How To Pick A Great Gift: A Guide For People Who Are Not So Good At Reading Others

You know that phrase, “It’s the thought that counts”? I feel like we’ve gotten away from it a little. It’s used ironically so often now — like, you got a bad gift, but hey, at least the person thought to give you a gift, right? Nah, nah, nah. Let’s stop that.

It really is the thought that counts. Giving a gift is a way of conveying to a person that you know them, you know what they’re passionate about, you know their priorities, you know how they want to present themselves to the world. It’s a way of facilitating their goals, and their self-expression. It’s a way of telling them that you value them, and what about them you value.

That can sound extremely overwhelming to those of us who haven’t developed a lot of skill at reading other people. You might look at someone and say, “I don’t know what exactly it is that I value about this person, I just like being around them.” That’s OK! Here are three very basic, preliminary questions you can ask yourself about the other person to figure out what you do and do not know about them based on your personal experiences with them, rather than on second-hand information (like them telling you what they do in their free time, or something). Working on that information, you can give them something that’s specifically from you, not just a sort of generic nod to something you kind of figure they like.

  • What do we do together? Do you just hang out and talk? Do you go to movies, play video games, go shopping, go to museums? Do you eat meals together? Do you go for walks? Do you work together, or study together? And what are they like when you do those things?

  • What do they talk about a lot? In other words, what’s important to them? Are they interested in a particular political issue, or academic subject? Do they talk about their family? Do they love a particular TV show or movie? What specifically do they talk about, when they talk about it? What kinds of conversations do they have with you specifically?

  • What do they look like? How do they self-present? Are they casual? Sloppy? Neat? Are they always really put-together? What kind of stores do they shop at? Do they wear makeup or hair products? Do they wear old clothes or new clothes? Do they put effort into their outfits or just kind of throw something on? Do they buy brand name clothes? Do they look like a stereotype (hippie, preppie, bohemian, hipster, yuppie, etc.)? All of those things can tell you whether it’s important to them that the things they own fit into the way they see themselves and the way they’d like to be seen.

From the first and second questions, you can glean general categories of items to consider buying. If you’re exercise buddies, for example, you could get them something to make their workouts more efficient. If you’re just friends who hang out, fall back on what they talk about with you the most enthusiastically: Do you both like weird movies? Do they wax poetic about really great bread? If they’re passionate about a certain subject or kind of ideal, are there books or magazines they’d appreciate that address the issue?

From the third question, you can glean what type of items they’d like. If they’re really neat and fashionable, they’d probably like an item that looks nice, whatever it is — consider that even books are designed. If they wear designer labels, they probably value owning things that recognizably carry value or give them “cred.” Things like new technology, brand-name accessories, or the latest most popular book or album would fit into their self-presentation. If it’s a person who has taken on a particular aesthetic, like “bohemian,” they would probably enjoy receiving something that you picked, that you liked, but that would fit into the way they like to look. If they’re just kind of a “regular” person who doesn’t care about appearances, that can tell you that they’re more practical, and to focus on finding something that appeals directly to the things that interest them or would be useful to them without referencing the way they look.

Ultimately, if the person is important to you or you are fond of them for some reason, it’s a good idea not to just get them something that “anyone would like.” It’s worth thinking about a little harder than that.

Happy hunting!

Tweet at me at @rebeccavbrink if you need advice!