A Stereotype-Free Holiday Shopping Strategy For Guys

2010 December 8

Tis the season for…well, a lot of things, but harried holiday shopping ranks right up there. And for every consumer fretting over a list, there seems to be an oh-so-helpful guide to take the pain out of the process, especially if you’re considered one of the shopping-impaired (that would be you, fellas). And whether these handy-dandy lists are brought to you by Cosmopolitan, The Today Show or AskMen.com, they all have one thing in common – they trade in tired tropes and facile stereotypes that are no more likely to help you find the “perfect” gift than would soliciting advice from your local mall Santa. Contrary to what gift buying tutorials would have you believe, not all women are seduced by sparkles, just like not all men like gadget gifts or all dads dig golf-themed presents. And do I even need to mention how all of these present suggestion lists feature the subtle implication that your relationship’s success (or at least your prospects of having sex in the foreseeable future) depends on appeasing a bauble-hungry she-beast with appropriately-wrapped offerings? Didn’t think so.

Photo by creativeFlutter

But where does that leave a dude who really does struggle with what to buy the woman-person in his life and is in the market for some shopping wisdom that extends beyond spa gift certificates and silk camisoles? The good news is that you don’t need gift guides and the dubious help they offer. You have the ability to reason, a base of knowledge about the person for whom you want to buy and realistic expectations about the relative importance of holiday presents in the grand scheme of your relationship (Hint: If you believe its future hinges on what’s under the tree, you might want to do some hard thinking about the state of your union, or at least your perception of it). Take these assets, combine them with the three action steps outlined below and watch your hilarious sitcom present-giving panic melt away.

Ask
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If you want to know what someone wants, why not ask them outright? Our culture weirdly conflates being able to anticipate or know someone’s wants without asking with how much you value that person. Love is never having to say you’re sorry and never having to drop a hint that you have your eye on a new iPod, apparently. But just as mindreading doesn’t work at the dinner table or in the bedroom, it’s an exercise in futility during the holiday season as well. If you can cut to the chase, do so.

But maybe you or your intended recipient thinks that this will drain all the holiday fun out of Christmas morning? Fair enough. But there’s nothing that says you can’t ask her for general gift categories (as opposed to having her lead you by the hand to the correct rack at Macy’s) or perhaps even more helpfully, an idea of what she doesn’t want. And what about asking her sisters or best friend for gift ideas or to vet potential purchases? There’s no shame in soliciting input, especially if it saves you needless head-scratching guess work. Ask and ye shall receive.

Use Common Sense + Do A Little Investigating
I’m gonna assume that if you’re planning to shower someone with presents, you know a little something about them – their clothing/shoe size, hobbies, relevant allergies (No eau de Penicillin this year, honey!), etc. And if you’ve been cozying up to someone without cataloging any of their defining traits and minor idiosyncrasies, A) first, please make sure you’re not dating a Real Doll or a coma victim and B) there’s no better time than now to start playing Sherlock Holmes. Take note of the color your giftee wears most frequently. What type of magazines and books (if any) does she read? What does her living space look like? What indulgences does she buy for herself? Where has she been disappearing to every Wednesday night between 7 – 9 PM for the last two months? Feel free to use your observations to rule out presents that don’t mesh with what you know about her. For example, if you’ve been together for five years and the only time you’ve seen her in a skirt was at her aunt’s funeral, common sense would dictate that a pleather mini might not be the best choice. If the only things in her make-up bag are three tubes of Chapstick and a pair of tweezers, that deluxe manicure/pedicure set could miss the mark. You get the drift.

When All Else Fails, Break The Mold

This approach works for both advanced gift givers and the desperate. If you’ve polled the audience and done all the detecting you can and still haven’t happened upon a great gift idea or you really want to shake up expectations, try a present that solves a problem or represents an aspiration.  Has she been clear about her desire to get more involved in your city’s cultural scene? Has she mentioned wanting to spend more time with her grandmother? Why not kill two birds with one stone and offer up tickets to Swan Lake, so that she can take in a matinee with Nana? Be sure to explain the thought process behind the present. Even if ballet isn’t her thing, the fact that you’ve demonstrated awareness of a problem/desire and used your creativity to provide a solution is a combination that’s bound to touch any non-Grinch heart (unless you really are dating one of those mythical, bauble-hungry she-beats, in which case, there’s probably a stand-up routine to be mined). As a bonus, this line of present reasoning can be applied to folks other than ones with whom you’re sharing a bed; it will also work for parents, siblings and close friends.

The difficulty inherent in this strategy comes from parsing the difference between genuine desires and off-hand comments.  Does the Ms. in your life really long to be more adventurous or was she just making conversation? If it’s the latter, perhaps those hang gliding lessons are a bit premature. Consider the context and frequency of the comments when trying to make this determination. You also want to avoid any gifts that come with judgmental or prescriptivist overtones (even if that isn’t your intent). For example, no matter how many times someone on your shopping lists mentions wanting to shape up or shed 10 lbs, the gift of a gym membership and subscription to Runner’s World probably isn’t what they were hoping to discover under the tree. Err on the side of caution and assume that if a gift’s intent could be misinterpreted or misconstrued, it’s better off not given.

Bottom line? As long as we hold up presents (especially those delivered in the context of romantic and familial relationships) as a proxy for personal worth, the process of gift buying will always be ripe for the mining of insecurities and the rehashing of tired gender stereotypes about materialistic women and the hapless schmoes who shop for them, all for the benefit of page views and perfume sales. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy in. Be pragmatic, be prepared and give yourself and those on your gift list a little credit.

N.B. This piece was originally meant for another venue, but timing didn’t work out. That explains the exclusively hetero male focus (not that I don’t love you, boys).

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