COMMITMENTS : Sometimes, Men Just Don’t Get the Gift Thing


It’s the absolutely perfect gift. It’s something your partner has dreamed of but never would buy. Or something never even imagined, but it’s just the very thing. So delightful. So apt.

How good some men are at this. How clueless are others.

How this whole business of gift-giving can cause trouble between men and women.

The man who thinks his bride really will like a Weed Butcher; the guy in the drugstore at closing time Christmas Eve buying eau de toilette--there’s truth in those stereotypes. While there are women who would like Weed Butchers, and women who would be satisfied with an effortless Tabu gift set, generalizations can be made, say people who specialize in the psychology of men and women. Gifts mean different things to men and to women.

Women may consider men inferior in this department, but that is rather like blaming a victim, in the opinion of psychologist Ronald Levant, who is on the faculty at Cambridge Hospital / Harvard Medical School. He is the author of “Masculinity Reconstructed” (Dutton, 1994).


“Men and women are socialized differently and develop different forms of empathy,” Levant says. “Men develop what I call ‘action empathy’--they can take the perspective of the other person, but they really don’t focus on what the other person feels. They focus on what they should do.”

This makes men great strategists, but, “When it comes to gift-giving, men aren’t particularly good at knowing how someone will feel about a particular gift. I think this is a source of a lot of confusion,” and men’s efforts are often misunderstood. “It’s sort of like asking men to do something they’re not well equipped to do without providing them the education to learn this skill.” (And empathy is a skill “that’s not that hard to learn,” he says.)

To women, gifts are about love, says Dr. Nada Stotland, a psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Chicago. To men, gifts more often are chores, “and you buy either something somebody needs . . . or it’s a social obligation, and you get something faintly suitable.

“To give a person a good gift, from the point of a woman, you have to have extreme empathy for that person--what would that person like, what would that person like and not buy themselves, how much can the person tolerate, because sometimes somebody doesn’t want something too extravagant--and weighing all those things, putting yourself in the shoes of the person and really thinking about that person’s personality, that person’s favorite colors, that person’s taste, that person’s lifestyle, etc.,” Stotland says.

Men, too, may have high expectations for gifts, says Robert Pasick, a psychologist in Ann Arbor, Mich., who works with men and is the author of “What Every Man Needs To Know” (HarperCollins, 1994).

“Most of the men I talk to find it easier to give gifts than receive them,” he says. “Men say that they don’t know what they want a lot of times, but on the other hand, they’re disappointed when they don’t get what they think they need. . . . I think men expect women to kind of be masters of understanding what it is they want.”


Men also tend to see the holidays as the domain of women, he says. “When they finally go to find something, they’re anxious about it. They pick up whatever’s there without really thinking it through.”

He notes, though, that some men he works with “seem to have really keen intuition” in this area. For those who don’t, he suggests that men put serious thought into their partner’s particular interests, rather than responding to advertising.