Packaged sentiments - The social meanings of greeting cards

A Jaffe


This paper analyzes the social uses and meanings of greeting cards. It argues that cards occupy an intermediate and shifting place in between the opposing social categories of 'gift' vs. 'commodity'. The fact that the card is not a pure gift is the source of social criticisms of cards as impersonal. But the card's ambiguous status is also at the heart of its unique communicative potential. Analysis of specific cards and card categories shows how card senders can exploit various and multiple dimensions of the card's gift and commodity-like qualities to express socially authenticated identities and sentiments, as well as to send subtle and complex new messages about identities and relationships. Card use also shows how commodities can be 'appropriated' as gifts in the act of shopping and choosing; moreover, the consumption of cards is depicted as a dynamic site of 'virtual' interactions between sender and receiver. The specific case of greeting cards is used to illustrate the more general point that most things are not intrinsically 'gifts' or 'commodities'. Rather, things acquire these identities by virtue of social interactions and processes.