This going-viral tweet from New York Times writer Sophie Vershbow perfectly breaks down every “gift guide” for men, listing stereotypical guy-gifts like “whiskey stones,” Jonathan Franzen novels, and grilling accessories. I wouldn’t mind some beard oil or a nice leather overnight bag, for instance, but the rest of that crap? No thanks. It’s gifting to the most basic guy-guy ever, and nobody wants that. Instead, here is what to keep in mind as you strive to buy a non-cliché gift for the fellows on your list.
Gift giving is about personal relationship
The reason “whiskey stones and barbecue tongs” gift guides fail is because they’re lists of currently trendy items for the most generic, stereotypical “person-person” imaginable. Non-clichéd gift-giving is about the unique personality of the giftee and the relationship you have with them. Sometimes that means knowing that they’d like something esoteric, but sometimes it means knowing they’d much rather have a Steam gift certificate than a Tibetan prayer flag. This is easy for some people, but if your giftee either already has everything they want or is mysterious to you in some essential way that makes buying a gift difficult, here are some suggestions to avoid giving them barbecue tongs or another scented candle.
Buy something they’d never buy themselves…
For me, the best gifts are things I’d like to have but wouldn’t buy for myself. For instance, I like like playing guitar, and I was remarking to a musician friend that I was mildly unhappy with my distortion pedal. A few months later, he bought me a different, better distortion pedal for my birthday—a little more than I’d spend just to have slightly different quality of fuzz on my tone, but just what I wanted anyway.
…or the thing they’ll buy for themselves anyway
Some people are genuinely unsentimental about holidays, and actually don’t care about being surprised by some flashy thing on gift-giving day. For these steely-eyed, don’t-want-to-make-a-fuss souls, consider giving something excessively practical. Even boring. Give them a couple more pairs of the socks they like, or a gift certificate for an oil change or a week’s worth of groceries. For the right kind of person, the dull-as-dirt present the most thoughtful gift of all.
The power of food and booze for the holidays
When you have to buy something for someone you legitimately don’t know that well, take a page from Corporate America and get them a food basket. Everyone eats, and most people welcome a selection of fancy foods for the holidays. Because food basket treats are generally more exotic or pricier than what you’d buy at your local market, they fit into the “things I wouldn’t buy for myself” bucket.
There are so many different kinds of holiday gift baskets out there—steaks, pretzels, fruits and nuts, etc.— that it doesn’t have to be entirely impersonal either. (Obviously, keep food allergies in mind.)
At the risk of getting into “barbecue tongs” territory, if the person you’re buying a gift for is into booze, booze is a good gift. I’ve never known a drinker not to appreciate more of their poison-of-choice. But make it special! Be thoughtful and personal—an interesting bottle of riesling for a wine-y friend is better than a “this looks expensive” bottle from the supermarket—and you can consider something they don’t usually drink, as long as it’s awesome in some way you know they’ll appreciate.
The regional food gift
If you’re buying a gift for someone who is a long way from home, consider giving them a taste of their childhood. Restaurants that are renowned for a specific, regional dish you can’t get everywhere often will ship menu items anywhere in the world. Sending a sandwich or a burrito across the county is ridiculously extravagant but memorable, especially if it’s a favorite. This site ships signature delicacies from restaurants all over the world, or you could do a little detective work of your own and look into their hometown and figure out its signature burger/pizza/crab cakes/whatever—this gift works even better if it’s an out-of-the-blue surprise.
What to get for the person who has everything? An experience.
If your gift-givee is actually someone who likes hanging out with you, consider buying them an experience as opposed to a thing—theater tickets, a ski trip, a session at a sensory deprivation chamber, etc. Obviously, make sure it’s something they might want to do, not something you want to do, and make sure you actually take responsibility for planning and executing the trip. This is not an excuse to simply say, “I’ll take you to the movies one day.” Come in with a plan.
It is rarely OK to re-gift or give joke gifts
Giving a shitty gift you received to someone you don’t care about is a time-honored holiday tradition, but it’s generally frowned upon. There are rare exceptions, though. An uncle of mine re-gifted a bottle of ‘Lectra Shave aftershave to his brother one Christmas in 1967, not realizing it was originally a gift from his brother. They’ve sent one another the same bottle of aftershave every Christmas since. That falls in the category of “joke gifts,” much like giving an ugly sweater or tacky pair of socks simply because it would be funny for a few minutes on Christmas morning. It varies from person to person, but I imagine most people don’t actually want these kinds of gifts, if only because you then have to decide whether to throw them out after Christmas—so proceed with caution.
Speaking of joke gifts, though: Never, ever give any gift that’s a critique of the person you’re gifting. This is not the time to make someone the butt of a joke. Don’t get an overweight friend a gym membership. Don’t get your kid a new broom because you want them to clean more. Even if they’re laughing along with you on Christmas morning, these gifts secretly make people sad.