There’s an old adage about giving and receiving that pubescent boys turn into a crude joke and adult men rapidly learn is too simplistic to internalize. Is giving better than receiving? Well, yes, no, and it’s a silly premise. What giving is — and ought to be — is far more complicated than receiving. Finding a great present is like solving a riddle with nothing but emotional intelligence and money. Done right, it’s profoundly difficult, profoundly intimate, and often, I have found, profoundly embarrassing.
Is it worth it? I suppose it depends on the price tag and also the gift recipient, but probably. One cannot try earnestly to buy a good blouse without learning a lot of things about both society and themselves.
For the same reason, I was a terrible Gap employee (you’re not supposed to convince overweight customers not to buy bright shirts), I’m a strong gift giver. Radical honesty helps. So does radical transparency. That’s a convoluted way of saying that a truly thoughtful gift is not about what the receiver or the giver wants, but what the giver wants for the receiver. When someone buys their partner a thoughtful present, it suggests a way forward — aesthetically or otherwise. It communicates desire.
After all, “I want this for my wife” is not a strictly literal statement. It’s a broad statement that speaks to both the specific and the reason I feel compelled to hold a job. My aspirations for her and my aspirations for me are entwined. To whatever degree I want her to be a woman who wears that dress or that necklace or that perfume, I want to be the sort of guy that chooses it for her. That’s an act of generosity, sure, but also of possessiveness, control, and desire.
When someone buys their partner a thoughtful present, it suggests a way forward — aesthetically or otherwise. It communicates desire.
Unfortunately, accepting that fact makes the shopping process a bit fraught. Buying a wrap dress as an even moderately introspective adult can feel an awful lot like buying condoms as a teenager. The discomfort of disclosure never fades. By describing a cut or fabric, I’m telling a stranger something about my sex life, my emotional life, and my fantasy life. No, I don’t want ribbed and, no, I don’t want leopard print. Yes, my palms are sweating.
Still, it’s critical to put conversation at the center of the gift-giving process. The retail workers that have managed to stay afloat on the flotsam that remains of America’s ground-floor retail sector are generally very good at their jobs. Asking a question generally yields helpful answers and stress tests assumptions while also offering the opportunity to learn the specific vocabulary of a product in order to better communicate at the next store. To use the wrap dress example, a man might not know going in that most wrap dresses are knee-length and, therefore, that he needs to specify his desire to find something long. It’s a lot easier to derive that information from a friendly-ish, if stilted, conversation than it is from an endless series of increasingly deep googles.
That said, those conversations can be tough. I recently bought my wife some workout gear at an aggressively bourgeois and over-branded legging store (not that one, the other one). I had no idea what size she was in 86 percent Polyester and 14 percent Spandex so I inquired as to what might work by describing her in great detail to a woman with a distinctly similar physique wearing precisely what it was I had come to purchase. It took me a solid eight minutes of dissembling — I’m pretty sure I brought up my wife’s intelligence, which is profound but not remotely relevant — before I summoned the courage to look down and say, “I think that I’m ultimately looking for those.”
And I was. I just didn’t want to look directly at them.
Some of my nervousness around store employees stems from the market demands of New York City, where I live. These are very attractive people who smile and dress well and have positive body language they learn sitting through hour-long training sessions on folding metal chairs. These are not the people that I want to speak to about the vector of my relationship. But, nonetheless, they become my confessors.
Gifting forces me to reckon honestly with not only my hopes, my tastes, my financials, and my near inability to not flop sweat while speaking to a woman in tight pants, but also the degree to which capitalism has rendered intimacy algorithmic and impersonal
Of course, it’s important to remember that there are two perspectives to every human interaction. Gift buying is an act of intimacy performed in front of a disinterested (or financially incentivized) audience that has seen the act many times before. The decision to buy something — not just some thing, the right thing — feels big, but is rarely unique. When it is, that bodes poorly for the future of that particular store.
So, in a sense, gifting forces me to reckon honestly with not only my hopes, my tastes, my financials, and my near inability to not flop sweat while speaking to a woman in tight pants, but also the degree to which capitalism has rendered intimacy algorithmic and impersonal. You can skirt that realization by giving your wife hand-knit mittens you found at a farmer’s market, but I’ve found that it’s better not to do so. I’ve found that it’s better to trust the process and understand that the context in which it takes place is, for better and for worse, the context in which your romantic life will unfold.
Done right, the gifting process involves strategically leaking personal information, espousing ill-informed opinions, making impromptu financial disclosures, and sometimes walking around with your wife’s shoe or bra in your bag. It is, in short, a stupid and nerve-wracking process. And, ultimately, that’s the thing. Going through it is part of the present.