In his first years in an office setting, he didn’t mind gift exchanges, but they started to grate on him as he got trapped in a cycle of receiving meaningless paraphernalia (like the mug) and giving boxes of chocolates to near-strangers (“a safe bet”). Several of the Secret Santas Purohit has been involved in were enormous, with 100 people or more giving one another gifts. (Multiple times, the person he was assigned to buy a gift for was someone he’d never interacted with.) He’d rather the company organize a dinner or a community-service event, but Secret Santa persists and, out of fear of being seen as a party pooper, so does Purohit’s participation in it.
Some of the distaste that Rob, a 37-year-old working at a tech company in Amsterdam, has for Secret Santa is also tied to a disappointing gift. One year, “everyone got quite nice, thoughtful gifts, and what I got was a metal sign that said, if I remember correctly, Yeah sure, I’ll solve your problem—just as soon as I’ve solved everyone else’s,” he told me. “I remember thinking, God damn, is this is the impression that people have of me, that I would find this funny?” To make matters worse, there was a policy against pinning things up in Rob’s office. (Perhaps it was intended as home decor?) “It went in the trash,” he said. (Rob requested to be identified only by his first name, because he doesn’t want to hurt his relationships with his co-workers.)
Another grievance of his is that some people adhere to the stated rules and others don’t, completely ignoring spending limits or trying to swap names so that they can get a gift for one of their friends. “Despite the 15-euro limit, at least one person received a Lego set that cost around 100 euros. My desk mate received a paperback book on Christianity—so, a mixed bag,” he told me.
Rob has had it with Secret Santas, and after years of participating in these “theoretically optional” activities, he’s finally opting out now that he feels like he’s established himself socially at work. “I’m just going to let the deadline pass, and if anybody says anything, I’m just going to say I forgot,” he told me.
The times Rob actually enjoyed exchanging gifts with co-workers were when he and some work friends set up their own small Secret Santa. “It was the work equivalent of the WhatsApp group that springs off from the WhatsApp group that excludes the two really annoying people,” he said.
Indeed, “The research on fun at work shows that self-authored fun (fun things people do by themselves) are the only activities that people genuinely find enjoyable,” said Warren, the business-school professor.
One twist, though, is that workers sometimes make their own fun from within the confines of their employer’s prescribed framework. “Often the ‘laughable’ fun program, which people see as a superficial management gimmick, becomes an object of ridicule and self-authored fun itself—so the end result is the same,” Warren said. But if the best part of office Secret Santa is making fun of it, well, that says it all.