By Dr. Karen Gless, Ph.D.
Presents come with a message. They can say,
I love you.
I care about you.
I want you to lose weight.
You are special to me.
I am very successful and impressive.
Sometimes the message is extremely clear with old ads for presents.
Amazingly Sexist Ads
Some vintage ads from the 1950’s and 60’s really underline this. One of them suggests that it would be a good idea to get a woman a meat thermometer for a bridal shower gift. The tag line is, “For bridal showers—a gift to please the groom!” The message is that a woman needs to be a good cook to keep her husband happy and getting the roast done just right will make for a successful marriage.
Another one is, “Christmas morning she’ll be happier with a Hoover.” This suggests that she will be overjoyed because you got her an appliance that will make her life easier. It also says that a woman finds fulfillment in cleaning the house. In smaller print it says, “P. S. to husbands: She cares about her home, you know, so if you really care about her…wouldn’t it be a good idea to consider a Hoover for Christmas?”
Things have changed since then and the Hoover company would be the first to agree that the ad would be a very bad idea today. But back then it worked, for a lot of reasons. First of all, men and women’s roles were rigid and very different. A middle class woman stayed at home and the man of the house earned money and bought things for her.
It’s a new World
Now there are actually more women in the workplace than men and such an ad would be incredibly insulting. What’s more if a man actually bought the woman in his life a vacuum cleaner, it would probably be the end of the relationship. Today the messages would be:
You are only good for cleaning the house.
You don’t do a very good job of cleaning.
I like you to do things for me.
Stay in your place.
Obviously picking a great present is a tricky business in most cases. You have to think about the intended message and the one that your honey might think is the real message. A guy might think, “Chocolate on Valentine’s day means I love you, so I’ll get her a lot of chocolate to show how much I love her.” He gets her 5 pounds of assorted chocolates and she says, “What do you want me to do? Get fat. Don’t you ever think about what I want?”
A better choice might be to get just 5 small, but expensive, special chocolates that she can savor and eat just one a day.
Expensive jewelry can be a good choice during courtship, but might cause worry if the two of you are living together and on a tight budget.
So how do you pick the perfect present?
First of all by getting to know what your partner likes and wants. This means getting to know each other. I know one woman who always got the wrong or a second rate present when she was a child. That made her super sensitive about gifts. Her sister got a nice dress or the most popular doll. She got a giant picture puzzle. Birthdays and Christmas were pretty miserable for her.
Her boyfriend knew that if he asked what she wanted, she would feel that he hadn’t really put some thought into it. In addition, she didn’t drop any hints about what she liked, maybe because when she told her parents what she wanted, she never got it.
Valentine’s Day was fast approaching and he had to do something. He knew that her friends were really tapped into what she liked, shoes, clothes, accessories, because they went shopping together. He figured that getting shoes would be a bad idea if they didn’t fit and frankly sizes vary according to the brand anyway.
So he got a couple of minutes at a party to ask one of her friends what she would like. He found out that there was a special purse she had her eye on. It was a bit expensive, but he got it and she was overwhelmed. There was a lot of, “Oh my god, how did you know?” and “It’s just what I wanted.”
In this case a little strategy paid off, but it worked because he paid attention to what she told him about her past and noticed how she acted. Also her friend didn’t tell how he found out what she wanted.
Break the Mold
To keep from getting a present with the wrong message pay attention to what your partner wants, not what you think he or she should want. I know a woman who is really into jewelry and she has an amazing collection of jewelry tools. Some of her tools actually produce tool envy in men.
If you got her a floor waxer, she would think you had lost your mind. But if you got her an amazing jewelry tool like a big, heavy anvil for shaping bracelets, she would react like you had packaged the moon for her.
In summary, forget the traditional present guidelines. Take the time and effort to find out what your partner really wants and you can’t go wrong.