Remember that Simpsons episode when Homer gives Marge a bowling ball for her birthday—even though he’s the only bowler in the family? And then Marge notices that Homer has paid to have his own name engraved on the ball?
The good news is that no matter how badly we blow it this February 14, most of us will never sink to Homeresque depths in our gift giving. What makes his self-centered and thoughtless present even worse is that he doesn’t even realize why the gift is so bad. You might remember how their conversation goes:
Marge: You bought that bowling ball for you, not for me.
Homer: What? No!
Marge: The holes were drilled for your fingers.
Homer: Well, I wanted to surprise you. I couldn’t very well chop your hand off and bring it to the store, could I?
Marge: You never intended for me to use that ball.
Homer: Well, if that’s how you feel, I’ll take it back.
Marge: You can’t take it back! You had your name engraved on it!
Homer: So you’d know it was from me!
Marge: Homer, I’m keeping the ball…for myself!
Homer: What? But you don’t know how to bowl. Whoops!
Marge: I’m keeping it, and I’m going to use it. Thank you for the present, Homer. (She turns off the bedroom light.)
Obviously, Homer has a huge blind spot that kept him from realizing how Marge would react to this particular gift. And this highlights the essence of good gift giving: an awareness of how your present will be received and what it communicates about how well you know the other person and how you feel about him or her. So even though it’s true that very few of us are as blind as Homer Simpson (thank goodness!), lots of us make gift-giving mistakes by misunderstanding or disregarding what the person we care about actually wants in a present.
Take a minute now and ask yourself: Have I ever given a gift that communicates something completely different from what I wanted to say? Here are some examples:
Flowers and a Heart-Shaped Box of Chocolate
What you think you’re communicating: “I’m giving you a classic, timeless Valentine’s Day gift. Everyone from Fred Flintstone to Ricky Ricardo has gone down this road, and I want to show you love in the same way that Fred and Ricky showed love to Wilma and Lucy.”
What you’re really communicating: “I decided not to put any real thought into a gift that would be just right for you. I’m not as bad as the guy who forgot to get his girlfriend anything, but this last-minute cliché shows that I’m close.”
A Journal that Describes every Detail of your Dream Wedding
What you think you’re communicating: “I want to share this special plan I’ve had in mind ever since I was a little girl, so you can know me more fully and we can deepen the intimacy we share.”
What you’re really communicating: “I have no sense of boundaries or any awareness that some people aren’t ready to discuss lifelong commitments when they’ve just begun dating. Also, I don’t realize that a Disney-themed wedding isn’t everyone’s dream.”
A Mix Tape (or a CD with Songs from an iTunes Playlist
What you think you’re communicating: “We could be even closer as a couple if we both knew the same songs.”
What you’re really communicating: “I know you’re into pop and country, but if you’d just listen to these sixteen hair-metal songs over and over for a couple of weeks, you’d appreciate the beauty and passion of Poison and Whitesnake the way I do, the way any enlightened person would.”
So there’s a little about what not to do. Now let’s offer some suggestions that will help you choose a gift that sends just the right kind of message. A good Valentine’s Day gift is thoughtful; it’s also unique and creative and shows your feelings in a way that’s appropriate for where the relationship stands right now.
One thing you can do, then, is use these criteria to help you pick just the right present. Make sure you use all three criteria. For example, tickets to a night of professional wrestling would definitely be a unique Valentine’s Day gift. But depending on your significant other’s level of devotion to The Rock, it might not score as high on the thoughtful and appropriate scales. Same goes for the bowling ball Homer gave Marge.
Tickets to see your beloved’s favorite singer in concert, on the other hand, would do well in terms of all three criteria, especially if you followed up with a frame containing your ticket stubs and a picture of you two at the concert. So would an old leather-bound copy of your partner’s favorite book from college. Even a mix tape can be a good present if it’s well thought out (for example, it has songs from the soundtracks of movies you’ve seen together) and considers the other person’s preferences.
And you don’t have to spend money to find a great gift. You could paint a picture, write a song, or cook a favorite meal. Another idea would be to design a scavenger hunt that leads your partner to several important places you’ve been together in your relationship thus far. Maybe travel from where you met to where you went for your first date to where you spilled spaghetti in your lap, and so on. Depending on how elaborate you’re willing to be, you could go to each place beforehand and leave funny clues that send both of you to the next location.
The point here is simply to think about what message will be sent by the gift you’re giving. Remember that you’re trying to find a way to show that you care, and to do it in a way that lets the other person know you went to some effort to make him or her happy. Yes, you might have to sacrifice some of your own desires—such as giving up on the notion that your girlfriend will ever memorize the lyrics to Whitesnake classics like “Love Hunter”. But if you choose a gift that’s thoughtful, creative, and appropriate for where you two are, you’ll go a long way toward pleasing your partner. And that means you’ll get to enjoy a whole lot more of the benefits that come along with a happy, fulfilling relationship.