeling of a party. We contacted all of my mother-in-law’s friends and family. We told them to record a short birthday greeting and upload it. We used Vidhug, an app that was designed to take all of these videos and package them into a birthday movie. It’s not a very technically advanced platform and it doesn’t create cool looking videos. There’s no technological tour de force here. However, it is a great way for people to take their attention and love and thoughts and put them together and simply share these thoughts with someone. There’s something very special and meaningful about taking the energy and thoughts of all of these people and packaging them together.

The real effort is in pestering each person and making sure they upload their videos. Some people put in more effort into their birthday wishes which is wonderful, but the key thing is making sure that they send something. Following up with people is far more trouble than it seems, but that’s the point. If it were easy and automated then there wouldn’t be any magic to it. The final Vidhug movie is a compilation of the care and feeling (and time) that everyone put in.

We made the viewing of the movie an event. We could have sent it over as an email for her to watch alone, but it was so much more effective to (virtually) sit with her while she watched it. It seems slightly odd to watch a video with someone. Don’t they want to have some privacy if they start sobbing or have an unexpected emotional reaction? But again, that’s the point. There’s something important and primal about just being with someone.

Another platform that packages caring and time is Cameo, a clever tool that lets you buy the time of a celebrity and give that time to someone else as a personalized message. Our friends Miranda and Larry hired Jackie Hoffman to wish us a Happy Jewish New Year. Our friends Jeff and Debbie hired Bronson Pinchot (Balki) to send a Happy Birthday message to Jeff’s brother Andy. It’s a fantastic tool for huge fans of a specific celebrity (especially a more niche/cult one).

It’s hard to give a gift digitally. The digital world is organized to help you spend less time getting more done. Giving a great gift is about sacrificing something meaningful and showing them that you care. It’s hard but not impossible. Figure out ways that you can just sit and be with people. There are some great online tools like Vidhug and Cameo that can make wonderful birthday presents, but it’s less about the tool and more about packaging that emotion and love regardless of the media.(4)As an interesting tangent to this, how do you package feeling and emotion at an epic scale. Malcolm Gladwell how architects of the WTC memorial packaged this effort. In order to give the right level of care and attention to the dead, architect Amanda Sachs spent 2-3 years figuring exactly where the name of each victim should be placed.

Footnotes

1. Now that my kids are older, checks are great presents. We let the kids buy their own stuff and they know it comes from a specific relative’s check.
2. Really, if you have advice on buying presents for tweens, I’d love to know!
3. Companies that really care spend the time to do, “warm handoffs” where the call center rep stays on the phone with you until they can find the right contact. Or they can set up a time to call you back when it’s convenient for you.
4. As an interesting tangent to this, how do you package feeling and emotion at an epic scale. Malcolm Gladwell how architects of the WTC memorial packaged this effort. In order to give the right level of care and attention to the dead, architect Amanda Sachs spent 2-3 years figuring exactly where the name of each victim should be placed.