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)?

3 thoughts on “The challenges of gift selection

  1. Mason Porter

    I don’t typically buy too many gifts. If I think I know that someone wants a particular thing (say, by overhearing them), then I’ll occasionally do it—fairly independent of official holidays. On other occasions, I basically just try to show some creativity with what would otherwise be simple gifts. For example, I always got stuff for my recommendation letter writers (hmmm… I hope my students are reading this) and I would find get something with personalized art based on some graphics related to their research or even from their research. I got one person a clock with background graphics which was from an ensemble of figures from various papers he wrote that I combined into a collage after some image capturing. The basic idea whether with this or some other mechanism (aside from those situations where I just happen to have some extra information) was that there was some thought and care involved and that I didn’t just pick something off the shelf. Other times, I’ll just find a nice card that I think will strike the right chord and once or twice I think I’ve definitely pondered writing a poem for somebody to give as a gift.
    In terms of deciding on things for myself, I use my typical lack of filters. Sometimes I can’t decide easily, but I figure I can always buy more than one thing or buy the other thing later. Other times, I know exactly what I want. I also do a lot of my shopping online, which doesn’t have the same dynamic in terms of deciding what I want.

  2. Zifnab

    I have basically two modes for gift heuristics.
    The first is observation of people who I may want to get gifts for. This is usually observation of what things they look at or are interested in when in stores, but don’t end up getting. This is based on the theory that if they examine it, they’re at least interested in that thing, even if their valuation is such that they don’t buy it at the time. For luxury-type things (nice clothes, games, media/etc) this can be a pretty decent predictor, as they probably would like it, but can’t afford it, etc. For necessity type items it’s a bit harder as it may be that they didn’t buy it because they decided they don’t actually need it. (But if you notice them looking multiple times, well, probably they do).
    The drawbacks of this first method are that it requires one to actually be in a store with other people who you might want to get a gift for. This is harder than I thought, but it can be managed by doing Christmas/Holiday shopping with other people and then sneaking in later. This also doesn’t meet the “they wouldn’t have thought to buy themselves” requirement, but it does have the added bonus of “hey, you were paying attention to me and the things I am interested in”, which is a good social state.
    The second mode of gift buying I have is to buy people things that I would like, that I think they might too. That can be things I already have that I want to share (e.g. books – I tend to always pick my Dad’s present by looking at all the books I really liked the last year and picking one out that has some trait that I think he might like. In this year’s case, one that tells story for children in a way that it’s a great story for anyone.), or just things that I like that have some meaning to me. For example, buying clothes for Lorian, I tend to pick things that I think look good. This doesn’t overlap completely with things that she likes, but the fact that I like it and gave it to her does seem to help it be a good gift. I think this quality is something found in a lot of hand-made gifts: it may not be something the person you are giving the thing to would necessarily love/never be able to live without, but it’s special because you chose it/made it for them.
    Drawbacks for this mode: If you don’t know what you like, or are very self-conscious about it being something you like (as that could lead to implied rejection of yourself if they don’t like it), this can be difficult. It helps to pick things you have strong feelings about, and explain when you give the gift (and it’s opened), why you liked it/thought they might, because it’s clear then that it’s not just the item being given, but also the emotional connections that mattered.
    There’s two other modes, now that I think about it, but they’re really cheating: ask someone close to your intended target what they might like. This helps if you don’t interact with them much and thus are out of touch with what they like. The other one is to ask the target if there’s something they would like that’s not a usual gift. Sometimes the gifts people receive are not the ones they really wanted. Asking can make it so that they are, and sometimes caring enough to ask is taken well. (A variant is to give them something of yourself – take them out to dinner, do something nice for them, things that give your time and show you care)
    Take all of the above with a grain of salt: some people have high expectations of how a gift is chosen/given or just the expectation that they will get one from you. My opinion of those people is not very high. I feel that the (honest) offering of a gift itself is wonderful, regardless of how one arrived at it. And when a gift cannot be given, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care.

  3. Justin

    My gift giving habits have always been pretty simple. One method is simply to ask the person what they want, if they don’t just tell you spontaneously. An even simpler method is to pick something that pretty much everyone would want, such as a calendar (ideal for winter solstice related gift exchanges) or cookies/chocolate/other tasty goodies. Or Amazon gift cards. The past few years I just get everyone Spitzer calendars, since I can be quite sure they won’t get those from any other source. Les favors the gift card approach instead.
    Regarding the shopping for self problem, at least for clothing one way around it is to receive clothes as gifts rather than buying for yourself. As a bonus, others will often find very amusing t-shirts that one hasn’t previously seen. For other modes of shopping for self, Mason’s shopping online method works well. Even if I buy a book or game in person, I do the researching and pondering at leisure on the computer beforehand.

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