WELLESLEY FARMS, Mass. It’s 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, and Bill Wainscot, an estimator at a local construction company, is already in bed after a weekend in which–he admits candidly–he “over-imbibed.” “We had a tailgate party Saturday afternoon, then a cocktail party Saturday night,” he says ruefully. “After the Patriots game Sunday, I could barely force down two glasses of Malbec at dinner.”
But just as he is ready to go to sleep, his wife Cindy sits bolt upright in bed and says “I think I forgot to run the dishwasher, you don’t need to leave a light on for me.”
“Okay,” he says just before they kiss and she leaves to go downstairs, where she has planned a clandestine mission she hopes to conceal from her husband.
As she makes her way into the kitchen she turns on the low-wattage light over the stove and tries to make as little noise as possible as she removes scissors, tape and wrapping paper from behind boxes of cereal and baking goods in a pantry cupboard, but she is caught in the act by her husband, whose suspicions were aroused when she didn’t return to bed promptly.
“Cindy,” he says with a tone of censorious gravity after he flips on the overhead lights. “No.”
“But,” she begins in a repentant tone, “it’s just a little something I got for . . .”
“Just . . . stop.”
“All right,” she says finally, although she allows her fingers to linger on the white bow she had been tying around pink wrapping paper to wrap a thank you gift to her friend Marcia, who had sent her a thank you note for a hostess gift Cindy had given her when Marcia had Cindy over for drinks after Cindy watched Marcia’s cat for three days this Columbus Day weekend.
Like thousands of other suburban women, Cindy Wainscot is a victim of ITYS, an acronym that stands for “Infinite Thank You Syndrome,” a debilitating ailment that eats into the retirement savings of many households at the same time that it fuels the retail sector of the economy. “ITYS strikes at a woman’s sense of self-esteem,” says Philip Levin, an anthropologist who has studied the Wainscots for two years on a Ford Foundation grant. “The last woman to receive a gift in the daisy-chain fears a loss of caste, and so keeps the streak alive by inventing some excuse–however flimsy–to give a gift back to the most proximate gift-giver.”
The practice has cross-cultural parallels in the Pacific Northwest, where a gift-giving ritual known as “potlatch” is used by Native American tribes such as the Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw to shame or even socially destroy one’s rivals by giving a present that is too expensive for the donee to reciprocate. “It is a form of malice masquerading as goodwill,” says Levin as he peers around the Wainscots’ living room sofa to take notes. “As an alternative to violence I suppose it’s okay, but it’s really scalp-taking by another name.”
The Wainscots lower their voices once they realize a reporter and an anthropologist are observing their tense little stand-off, and Bill announces that they’d better turn in since he has a long Monday ahead of him.
“Before you go up . . .” Cindy says hesitantly.
“Yes?” Bill replies with an upraised eyebrow.
“Could you do me a teensy-weensy favor and hold your finger on this bow?”