Valentine's Day gift massacre: What those carefully chosen presents really say about you
Chocolate or jewellery? Frilly or practical? Rhodri Marsden wants you to think very carefully before making the year’s most fraught gift-buying
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Sunday 09 February 2014
You might think that you know your partner, and that they know you. Your relationship might sail along on a wave of mutual understanding and reciprocal affection, your romantic gestures acknowledged and stored away in a special chamber of your hearts. And then Valentine's Day comes along and screws everything up.
The pressure to exchange meaningful gifts to symbolise our love for one another is overwhelming. Our brains have become scrambled. The insight that we thought we had into each other's wants and needs is shattered by an onslaught of adverts for cuddly toys and power tools. Panic sets in, and in the heat of the moment we spend our money on something that, when eventually unwrapped, has all the romantic allure of a council-tax bill.
We're bombarded with gift suggestions – the same ones, year after year – and however well-meaning their intent, they're all potential sources of bad advice. They presuppose things about our relationship that couldn't possibly be known, yet we find ourselves bowing meekly to them; we're seduced by the idea of seeing that light in our partner's eyes, but we're more likely to see a furrow in their brow.
The gift ideas on these pages aren't inherently bad; there are many situations where they're just perfect. But it's not a given. So let's just all think for a second. Assess whether we're being oversold something that's unnecessarily festooned with lovehearts. Act now to avoid trouble later. Because no one wants to receive that look that says: "You've got no idea who I am – and now I'm not really sure who you are."
Nothing says "I've spent a ludicrous amount of money on this so you'd better like it" as much as ludicrously priced jewellery. Its expensive presence within a neatly wrapped presentation box ratchets up the tension in the room unnecessarily, like Jeremy Paxman. Blinded by the misconception that the price of a gift is a measure of affection, we blow oodles of cash to make up for the fact that we have no better ideas. We push the boat out, buying ornate trinkets for people who don't even wear jewellery. And as a result, thousands of people are currently walking around Northampton wearing something they don't like but are too polite to say so, while thousands of others in Cardiff are trying to handle the simmering resentment they cause every time they leave the thing in a bedroom drawer.
Some gifts come with superstitious warnings attached (not literally). Giving a wallet or purse may lead to abject poverty. A clock may be indicative of time running out on the relationship. That new chef's knife might be used to stab you when you're not looking. Shoes also carry a caveat; so the superstition goes, said shoes could be used by that person to walk away from you… for ever. Slippers, which appear with alarming frequency on lists of Valentine gift suggestions for men, could also be used by someone to walk away from you… across the room and into the kitchen, mumbling, "I can't believe you got me a pair of sodding slippers," as they go.
Men supposedly like gadgets. But the kind of man who would appreciate a gadget as a gift thinks about gadgets a lot. Any idle moments are spent comparing subtle feature distinctions between the MZ-240-C and the MZ-240-CS. He maintains a to-buy list of gadgets which he rearranges regularly, according to subtle shifts in his gadget priorities. And then someone gets him a remote-controlled quadcopter for Valentine's Day. Not quite the remote-controlled quadcopter he was intending to buy, a slightly inferior remote-controlled quadcopter, and it was something like seventh on his gadget list in any case, and he'd rather have had some noise-cancelling headphones, but he appreciates the gesture and so he says, "Thank you for the remote-controlled quadcopter, it's just what I wanted." But it wasn't. Not really.
"Ohio Wife Torches Husband's Truck After Getting Cheap Lingerie for Xmas" ran a headline in an American newspaper just over a month ago. That particular husband didn't understand lingerie – but few men do. You only need to hang out in a branch of Victoria's Secret for 10 minutes to see the expressions of terror on the faces of men who have tasked themselves with buying some. "This stuff just isn't practical," think these men to themselves as they pick up a bustier, not realising that that's kind of the point.
Helpful lingerie advice for men usually begins with a reassurance that this is a bold, adventurous move that will yield fantastic rewards. It then tells you to furtively search through her underwear drawer to find out what size she is – an act which, if interrupted, makes men look anything other than bold and adventurous. Dare to skip the drawer search and you risk buying her some massive pants. Dare to purchase lingerie at all, and you may end up restaging that scene in Annie Hall where Diane Keaton holds up a negligée and says to Woody Allen, "Are you kidding? This is more like a present for you."
Bondage gear, fake tongues, Vertical Turbo Strokers and leather handcuffs might make great gifts within the context of a sexually adventurous relationship, but surprises are not always necessarily a good thing. Outside failing bilateral talks over nuclear weapons reduction, there is no silence more strained and toxic than one where an unwanted dildo is now lying on top of wrapping paper in the corner of a chilly room. You've got to think very carefully about giving a gift that has to be accompanied by a second, more innocuous gift in order to lessen the unsettling impact of the first. "Is that really what you think of me?" "No, I also got you this pot plant."
In the same way that printer cartridges make a truly disappointing gift for the person who doesn't own a printer, it's important that everyone be wary of the issues surrounding cufflinks. Cufflinks are a great gift if the person who's receiving the cufflinks owns a shirt that requires cufflinks. Check to see if their shirts require cufflinks. If their shirts don't require cufflinks, don't get them any cufflinks – or, alternatively, get them a shirt that requires cufflinks and also some cufflinks. Or just don't get cufflinks.
We're frequently informed, particularly around the time of year leading up to Valentine's Day, of the close link that supposedly exists between chocolate and sex. On paper it looks no more likely than a link being established between margarine and 10-pin bowling, but people in white coats who supposedly know what they're talking about insist that chocolate releases a flood of pleasure-related chemicals into the brain. And then, presumably, we have sex. And if said chocolates were selected from a heart-shaped box, the sex would presumably be even better. But ultimately chocolate is just food. You're giving each other food. "Eat this. It's fuel. It makes you go." And bear in mind that if you melted down the expensive stuff that contains horny goat weed, dong quai, shilajit and fo ti, it basically looks the same as a melted-down Snickers. So maybe just give each other a Snickers. At least that would be funny.
A monthly subscription to a men's health magazine
Health mags are hugely popular with many men; their pursuit of the perfect set of abdominal muscles is as burning and intense as any woman's quest to rid herself of cellulite. But to be given what amounts to an instruction manual for shaping up can be demoralising. Every month, the doormat thuds with a reminder that your abs are not even in the lower divisions of the same league as the bloke on the cover of the magazine. Then your partner's eyes say, beseechingly, "Are you yet able to perform a one-armed chin up?" and you'll reply, mournfully, "No, I am not."
"Darling. Remember how much you liked the thing I got you last year? Well, good news – I've got it for you again." The sheer lack of imagination contained within a bodycare gift set from a high-street chemist that also sells corn plasters is, quite frankly, off the scale. The lower end of the scale. Self-reproducing lifeforms dwelling on the sea bed could do better. These products are purely functional; it's like buying someone some scouring pads. "Here you go – clean yourself with this."
Browsing the higher end of the market, a man might accidentally hit on a winner – but again, men don't understand these products. It's not their territory. They're generally mystified as to why the word "serum" is taken seriously. And when they see that a product is suitable for "dry" skin or "oily" skin, they're beset with anxiety, worried that when they hand it over to their partner, they're basically saying: "Happy Valentine's Day, Oily."
Without wishing to make a sweeping generalisation, men have fridges. Without wishing to make another, they don't need a small fridge for their lager any more than they need a tiny washing machine for their socks. The Valentine's Day industry that exists to claim otherwise is, frankly, baffling.
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