Gift Giving for Dummies
January 2, 2011 4:09 PM   Subscribe

What resources exist to teach me the skill of gift giving?

The mister is a gift giving superhero. His technique is to make a note of things he sees that others might like for future use. This seems very vague to me and he can't explain it any further. I've tried doing this but it doesn't work, I think because I don't do as much internet browsing as he does and I really dislike aimless shopping in stores or online.

I have difficulties purchasing gifts for the mister, close friends & family, distant friends & family, and the office gift exchange. If I am not provided a list of items to select from, I end up being one of the panicked shoppers driving around the day before the birthday/anniversary/Christmas looking for something anything. This wastes time, is stressful, and results in crappy gifts. I don't want to be this person anymore.
posted by rhapsodie to Human Relations (18 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I find that as I'm hanging out with someone they often mention things they want in passing. The trick is remembering those things. I keep a google doc with the names of the close people I buy gifts for and I add things they mention throughout the year.

The three people that got things off that list this year were really excited because they had forgotten that they ever mentioned wanting it. It also makes you seem SUPER thoughtful because you remember something said months ago.
posted by magnetsphere at 4:22 PM on January 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

I surf a lot, way more than any of my IRL friends. So when I see something that would be perfect for a friend, I just bookmark it on delicious and add the tags buylater and friend's_name.

If it's on sale or really cheap, I'll buy it right away/weekend (people love random gifts outside of holidays/anniversaries) otherwise I'll decide a month before birthday/anniversary since that's my reminder setting on Google calendar.

Shopping doesn't have to be aimless. Just make a note of anything that might make a great gift. You can snap pictures of stuff even when you aren't surfing, upload to Evernote, and tag with friend's name. Then use that as a guide and buy a month or so before to allow plenty of time for shipping.
posted by special-k at 4:22 PM on January 2, 2011

Best answer: I have world-renowned ninja gifting skills and I think the best thing you can do is just pay attention. I never lack for gift ideas; people like to talk about themselves and their interests and their desires. Just train your ear to pick up on the cues. Whip out your phone or a pad of paper as soon as you're able and add comments and ideas to your list.

Just yesterday I had a lunch-time conversation with a co-worker and now know that for her birthday next week she would very likely love some bees wax sheets to make her own candles with ( because during the conversation she said that she used to make them with her mom when she was a kid and hasn't seen the sheets in stores for years), or an immersion blender wand (because during the conversation she mentioned that she loves making creamy soups but hates the mess they make in her blender while she's pureeing the broth), or a book identifying song birds in our area (because during the conversation she said she sits on her patio with binoculars and watches the birds in her backyard but doesn't know what they're called). I learned all of this just by listening. She wasn't dropping hints, she was just talking.

So just listen. People are constantly astounded and gratified that someone is paying attention, especially if some time has elapsed between your conversation and the gift-giving.
posted by iconomy at 4:27 PM on January 2, 2011 [52 favorites]

This is not a resource so much as a hack but: Whenever I see something that reminds me of someone, that I think someone would like, that just seems really cool - I put it into a little note on my phone. They accumulate throughout the year so whenever an occasion comes up (birthday, christmas), I more than likely have an idea of what I could get them. Someone mentions their wallet is falling apart? Tiny little note made. See something great on etsy? Bookmark and write a note. This way I don't have to scramble in December/before events so much.
posted by hepta at 4:37 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I keep an Amazon wishlist (private, of course) with ideas throughout the year. They have a bookmark that you can save that will let you add things to the list regardless of what site they're on. But definitely echoing what was said above, listen to what people say, or what they pay attention to when you're out together, and make a note for later.
posted by miratime at 4:45 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

these are all great suggestions, and developing that ear is definitely something you can do! it can take some time, though, to get good at it, to remember, etc. but totally worth the effort. if you're not the kind of person who listens and remembers with a giftfilter like these AMAZING people above, you can also manufacture this kind of listening skill. the next time you talk to your mom (or whoever), after you hang up, re-play your conversation in your head and from the conversation you had, try to pick something she would like. then write it down. if you do this twice a year, you could be covered.

if you're at all crafty or photoshoppy though, you don't need to listen or write down stuff.

i often just make crafts and give them away. (um, nice things). for instance, whenever i have time, i knit many baby hats in colours that aren't Blue for Boys and Pink for Girls. Then, when a friend has a baby, i can look like a superstar by giving a handknit hat. Maybe it was just-for-them, maybe i've had it for a few years.

one skill i wish i had was photoshop - because you can photoshop people's faces into other pictures. everyone loves to see pictures of themselves, especially clever ones. If it's your family, find 12 pictures, photoshop them all, then you've got calendars for your entire family. (or books, or whatever.)
posted by andreapandrea at 4:57 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Amazon lets you set up gift lists for individual people, noting their birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. I do many of the things people above have said (listen to things they express interest in, look for stuff that would solve a problem they have, remember stories they've told about past memories of cool gifts), and then I dump it all into Amazon. Free 2-day shipping allows me to procrastinate and still have a selection of great gifts when I invariably shop at the last minute.
posted by decathecting at 5:02 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

rhapsodie: "His technique is to make a note of things he sees that others might like for future use. This seems very vague to me and he can't explain it any further"

What part of this seems vague? Do you forget you have a list when it comes time for gift-giving? That used to be my problem. I would have random hand-written notes, Word docs, bookmarks (both in-browser and Delicious), miscellaneous Notepad notes, etc., etc. And to compound matters, I used work and home computers.

I've since tried to consolidate all my note-taking into one or two formats. I still have too many possible sources of ideas (Delicious links, Amazon wish-list, pages saved in Scrapbook), but I'm getting better. I'm working towards everything being funneled into Evernote, so I have one place to look for ideas.

If you're not online as much, you could just use paper. Jot ideas down in a notebook. If you must use random pieces of paper, at least throw them all into a file folder or some single place where you will remember to look when the time comes.

Do you have a phone with your camera? When you're out and about, snap a picture when you see something that you think would make a good gift. (Pro tip: Get something in the picture that will remind you of where you saw the item, and maybe a good close-up of the name of the item and perhaps the price tag if that is important to you.) I will sometimes use a lame excuse that I think I dropped something back there, or I have to use the restroom, as an excuse to go snap a picture of something my shopping companion was admiring.

Is there something else vague about this process that we could define more concretely for you than what's been said already?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:08 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

''Do you have a phone with your camera?" should read "Do you have a camera with your phone?", but you probably get the idea.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:10 PM on January 2, 2011

Design Sponge has excellent gift guides, and recently ran a feature on "tips from a gifting pro" - nothing especially earthshattering, but lots of good ideas.
posted by judith at 5:33 PM on January 2, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all your your responses so far.

Shopping doesn't have to be aimless.

The kind of shopping I don't mind doing is the kind where I go into a store with a list and am out in 20 minutes. I dislike wandering around until I see something that catches my eye. Even when shopping for things I love without a very specific item in mind (like shoes) I have to do in small chunks of time so I don't get burnt out and cranky. Wandering through a store for an hour or more makes me cranky, something that the mister doesn't understand.

What part of this seems vague? Do you forget you have a list when it comes time for gift-giving?

I get the making a list thing, that makes a lot of sense and I am a big list maker. What seems vague to me is what to put on the list, how to get things onto the list. hepta's answer reads like magic to me:

Whenever I see something that reminds me of someone, that I think someone would like, that just seems really cool

This is what I want to learn how to do, how to be reminded of people when I see things. If I listen to iconomy I just need to do more active listening for the specific purpose of making a list of gifts to give. If one of my friends had told me a story about her blender spewing hot soup all over the walls, my first thought would be to ask if she wants help cleaning it up, or to trade soup recipes. It would never occur to me to buy her an immersion blender.
posted by rhapsodie at 5:39 PM on January 2, 2011

Usually if I'm friends with someone, there are some things we have in common. Once I figure those out, I can buy things that relate to those common interests that I would like. I find it easier to figure out if I like something than if someone else would, but as long as I stick to stuff we have in common, people seem really happy with my gifts.

E.g. I have a friend with whom I share an interest in vintage clothes. I buy her vintage clothes that I love.

I have a friend with whom I always end up talking about how awesome the local birdlife is. I could buy her a bird book, or binoculars, or Christmas tree decorations in the shape of local parrots.

My husband has the same sense of humour as me. If I find something hilarious, he will also enjoy it. So I can buy him books, movies, practical joke stuff, etc.

My mother and I don't have much in common, but we both love to eat. So if I buy her delicious foody stuff, all I have to remember is that she prefers slightly blander food to me.

The stuff you have in common with friends might be interests, or they might be a sense of style, or sense of humour, or they might be common beliefs. All of those are easy to build gifts around. The more problematic situations are family members with whom you have nothing in common (and I honestly don't know how to get great gifts for these people.)
posted by lollusc at 5:53 PM on January 2, 2011

"This is what I want to learn how to do, how to be reminded of people when I see things."

I'm honestly not sure if you can learn this; if your brain doesn't work this way, it doesn't work this way.

But another way you can do this is a month in advance of the holiday (so you're not panicky and rushed -- put a note on your calendar) sit down and thing about what does so-and-so like to DO? Joe loves board games -- great, look at Board Game Geek and dig up an obscure title or something new and order that for him. Sue is always hitting funky indie shops for cool accessories -- maybe you can find a little online indie shop and find something that seems like her. Meg has a new baby -- maybe something special and mommy-ish if she's sentimental, maybe something special just for her if you know she needs a break.

I actually have some sites bookmarked that related to my husband's hobbies THAT I KNOW HE DOESN'T VISIT. Several things I got him for Christmas this year were things that his kind of nerds reviewed as brilliant that I saw on those websites. I put a few blogs about his kind of stuff in my RSS reader; I just skim most of it, but now and then there's a post where I'm like, "aha! He'd love this!" (Then I right away add it to my amazon list or my bookmarks of "buy for husband for Xmas.")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:24 PM on January 2, 2011

rhapsodie: "If one of my friends had told me a story about her blender spewing hot soup all over the walls, my first thought would be to ask if she wants help cleaning it up, or to trade soup recipes. It would never occur to me to buy her an immersion blender."

Well, if it makes you feel any better, it wouldn't be my first thought either.

Maybe keep a journal of the various stories and things you hear from and about your friends. Over time, you might recognize a pattern that can give you some ideas. (Joe cooks soup a lot - what would be a good gift for someone who likes to make soup? Suzie likes to talk about movies - what kind of gift would a movie-lover like?)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:41 PM on January 2, 2011

Lists + Knowing the recipient's interests + internet shopping.

I've saved myself a LOT of holiday stress with internet shopping. Why? Because searching is keyword-based and I don't have to wander malls/stores full of people without any clue what I'm looking for.

Examples: My step-father got a bbq set with his favorite baseball team's logo. I used the team name on various shopping sites and picked the coolest (and within price-range) item I found [also, he likes to bbq].

One sister generally gets a purse/accessory from her favorite designer because there's LOTS of awesome deals online which she'd never find herself.
posted by MuChao at 7:20 PM on January 2, 2011

Do you spend much time in your gift-ee's homes? That is a pretty quick indicator of their tastes. Not to say you should necessarily buy homewares - but I would hope that anyone who spent time in my home would know better than to buy me anything pink/glittery/knick-knacky/soullessly modern or Ikea-ish. It's also pretty obvious that I like anything that was, or looks like it was, made in the 1960s.

If this isn't an option, you might be able to pick up clues from the way they dress (maybe they like vintage handbags/pocket squares/oddly-coloured socks), or the items they keep around their desk (herbal teas?).

For the mister - do you ever shop together? What stores does he like to visit? When I'm out with my boyfriend I always point out things I think are nice, and his gift-giving tastes have become very accurate. By the same token, I know what XBox games he wants, and what clothes stores he prefers.

Like a lot of the other answerers, I do keep a spreadsheet of potential gift ideas, including generic "nice things I've seen" without a specific recipient in mind. When in doubt - if it's someone I don't really know at all - I stick to generic things like chocolate or soap, but I make an effort to find unusual examples that they might not find themselves (shops/delis that sell imported gourmet food are good for this. I found jasmine-tea-flavoured chocolate the other day!). Also, museum and art gallery gift shops sometimes have unusual gift items.

Finally: on behalf of receivers-of-crappy-thoughtless-gifts everywhere (oddly-scented soaps, ugly wallets, the ubiquitous ugly decorated photo frame), thank you for at least making an effort to be a better gift giver :)
posted by jaynewould at 7:22 PM on January 2, 2011

It is hard to get the hang of knowing what people want. Anyone who doesn't actually live with you can be difficult - you know they like X but maybe they already have plenty of it. The gifts I just love, love, love to receive are consumable ones. Food, drink, tickets/memberships, even flowers or plants. This narrows down what you have to know about someone, i.e., allergies and dietary restrictions. That's easy to know. What I don't know is if they already bought themselves the new X that just came out. Consumables.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:05 PM on January 2, 2011

Best answer:
"This is what I want to learn how to do, how to be reminded of people when I see things."

Or, to see things, and be reminded of people! But, say you don't make these connections... and I'll agree, it's often something intuitive.

"If I listen to iconomy I just need to do more active listening for the specific purpose of making a list of gifts to give. If one of my friends had told me a story about her blender spewing hot soup all over the walls, my first thought would be to ask if she wants help cleaning it up, or to trade soup recipes. It would never occur to me to buy her an immersion blender."

Think of it as personalized problem solving instead?

mrgood likes to get into bed with a cup of tea and his book. For years, I've tried to show him love by making sure one of his most favourite things is done nightly - a fresh, clean, neatly made bed ready to jump into (gifts can be actions too!). Project awesome bed has been going on for years - finding favourite sheets, the best pillows, featherbeds for winter and such. But one thing was missing, and it had to do with the moment he got into bed - chilly feet! I had thought about an electric mattress pad, but even with dual controls, that would make me too hot (and I like it cool, like the other side of the pillow). So, recently I had a lightbulb moment -- a hot water bottle!! He boils the kettle every night before bed for tea anyway!!! THEN I found one with a skull and crossbones cover! (even more exclamation points!) (And I always buy a stack of books for him - usually second hand, as he reads nightly, and few books don't interest him, but music bios always win, or some vintage crime fiction).

That's the process - it's as much problem solving as it is gift giving. Ask a question more like "What can I give/do that will address this need in this person's life?" It doesn't have to come from active listening, it can come from observation or anticipation.

But again, this may just not be in you. And based on your described shopping preference, I'm going to suggest an outside resource: a salesperson. That's part of the job! Some people are good at it!

I've worked in retail sales for years, and cannot tell you how many people have come in the stores I've worked in with the need to buy a present, but no idea where to start. Sometimes I had no idea why they were even in my store, but they often left with something.

A good salesperson will guide you toward a great purchase that will be well-received - even if it takes a referral to another store. You don't always need to walk into a store with the idea that you want to buy a certain something for someone. I'll hazard that people who work in stores like to shop, even just a little, and are good at it, and will use those skills.

I used to work in an eclectic store, among others, with both vintage and modern gift items. I'd have to shop to stock the store, and look around for comparable items for pricing, so I did spend time online. But, still, people would walk in and say "I need a gift for an 80 year old woman" and I'd have to go from there. Sometimes it would be like pulling teeth, but I'd ask leading questions. "Does she collect anything?" "What doe she do for a hobby?" "What colour do you see her wearing most often?" "Do you know any of her favourite things?" "What was the last thing you talked about together?" You could learn to ask yourself these questions, or you could find a store with a wide variety of items, and someone who knows what they're doing there, and let them help you. But I'd learn that she had an assortment of pretty teacups, knitted, loved yellow and kittens and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. From there I could suggest any number of things and I was usually pretty good at it - repeat customers, rare returns and a stack of letters from happy people.

If you can find a good store, a shopping buddy who's incisive and enthusiastic, or a knowledgeable salesperson - that's a big part of gift-giving. It's such a joy when it's done right.
posted by peagood at 8:43 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

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