If it's not Christmas, it's Valentine's Day. If it's not Valentine's Day, it's Mother's Day. If it's not Mother's Day, it's someone's birthday or graduation or wedding or anniversary or extended stay in the hospital due to an accident or deteriorating health.
Whatever the occasion, whether merry or glum, there's no shortage of moments where we as a culture engage in the ritual of expressing our feelings to one another in the form of a greeting card. That's why Americans buy around 6.5 billion of them each year, generating retail sales of approximately $7-8 billion, according to the Greeting Card Association, a Washington-based trade group.
"You'd be surprised at how many people just sign their name. A lot of people just do that."
It's good to share our emotions with loved ones and to mark important milestones. Through words and images printed on paper and wrapped in an envelope, it's important that we articulate to someone special what his or her presence in our life has meant.
But to what extent is the act of walking into a drugstore, rummaging through row after row of mass-produced greeting cards, and purchasing the one that best conveys our sentiment an act of cheating? It's a strange question, perhaps, but in what sense is this reliance on the generic sentences written by industry professionals with no understanding of who we are as individuals or the intricate relationships we've formed a kind of betrayal to our individuality? If we let Hallmark speak for us, aren't we participating in a form of mass deception?
Emily West, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has put a great deal of thought into this question. In a 2010 paper titled "Expressing the Self Through Greeting Card Sentiment: Working Theories of Authentic Communication in a Commercial Form," West writes:
Critics complain that appropriating pre-written texts is a sign of a decline in writing ability in the general population, and de-values a precious mode of self-expression. They worry that high rates of greeting card use illustrate how the market creates false needs, convincing consumers that they need help in interpersonal communication and that cards will do it better than they could alone. They also see greeting cards as a lazy and less authentic substitute for the best form of interpersonal communication, which would be a handwritten note or face-to-face talk. Greeting cards seem to fit with a general trend in consumer culture whereby we look to the market and to experts to fill our needs, becoming deskilled, passive and dependent on the market in the process.
So what's the deal here? Why don't more people make their own cards and write their own missives? By looking to the greeting card industry to voice our innermost thoughts and feelings at certain junctures throughout the year, every year, the danger is that we'll grow accustomed to cheating both ourselves and our loved ones out of sincere demonstrations of thanks and sympathy, praise and celebration.
Kathy Krassner, director of communications at the Greeting Card Association, which represents around 200 companies invested in the industry, certainly disagrees.
"If they're using the words of others to make someone feel good, that's OK," she said, noting that not everyone is skilled at or comfortable with conveying the types of sentiments that so-called professionals pen for a living.
Although that's an expected response from an insider, it makes sense. Just like how not everyone can bake an exceptional cake, not everyone is a great wordsmith capable of encapsulating the essence of what a friend or family member means to him or her in a few sentences. Plus, people are busy. Sometimes the very act of deliberately picking out the best corporate card available does show a significant degree of genuine dedication and affection.
For Ron Kanfi, president and owner of NobleWorks Inc., a New Jersey-based publisher that's been producing greeting cards of the humorous variety since 1980, purchasing a card isn't cheating unless the giver claims she wrote it. That's plagiarism. Otherwise, greeting cards aren't much different than a multitude of interactions we constantly toss around.
"Every day there are millions of people who say the same three words—I love you—to somebody else," said Kanfi. "Even though these people didn't invent those words, does that make them less sincere? I don't think so. People still say them and mean them. Likewise, a card's sentiment doesn't diminish by the fact that a million other people gave the same thing."
Of course, some people buy cards with words inside of them and write their own personal message in the surrounding white space. Kanfi, however, claims that's not a common practice.
"You'd be surprised at how many people just sign their name," he said. "A lot of people just do that."
According to the Greeting Card Association's own statistics, more than three quarters of customers base their selection on the card's text as opposed to the card's design or image, which suggests that most are hunting for words to share—words they themselves won't have to write.
Supported by numerous interviews and scrupulous research, West believes that people approach the tradition of exchanging greeting cards differently depending on their background, circle of friends, and formal education. In an article titled "A Taste for Greeting Cards: Distinction Within a Denigrated Cultural Form," West argues that originality is important to customers with high cultural capital, and therefore they prefer cards that look handmade or somehow more authentic. Otherwise, they use corporate cards ironically to prove to everyone else that they're above the herd's mindless consumerism. They ain't phony; they're just playing along with a wink and a nudge.
So what about those who don't engage in this critical perspective? What are the people who religiously buy Hallmark cards every holiday thinking?
"I'd say they're focused more on communication than distinction," said West. "Or perhaps they're more focused on how greeting cards work as a ritual than how they work as the expression of a very unique self."
Many of West's informants who value mass-produced greeting cards do so for a variety of reasons, whether that's a struggle to put their emotions into words or a belief that a store-bought card ushers in a sense of decorum to the occasion while eschewing ambiguity.
"Just like there's routines that make a toast more ceremonial and special and help the person feel recognized, I think greeting cards can work in the same way," West said.
So while it might be harsh to accuse someone who regularly employs mass-produced greeting cards to speak on his behalf of cheating, there’s still another, less generous way to look at it.
"I think it's sad that people need me to write their sentiments for them, but I don't think they're lying,” Kanfi said. “They're just being lazy."