I’m writing this around the holidays, so I wanted to examine a mainstay of the holiday season from a linguistic perspective.

The greeting card occupies a peculiar niche in the social fabric of modern society. Why do we buy cards with sentiments written by strangers to no one in particular in order to express personal messages to intimates and acquaintances? In her article “Packaged Sentiments: The Social Meanings of Greeting Cards,” author Alexandra Jaffe describes greeting cards thus:

“… both intimate and anonymous, personal and generic, subject to appropriation for an array of social purposes.”

Jaffe, A. (1999). Packaged Sentiments: The Social Meanings of Greeting Cards. Journal of Material Culture, 4(2), 115–141. https://doi.org/10.1177/135918359900400201

The literature on the subject of greeting cards draws heavily from the French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Marcel Mauss.

Pierre Bourdieu defined various forms of cultural capital in his work Distinction (1979). Marcel Mauss wrote the perennial treatment of gift-giving as a social institution in his essay The Gift (1925).

Photograph of J.C. Hall
J.C. Hall, founder of Hallmark Cards. Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9223534

J.C. Hall, of Hallmark fame, created the first holiday cards as we know them in 1915 out of a desire to find a medium between long-form letters and postcards. Many greeting cards still aspire to retain the trappings of the letter with fonts that imitate handwritten orthography or envelopes with hand-tied ribbons.

Today, greeting cards fall somewhere on the periphery of gifting but well within the territory of cultural capital, and as several varieties thereof. Yahoo! Finance reports that greeting cards in the U.S. constituted a 7-billion-dollar industry in 2021. Greeting cards could not have flourished into the thriving industry they enjoy today if they did not fill a market need.

Nevertheless, not everyone appreciates the compromise of private and public expression. According to Emily West, “Greeting cards attract particular ire for imposing idealized, overly sentimental scripts for communicating emotion on society.”

Pragmatic Utility or Symbolic Capital?

The entry for “Symbolic Capital” à la Bourdieu on Wikipedia states the following:

… symbolic capital accumulates primarily from the fulfillment of social obligations that are themselves embedded with potential for prestige. Much as with the accumulation of financial capital, symbolic capital is ‘rational’ in that it can be freely converted into leveraging advantage within social and political spheres.

Symbolic capital – Wikipedia

Greeting cards act to define, maintain, and constrain societal relations.

When someone gifts a greeting card, she sends more than the sentiment in the card. The inherent nature of the card marks the nature of the relationship. If a friend sends a Valentine’s card to a friend for whom he has romantic intentions or a stepchild sends a Father’s/Mother’s Day card to a foster-parent, the classification of the card expresses as much or more than the content — Jaffe calls this a “layer of public declaration” or “indexing.”

Greeting cards also maintain relations. When spouses exchange anniversary cards or a friend sends a card of apology, the act repairs and reaffirms an existing relationship.

The Creator/Consumer Dichotomy

Emily West, a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, interviewed a sample of 51 people who purchase greeting cards. She divided her sample by level of education and found that education influences attitudes toward greeting cards.

She found that elite and working-class consumers hold different attitudes toward greeting cards. Elites, defined by West as those with “high cultural capital,” see themselves as creators — the notion that someone else could communicate their sentiments better offends them. Less educated and working-class consumers, however, assume the role of consumer more readily and find little to shun about the notion of appropriating someone else’s ideas for personal expression. West drew an analogy to similar attitudes toward the social phenomenon of karaoke, toward which high cultural capital consumers hold a similarly negative perception.

Some of West’s respondents also indicated that greeting cards expressed their feelings in ways they could not, which is to say greeting cards supply less educated consumers with access to well-written sentiments for which they actually lack the skill to create themselves. This may influence the difference in attitudes between more and less educated consumers.

Say It without Saying It

“The voice of the long Apology cards is both the sender’s and not the sender’s in a fashion that resembles some of the functions of reported speech”

Jaffe. (1999). Packaged Sentiments: The Social Meanings of Greeting Cards. Journal of Material Culture, 4(2), 115–141. https://doi.org/10.1177/135918359900400201

While many decry the mass-produced nature of greeting cards, the anonymity and generic qualities themselves serve a function — they protect the ego of the sender. The content of greeting cards often expresses sentiments that would risk too much face if spoken aloud or by the author’s own hand. In this way, the anonymous authors of greeting-card sentiments act as a proxy. By relegating the message to this anonymous author, the sender can express difficult or heavy-imposition sentiments without the risk of reputation injury.

Embodied Cultural Capital

Jenna Mahay explains “embodied cultural capital” in the manner of Bourdieu as “‘long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body’ to understand and appreciate cultural goods, tastes, and styles that are validated and defined as prestigious.”

You might have forgotten, but people bragged about their holiday trips before the advent of social media–it just took longer. The greeting card was the precursor of Instagram and Facebook.

Senders generated tailored cards with photographs of family members vacationing in exotic locations or engaging in activities that establish sources of cultural capital. Jenna Mahay discusses this component of greeting card culture in her article “‘Their Lives are So Much Better than Ours!’: The Ritual (Re)construction of Social Identity in Holiday Cards,” wherein she recounts her daughter of four complaining that a friend’s life seemed so much better after receiving a holiday card of the family living in France. Tears ensued.

Whose Happiness?

Another consideration from the Mahay article addresses the ways in which greeting cards reinforce parameters of the ideal, happy life. Mahay says the following:

The holiday cards on the leading websites both reflect and reinforce the hegemonic ideal of the first-time married heterosexual nuclear family with young children. The vast majority (82 percent) of holiday cards shown by the online holiday card retailers studied here include two-parent families with children, most with more than one child. […] In cards with only a couple (no children), the couple is almost always young, in love, often at their wedding, and clearly a child is imminent …

Mahay, J. (2013). Their lives are so much better than ours! The ritual (re) construction of social identity in holiday cards. Discourse2, 85-98.

In this way, greeting cards perpetuate popular culture notions of what constitutes a happy life. Mahay goes on to discuss ways in which greeting cards marginalize childless couples, single-parent families, and divorcees.

In summary

Sending a greeting card can convey more (or less) than a sender intends. Remain cognizant of the meta-message. Also, choosing a card with pre-written sentiments does not necessarily represent slavish acquiescence to consumer culture. Pre-written sentiments can help take the sting out of a difficult message by adding distance.

Lastly, remember that including images or descriptions of expensive vacations and/or evidence of embodied social capital constitutes a form of bragging. Consider why you want to make this person envious. If you believed those experiences represented your life, you wouldn’t crave validation.

If you come up short on comments for your greeting cards, remind the recipient of a past experience enjoyed together or consider a few recommendations for activities the recipient can enjoy in the future.

Happy Holidays!

If you’re wondering why I capitalized the “H” in “Happy Holidays,” it wasn’t for emphasis. When you wish someone “Happy Holidays,” the word “Holidays” replaces proper nouns that would occur in specific holiday wishes such as “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” “Happy New Year’s, etc.” This works in a way similar to the capitalization of “Mom” or “Dad” when those words substitute for the person’s name, but not when referring to “my dad” or “my mom.”

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