Would you send a Christmas card to a complete stranger?

11th December, 2020

People used to send more seasonal greetings cards in times gone by, but in December 1974, Phil and Joyce Kunz received a particularly bountiful crop. Some were simple offerings of “Happy Christmas” but others contained long letters. There was also a complaint from the police.

Phillip Kunz, a sociologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was not entirely surprised. A few weeks earlier, he and his colleague Michael Woolcott had posted nearly 600 cards to strangers they had picked out of the phone book, adding a return address for “Phil and Joyce Kunz” or “Dr and Mrs Phillip Kunz”.

The bumper crop of cards reflected more than 100 recipients who felt an obligation to reply. A few wrote to ask who the heck the Kunz family were and someone called the cops. But some respondents embraced the gesture with alacrity:

“Dear Phil, Joyce and family, We received your holiday greeting with much joy and enthusiasm. We were so glad to hear from you again and we are very anxious to renew our old friendship. Bev, I, and the children (nine, now) have been wanting to travel the south-west next summer and need a place to stop over for a few days, and refresh ourselves. Provo will be just the right place for such a stop.

We leave here, June 1, allow two days for travel and plan on us staying at least a week. Good to hear from you again, as it fits right into our travel schedule. So on the way back the first part of July we could spend a few more days, resting and visiting with you.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Years. Lou, Bev, and the children

P.S. We are bringing our two St Bernards along, as we cannot bear to leave them at a kennel.”

Wow. Lou, Bev and their St Bernards, remember, have no idea who Phil and Joyce Kunz are.

Along with discovering a strong norm of Christmas-card reciprocity, the study found that status (and status differentials) mattered: if the card was on expensive paper stock, or signed “Dr Kunz”, or received by people in blue-collar jobs, a response was more likely. A quarter of a century later, a different Kunz — Jenifer, also a sociologist — repeated the experiment and found strikingly similar results: a 20 per cent response rate, with high status cards particularly likely to receive a response, especially from blue-collar recipients.

Mindless reciprocal obligation, with a dash of social climbing — is this not the true spirit of Christmas? It does not paint a pretty picture of the traditional exchange of Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year cards.

In 2014, 40 years after the original study, the psychologist Brian Meier repeated the Kunz experiment yet again. Intrigued by the periodic flare-up of stories about “the war on Christmas”, Prof Meier planned to test whether people would respond differently to a “Merry Christmas” message than to a religiously non-committal “Happy Holidays”. As it turned out, he had to abandon that question because almost nobody replied to either type of card. From 755 cards, he received just 15 replies. If the original study had discovered a grim spiral of empty reciprocation, Prof Meier found himself screaming seasonal good cheer into the void.

Why? One obvious reply would be that nobody sends cards any more, but that is simply untrue. Cards are no doubt scarcer but that does not explain the lack of reciprocity: if anything, one might expect a card to seem more special and thus more deserving of a reply.

My own explanation is that in the world of email and social media, it is far easier to confirm that the card from a random stranger really is a card from a random stranger rather than reflecting some embarrassing memory lapse. And people don’t like receiving cards from strangers. Prof Meier later wrote to the recipients of his cards, giving them a voucher and an explanation; many people replied to tell him that the mysterious Christmas card had made them feel uneasy or unsafe.

Are there any lessons to be drawn from three generations of Christmas-card-related social science? People may no longer reply to strangers, but my sense is that the deeper lesson of the original study still stands: Christmas card lists are shaped by endless loops of reciprocity, plus some social climbing, and we would be better off if they were pruned to reflect more genuine friendships. We could do worse than adopt the decluttering guru Marie Kondo’s approach: send only the greetings cards that spark joy. If you’re not excited to write them it is unlikely that anyone will be delighted to receive them.

Personally, I love the card-sending ritual. I used to compile a Christmas mix and slip a CD in the envelope — these days it’s a Spotify playlist. My family get involved in designing the cards and I try to add a proper letter. That all takes time, which means I send fewer cards; so much the better. After all, if there isn’t a serious friendship to nurture, why bother with a card at all? Lou and Bev and their St Bernards understood that very well.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 Dec 2019.

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