Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hunter-Gathering in Practice

I (Susan) have not done the preparation I should for this day's post; but today I have actually been hunter-gathering, and I offer it up as an example of how it works, and how painless it can be.

I had 45 minutes to kill before an appointment, and so I went to one of my favorite stores, TJ Maxx. I hate the name (sounds like an 80s hair band) but I love poking around there. As a place to go to find a specific item (ie: shoes to match an outfit, matching sheets or towels) it is worthless, but as a place to find surprises and unexpected treasures, it can be an absolute boon for hunter-gathering. And it can be very cheap!

Today, I came across a real find - children's board books by Sandra Boynton. For anyone who has ever read books to small children, anything by Sandra Boynton is a godsend. She writes such funny and most importantly, re-re-re-READABLE books, that they are a marvelous gift for baby showers or birthday presents for kids under 3. They retail for $7.99, but they had a half-dozen titles for sale at $3.99 each. So I stockpiled - I bought 6, which I will tuck away in my gift drawer for future baby gifts. 3 friends are having babies this year, so I'll probably give each 2, at only $8 a pop. These are a favorite gift of mine, and I have had to buy them at full retail too many times before when I needed a gift for a shower the next day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Manly Gift-Giving

Sadly, many consider the task of selecting, buying and wrapping gifts to belong exclusively to women. After all, women are naturally caring and sentimental, enjoy things like gift-wrap and ribbon, and they like to shop... right?

Neither of us like shopping, unless we know precisely what we want, where it can be found, and where we don't have to spend hours meandering about. Just as it's unfair to paint all women with a single brush, we object to the notion that men are sentiment-challenged thugs who can't pick out decent gifts to save their lives.

If you are a man who finds gift giving challenging, who perhaps feels intimidated (and possibly somewhat resentful) when it comes to the gift exchange process, read on.

Common Objections:

1. I don't know what people want.

It isn't a question of what women, or kids, or fathers, or best friends want, so don't get hung up on this question. It's a matter of what the woman, or kid, or father, or best friend in your life wants. If you don't know, ask. Ask the recipient, a mutual friend, or another family member. Chances are someone will be excited to share a great idea with you, and the recipient is likely to be touched that you were thoughtful enough to ask around.

2. Gift-giving isn't a "guy thing."

Not true. Even in the most stereotypically masculine social circles, men are exchanging gifts all the time. Someone invites you over to watch the Super Bowl on a big screen TV, and you bring beer and chips. A friend is doing some work on his house, so you give up a Saturday afternoon to help out. While they may not come wrapped with bows, these thoughtful gestures are gifts nonetheless. It's just a matter of finding a gift-giving style that doesn't clash with your idea of what it is to be a guy. Men, you need to give this one up as a ridiculous stereotype - you will be called on to give just as many gifts as women do in a lifetime, and like any activity, you will improve with practice.

3. I hate shopping.

Fair enough. As I mentioned before, I'm not a fan of it either. But there are ways to streamline your efforts and, in some cases, eliminate the shopping altogether. Come back next week for a discussion of gift-giving strategies for those who hate shopping.

4. What if they don't like it?

Gift anxiety abounds. It may be particularly prevalent when it comes to new girlfriends. There's a lot of guess work involved, and you're risking the disappointment or disapproval of said girlfriend if you guess wrong. And yet, if you choose not to participate, you're going to look like a jerk. The pressure can leave you feeling resentful.

But there are simple ways to deal with this. First, talk to her about gifts. Does she like surprises, or would she rather tell you what she wants? What have her favorite gifts been in the past, and why? The answer to that question can tell you a lot: Does she like sentimental or romantic gestures? Practical choices? Second, talk to her friends and get their thoughts on the matter. Run some ideas by them and see what they think. Finally, realize you don't have to be perfect. Take a stab at it.* When she opens it, tell her how you thought of it, and why you felt it was a good gift for her (or write it on a note to be included with the package). Even if it's not the greatest, she should appreciate your thoughtfulness.

5. I don't see why I should have to give gifts at all.

We do live in an overly commercial, materialistic society, and you are justified in being wary of the increasing pressure, particularly around the holidays, to spend, spend, spend. We do not necessarily advocate giving gifts for every possible occasion. By all means, adopt a gift-minimalist and thrifty stance. Opting out altogether, though, will probably have a negative impact on at least some of your relationships. Assuming you would like to be a considerate, well-mannered, caring person, you are bound to have to do some gift-giving at some point, so you may as well learn to be good at it. Who knows, you may even learn to enjoy it. Anyway, chances are, this objection is just one or more of the previous objections in disguise. It's easier to opt-out of something you find difficult, but don't give into the temptation.

Mirroring and Gift-Giving

The truth is, men have much to offer when it comes to gift giving. When you give someone a gift, you reflect something back to them. A gift mirrors something about the type of person you think your gift recipient is. Think about it; when someone gives you a gift that isn't you, you're a little horrified that someone sees you as the kind of person who would like such a thing. When someone gives you a gift that's dead on, it makes you feel a little more seen, known and appreciated for who you are. It feels good to know that person really gets you. We all help define each other this way. We reinforce aspects of personality in those around us by recognizing and affirming them.

We all need to be known, appreciated and affirmed by the men in our lives, not just the women. If the women in your family are the only ones doing the gift-giving, your unique energy and presence is being missed, and that is very unfortunate. Start participating. Consider what you might like to mirror back to the people in your family and circle of friends and how you might do that.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Surprises are Bad Idea

When we think about giving the perfect gift, we usually consider surprise a key component. We imagine the surprise on our friend's face when he opens it, how he might marvel at our ingenuity, how we thought of something absolutely perfect he would never have expected. 

But the truth is, not everyone enjoys being surprised. My friend Joe explained his discomfort to me prior to an office gift exchange. "The worst part," he said, "is having to open it in front of everyone, the pressure of having people watching me for a reaction." Joe would much rather know what's in the box ahead of time because, for him, the joy associated with a gift is quickly eclipsed by the social pressure of having to react with appropriate surprise and appreciation. 

Joe is not alone in this respect; it's entirely possible there may be a surprise-hater on your list of gift recipients as well. For these people, remember that a key rule of gift giving applies: Give gifts for THEM, not for YOU. Never put your need to get a great reaction above your recipient's preferences. If you have a friend like Joe, keep it simple. Get him something on his list. 

Monday, August 18, 2008

Being a Gift Hunter-Gatherer all year round

We all know at least one or two people who have done all of their Christmas shopping before Halloween. We really hate them sometimes. But it's not their fault that they have managed to achieve that enviable state of composure during the holiday season; their smug attitude, however, IS their fault. You can despise them for that all you want, but it's worth considering how they have achieved that state of gift-giving peace.

It does not require being a Martha Stewart. It's all about regaining a long-lost skill: Hunter-Gathering.

Think about primitive humans for a moment: Their existence was pretty much about food, because food was the main thing they needed to survive. So our ancestors were always on the lookout for food. Hunter-gatherers might carry small weapons at all times in order to shoot whatever hapless animal crossed their path. It wasn't always about going out specifically on a hunt; sometimes it was about recognizing a potential kill when one appeared, no matter what the circumstances. When there was no animal around to hunt, the ability to gather many smaller items that could feed one's family was also an important skill.

What does this have to do with gift-giving, you may ask? Simple: Keep your eyes peeled, and your brain alert for potential gifts. Watch out for great ideas, and actually BUY it when you see it, instead of waiting three months and returning to find it long gone.

When you go into a store looking for a gift, or even to find something for yourself, you can, of course, focus in on the one item you are trying to find. Or, you can consciously prepare yourself to scan across the spectrum. I (Susan) have a mental list of best friends and family that I am always on a subconscious search for. For example, I have a friend who adores vintage Cowgirl memorabilia. So whenever I spot something in that category, I usually pick it up for her. My friends Teresa and Anne hit it right on the money once; sharing my near-obsession with the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who, they got me a USB hub in the shape of the TARDIS. I absolutely squealed and danced around when I opened it - I had been wanting one for 2 years.

We don't advocate applying a label to each one of your First-Tier people and automatically buying anything that fits that label; buying a trivet that says "Dance as if no-one is watching" for a professional dancer is simplistic and slightly insulting, and you don't want to be one of those people who gives a ceramic frog to the person who made the mistake of mentioning that she liked frog figurines years ago, and now has over 500. But keeping in mind a few of your friends and family's favorite hobbies and interests when in a store can mean the difference between finding an absolutely perfect gift 6 months before your sister's birthday, and searching through generic knick-knacks 2 hours before the party.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gift Lexicon: Third-Tier Person

Third-Tier Person/Third Tier Gift: Someone whom you don't know very well, or are even particularly fond of, but are required to give a gift to. (First-Tier gifts are for best friends, spouses, significant others and close family members. Second-Tier are more of the same, except you don't like them QUITE as much.)

It's inevitable. Periodically, we are required to give presents to people we scarcely know, or even like. It might be a baby shower for a co-worker... a wedding present for your husband's second cousin, whom you have never met... a birthday present for a person in a group of friends that you don't actually like or get along with, but tolerate for the sake of the group. These are what I like to call "Third-Tier" Gifts; necessary for social obligations, but not gifts given from any real affection or knowledge of the person.

The criteria for gifts such as these should be as simple as possible: Usefulness. If it is a Shower/Wedding Gift, for example, there is always a Gift Registry to pick from; make use of this. Most of their friends and family will want to dazzle and delight; you can provide a real service by picking the most mundane, but genuinely useful item on the list and giving them that. If there is no Registry available, go for the practical. A Gift Card to a store of wide-ranging products (Target, Wal-Mart, will be more useful to them than many of the gifts they receive, and they will appreciate that you went for substance. Save your real ingenuity and effort for your First and Second-Tier Gifts.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Blog on Gift-Giving?

The Inspiration: Sisters Birthday Dinner

The inspiration for this blog was a birthday celebration Susan attended some years ago for a member of her women's group (hereafter referred to as Sisters; names changed to protect the innocent!). They have been celebrating birthdays with cards and presents for years now, and it has, for many of them, become the one guarantee of proper birthday recognition and appreciation.

This particular evening, everyone had really gone all-out on thoughtful gifts. Inevitably, though, the Sisters began to speak of gift disappointments. Saltine told of the time her husband had bought her an appalling blood-red dress 3 sizes too big, and of the Mother's Day where, with ill-concealed delight in his gift-giving genius, he gave her 3 ordinary, unrelated and boring coffee mugs in a paper bag.

Pauline's tale of decades with no birthday cakes, EVER, still trumps everyone, although the Sisters made up for that a few years back. They showed up with their regular gifts and cards, and with a birthday cake each. She about fell out of her chair, and had cakes in the freezer for months to come.

The Sisters also shared stories of reactions to appalling gifts. Pauline always conceals her disappointment, because of how crushed her husband becomes when she responds instinctively, while Saltine is fortunate in a husband who can take a "What on earth were you thinking?!" with humor and grace. Nadine has the opposite problem - her husband is never happy with anything she gives him, despite her best efforts and the fact that she really is trying to make thoughtful, clever choices. Celine... well, apparently she and her husband are both blessed with Nifty Giftiness, and have no impressive tales of woe.

Gift Conundrums

It does seem like we rarely get what we might wish for when it comes to gifts. It's an almost impossible balance between surprise / effort / ingenuity / delight. If you tell someone exactly what to get, you lose the surprise and effort. If you don't tell them and they get something wrong, you lose the ingenuity and delight. And the burden of how to respond can make it even worse; in the case of a disappointing gift you can be honest and hurt the Giver, or lie and give the Giver a false contentment.

The Perfect Gift

Often we find ourselves longing for the perfect gift:

  • something we really long for
  • something we do not expect, and
  • something we didn't have to suggest to anyone

A perfect gift is more than a tangible Thing; it's also the implication that the Giver truly knows your heart and made a real effort to bring you joy.

We all have a couple of these rare, precious situations where we were given the perfect gift, but as we get older, decades stretch between, and we falsely say to ourselves and others that "Gifts don't matter that much when you get older," or "I can buy it for myself!" or "A gift certificate would be the smartest thing."

But we are disappointed. We don't want to seem childish so we pretend it makes no difference, but in our heart we long for Real Gifts. And yet there is absolutely nothing we can do to make them happen. So we might pray for a gracious attitude, or persuade ourselves that as adults, we are beyond feeling hurt by such small and unimportant things.

Even when we have been given the best gifts of all, family, life, good health, we have this human desire for something tangible in these gift-giving rituals, to remind us we are known and loved.

Cultivating Gift-Giving Genius

What can be done about this, you may ask. There is not much we can do to improve our chances of receiving such ideal gifts, beyond sharing information about ourselves, and revealing our personalities to those around us. But we can learn to improve the gifts we give. While some seem to have an innate talent for gift-giving, for most of us it is a skill like any other. It takes an open mind, a willingness to learn, and of course, practice.

If you are not among those naturally gifted at gift-giving, this is the blog for you.