Monthly Archives: December 2008

The challenges of gift selection

It’s Christmas Eve, which means that once again I’ve been out shopping, and once again I’ve sworn not to do this next year. There are probably more crowded shopping days—the weekend after Thanksgiving and the weekend before Christmas come to mind—but it’s crowded enough, and that’s compounded with the stress of having to make decisions at the last minute.
Why do I do this every year? It’s not just that I’m an inveterate procrastinator: I was actually motivated this year to make several earlier shopping trips, and returned empty-handed from each of them. The problem is that I’m especially bad at shopping for gifts. After some contemplation (while sitting in mall traffic) I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple reasons for this.
One of them is that I’m just bad at shopping, period. Even when shopping for myself I tend to be very indecisive. Suppose I’m looking at a rack of shirts, and I don’t have strong preferences among the colors and styles available. Then, rationally, I should just be able to pick any one of them and it won’t matter much, right? But instead I feel compelled to try to divine some weak preferences I have that might decide the issue, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one I like best.
It seems a little crazy that I wouldn’t know my own preferences, even if they’re weak ones. But it’s worse than that. I don’t even know my own strong preferences, and thus I’m plagued with buyer’s remorse. I will frequently buy something (usually clothes) and shortly thereafter realize that I don’t like it at all. Why did I buy it then? Why, especially, did I buy it after such long consideration? Apparently I’m just Bad At Consumerism.
But there’s another aspect to gift-buying beyond just shopping. Giving a gift is a social interaction, and there are interpersonal skills that come into play even in gift selection. After all, in selecting a gift one is trying to guess at the preferences of someone else, and those who are good at doing this are people who are good at relating to and connecting to others. And on the other end of the spectrum, someone with my abysmal social skills is going to have a lot of trouble figuring out what someone else would like to have.
In some cultures it’s appropriate just to give cash, and this has a certain appeal. But despite the fact that I’m rarely successful at it, there is something nice about giving a well-selected gift. Not just something that is intrinsically valuable and that the recipient would like to have, but something that they wouldn’t have thought to buy themselves, something that is an expression of my relationship to them over and above “I hope you like this”.
If only I could get better at it. Anyone have any good heuristics for gift-shopping (or shopping in general)?