Lad tidings in store

Why are men so perplexed by present buying that they need a special blokes' night, asks Nicholas Roe
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you want to see a bunch of men behaving madly this Christmas just pop down to your local town centre and look around. There you will see the chillingly seasonal sight of blokes with puzzled frowns and empty bags, doing what men do worst: shopping.

That, at least, is the classic view supported, like Christmas itself, by myth and a certain amount of dodgy evidence. "Four out of 10 men can't face high street Christmas crowds," crows the supermarket chain Asda, which this evening stages a "Blokes' Night": a nationwide festival of mildly-patronising support and advice aimed at easing big, brave males through the annual torture of gift-buying.

Which raises the question: how come we men have bounded so far down the road towards a new social world - bonding with our kids, discovering our own emotions and so on - only to get lost on the way to the shops?

Start with basic instinct. Patrick Morrell is a structural engineer who, like many lucky men, has to buy just one present this year. Most females would drool at this easy-peasy prospect, yet ask how he views the task of choosing something for his wife and Patrick says, gloomily, "with trepidation".

Go on. "Well, I never have any good ideas and it's getting worse. Ideas I had last year I can't use this year. I've probably milked the jewellery thing as much as I can. But I don't want to buy just any old thing ... I try to buy something she will like and maybe is a bit of a surprise ... but I don't succeed very often."

Yep, that's the traditional male talking and he adds, "At the moment I'm being dragged round the shops on Saturdays and I'm looking for clues - if she says `that's nice', for instance, and passes on. The trouble is, I haven't spotted any yet. That's where it all falls down."

David Gibbons is the same. As a senior manager with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds you might expect him to have things taped. Not so. "I start off with a list and find everything's too expensive or I can't find it," he admits, "and then I flounder."

But what's this? "I see it as a challenge actually," Gibbons rolls on. "It's nice to come up with something no one has thought of before - though there are some members of my family who seem to be ahead of me in this game. I find it hard to beat my brother."

So it's a game. Or maybe that's just the way sports-mad males have to view a project before they can take it seriously. In any case, blokish attitudes inevitably mean there are winners and losers. Alan Gregory lost last year.

As a professor in the department of accounting and finance at Glasgow University he ought to know better than most how to plan a spending spree. Not so. He says, "I hate Christmas shopping because invariably I'm far too busy and it's another of those things that have to be fitted in at the last minute. I buy for my wife Barbara, my sister, her family, my parents and a few aunts and my surviving grandmother. Actually, having said that, with some of the presents Barbara will come up with quite a few suggestions and it can be either of us buying them. Last year Barbara did a lot."

Good old Barbara. And her reward? "There's this riding shop she goes into and I happened to go in with her one day and saw her looking at this jacket, but they were too expensive apparently. Whether it was a hint, I don't know."

Huh! But wait. Alan says he sneaked back and ordered that very same jacket. "There was a very practical but ultimately very dull colour and I ordered that but when I went to pick it up there was a much brighter pink one and I chose that instead." And? "She swapped it for the original colour. It was pointed out that these things get mucked up down at the stables."

Tact, perhaps. In any case, why not just ask her? "I suppose..." pause, struggle, "maybe it's still a challenge. A feeling that I should be able to buy something that is a pleasant surprise on Christmas morning. A kind of intellectual challenge."

The game again, you see. But I cast no stones. I'm the man - and it's good to share this at last - who once bought his wife an iron for Christmas.

There are, however, brighter stars in the male shopping galaxy and charity worker David Nolan is one of them. "I love shopping," he says. "I think it was Fergie who said `when in doubt, shop' and I think that's wonderful."

Best-ever buy for his girlfriend? No hesitation. "A single pearl on a gold necklace." He watches eagerly for hints, spends far too much money and doesn't even mind the crowds. "No, I love people," he chirrups.

Yet there's grit even in this particularly smooth jar of Vaseline. Feel it rub against the flesh when David adds, "I usually visit the shop a few times and pick up ideas and make up my mind in the last couple of days; often it's the 23rd."

Why not earlier? He shrugs. "I think there's an element of keeping myself on tenterhooks, keeping the excitement going. It's partly therapy for myself, even though the present is for someone else."

Hey, what's happening here? Where's the Christmas spirit going? I mean, who's it all for?

Whatever, male meanness is a misplaced joke (this, from the Iron Man of Christmas, mind) though sometimes the thinking behind a piece of generosity is convoluted. Mike Hymas, an architect, says, "If I have lots of money I'll go out and buy my wife something I think she will like and because it's quite expensive she will have to like it anyway." See? Actually, what he means is that with pricey goods he takes a risk - doesn't ask what she wants - but with more practical gifts, he does. "Because a pair of gloves is more likely to be rejected than a pair of gold earrings." Which makes sense.

Professor Robert East, a psychologist who specialises in consumer research at Kingston Business School, casts further doubt on the "Men Are Rotten Shoppers" view. It's not innate, he suggests, just that we lack practice: "I've done surveys based on the main shopper in the house and 90 per cent of respondents are women. The difference really is in terms of numbers. Most men are not professional at shopping."

Imagine, he says, trying to find your way while driving a car with the radio on. The first thing you do is turn off the radio because distractions disturb thought. In this analogy, the overwhelming pressure of Christmas is the radio noise and you can't turn it off so it's the more experienced drivers who arrive safely at their Yuletide destination. Women.

Yet Stuart Morris defies all such logic. This bicycle trailer manufacturer buys presents for 15 or more friends and relations and insists, "I'm good at shopping. I don't even mind buying women's clothes, I go round and feel the material - I'm not embarrassed. I've bought my wife several dresses without her knowing and she really likes them.

"There will often be several presents for one person because that adds to the excitement. If there's a hint I try and remember it, but if I think that would be known then I wouldn't follow up the hint. It must be a surprise..."

Hang on. Here we are again. Stewart needs to know he's adding a surprise. He also joins the ranks of those who relish the panic of last-minute dashes to the shops. You could start earlier, Stewart.

"Wouldn't that be boring?" he says.

So here's the nub. Women buy presents because they feel a duty of care. Men savour the chase, the competition and the lure of triumph. It can work. It might even lead to better presents.

But is it Christmas?n

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