#englishonthesideFriday, February 10, 2017
Ready for your Valentine?
For the Herald
Why Are Some Men Such Awkward Gift Givers?
Let Them Explain
Rob York was no more than 11 years old when he realized how terrible his father was when it came to buying gifts for his mother. One Christmas, it was a camera. The next, a handbag. He got used to watching his father’s awkwardness and his mother’s disappointment.
Mr. York promised to do better. But each year, he finds himself trying to find exactly the right thing for friends and family, which, he said, has put a strain on him (1).
“The older I get, the more anxiety I feel about gift giving,” said Mr. York, a 48-year-old executive at a nonprofit company in Brooklyn. “It’s a huge amount of stress, and it will go on for several weeks, until about five or six days before Christmas. The more Christmases that pile on (2), there is more anxiety.”
In the stereotype, indifference or ham-handed (3) ineptitude is at the root of a man’s difficulty when it comes to the ritual of gift-giving.
For men like Mr. York, who try to do the right thing, the very idea of giving and receiving gifts can spur (4) feelings of failure and self-doubt.
“I have it as bad as anyone,” said Lin Borkey, a web designer who lives outside Richmond, Va. “It’s always been an issue for me.” Mr. Borkey, 53, traced his problem to an event from childhood. It happened one Christmas Eve in a drugstore, where he watched a panicked man pulling anything and everything from the shelves with his daughter watching. With each thing he grabbed, he asked, “Do you think she will like it?”
“It was just the desperation that he had that made me have empathy for him,” Mr. Borkey said. “For some reason, it stuck with me my entire life, the stress that I knew he was feeling. Now I always second-guess (5) myself, even if I have the right thing in my hand. Rarely have I had a gift where I felt I nailed it (6).”
As a result, Mr. Borkey and his wife stopped exchanging gifts a number of years ago. But this year, he said, they may go back to it. “I feel like it’s something I need to continue to work on,” he said. “Because getting more and more stressed about this is not sustainable.”
Charity Wilkinson-Truong, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey, said that feelings of inadequacy are common in a culture that tends to correlate a gift with the devotion of the person giving it: “If you give something and don’t get the reaction you want, you ask yourself, ‘What does this mean for our relationship?’ even if nothing’s wrong.”
Néstor Gómez has a different problem when it comes to gifts. “My father always said something like, ‘Money is always tight and you have to be smart with your money, and you are going to spend your money in a good way,’” said Mr. Gómez, 44, who, as a child, received clothing or other practical items. “I always look at the practical side of the gifts. He took the magic and joy out of it, I guess, because he taught me that when you give a gift, it has to be a practical gift.”
“It made me not a good gift giver,” Mr. Gómez added. “I have never really been a really good gift giver and have a hard time when someone gives me something. It’s usually a really awkward situation for me.”
Steve Ellis, a 45-year-old graphic novelist, has come to realize he is tone-deaf (7) when it comes to gift giving. His go-to (8) present for his wife used to be flowers, which seems nice — if you ignore the fact that she has made her living as a gardener and landscape designer.
No matter the occasion, and no matter how hard he tries, Mr. Ellis said, his attempts usually end in disaster. “I never know what to do,” Mr. Ellis said. He added that he is also ill at ease (9) when receiving presents. “I’m flabbergasted (10) that they thought of it. I feel guilty for not thinking of giving something back.”
Mr. Parker, who makes it a point to (11) pay attention to his wife’s style and taste, was once successful with gifts to his wife because he devoted all his time to that. He says he’s tried to hold himself to that successful standard (12) but never quite attained it again. “Thirteen years into a marriage, with two kids, we are tired, and all the extra money is going to the kids, and that kind of romance is a little more elusive. You are just trying to do something nice for your spouse, but you don’t have that opportunity to be your best self.
“There is that feeling, particularly when nothing comes to mind of what to get, of: ‘Am I fresh out of ideas (13) here? Do I not know my wife well enough to know what she wants this year? Am I not as in tune?’ You want to still believe you can sweep her off her feet (14) every now and then on special occasions. But right when you are in the throes (15) of a young family, it’s a lot harder to do the sweeping.”
Adapted from a story by Sridhar Pappu, The New York Times
“put a strain on him” (1)
If a situation or a person puts a strain on you, you are burdened or overloaded with that. The last unfavourable medical report put a strain on his family.
“pile on” (2)
“To pile on” or “to pile up” is to accumulate, or increase something by a large amount, abundantly or excessively, as in Work is piling up. We’ll have to stay overtime the whole week.
When a person is described as “ham-handed,” or “ham-fisted,” they are believed to be graceless, clumsy, inept, careless to do things in an unskilled way when using their hands (literally) or when dealing with people or situations (figuratively), as in a ham-fisted administrator. It can also be used to describe a course of action, as in a ham-handed way to delay with the complaints / a ham-handed apology.
A “spur” is anything that urges action or speed, as those used on rider’s boots to urge horses to move. Used as a verb, it means “to promote, stimulate, encourage” as in Governments cut interest rates to spur demand.
The first meaning of “second-guess” an action or a decision is to criticise it or question it, usually after the consequences are known. There’s another, very different meaning of the verb which is “to try to predict or anticipate, to guess what somebody will do,” as in She’s always trying to second-guess her mother-in-law. With the reflexive pronoun as object, it means that you doubt yourself, that you aren’t completely confident of your actions or decisions. For instance, when you make a decision and then you start to worry and to think that another decision might have worked better, you are second-guessing yourself. Stop second-guessing yourself and your performance will improve noticeably.
“nailed it” (6)
When you feel “you nailed it,” you feel you have been successful in getting something right, with no mistakes. Good luck on the test, I hope you nail it! This is an alternative to the longer, probably less conversational complete saying: “to hit the nail on the head.”
When a person is “tone-deaf,” they are unable to distinguish differences in music. But, the figurative sense given in this article and in other contexts as well is “unable to appreciate or understand different situations or other people’s concerns.” The club’s board of directors is completely tone-deaf to fans’ genuine complaints.
Commonly used in connection with people, the “go-to” person is the one that is relied on for expert skill. He’s our go-to guy in a management crisis. The “go-to recipe,” or “the go-to present” can be relied on as well, to bring satisfaction or good results.
If you feel ill-at-ease, you feel uncomfortable, not relaxed about a situation or circumstance, usually related to social occasions. Large parties make me feel il at ease. I prefer smaller get-togethers.
Overwhelmed with shock or surprise, as in We were flabbergasted by the news that she was going to give birth to triplets! Words containing the word “dumb” (i.e. temporarily unable to speak, speechless) are synonyms of this adjective to describe the same sensation: dumbfounded, dumbstruck.
“makes it a point to” (11)
When a person makes it a point to do something, they take particular care to make sure that it happens since they treat that as important or essential. She makes it a point to say good morning to everyone she goes past. The empty pronoun “it” doesn’t carry any meaning in this string, its only function being the syntactic need to anticipate the infinitival phrase, which has been postposed.
“to hold himself to that successful standard” (12)
This man who’s tried to hold himself to that successful standard is always expecting that level of performance or response on his part. This usually happens when the person has already proven that they are up to those expectations.
“fresh out of ideas” (13)
You are out of ideas when you have used all of your ideas up and you are left with none. “Fresh” or “clean” are added to the expression “out of” to mean “recently” and “completely” respectively. These last two words that usually behave as adjectives play the role of adverbs to emphasise another phrase. Consider the following: I clean forgot. He’s fresh from school.
“sweep her off her feet” (14)
When a person “sweeps you off your feet,” they make you become completely in love with them, as in You expect to get swept off your feet on Valentine’s Day. However, the expression may only involve feelings of attraction and admiration. He was hoping to sweep her off her feet, but she just laughed.
“in the throes of” (15)
When a person is experiencing a particularly difficult situation, going through hard times or dealing with something painful, and they are deeply involved in it, they may be said to be “in the throes of,” say, economic collapse, divorce, school exams, giving a formal dinner. The country is in the throes of a general election / We are in the throes of moving house at the moment. The word “throe,” a key word in the expression, means: a severe spasm of pain, as for example during childbirth or dying. In the context of the idiom, the meaning of the word has lost much of its depth.
Do not look a gift horse in the mouth
Christmas and Epiphany have gone by and on these two dates, many people engage in gift-giving, buying presents for a significant number of relatives and friends. How are you getting ready for St. Valentine’s if you are one of those people?
It is the thought that counts, isn’t it!? Or, more idiomatically, “do not look a gift horse in the mouth.” In any culture and on any occasion, if you receive a gift, you do it nicely, without criticising any aspect of the present.
The horse still appears in two more expressions, an idiom and a proverb, which are related to gifts. “A gift horse” is something that you obtain at no charge, but not without a cost; this has its origin in the scheme of the wooden horse that the Greeks gave the citizens of Troy, as a present because they had lost in the conflict. But there was an ultimate consequence of accepting this gift. From the same story, the proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” warns people against anybody – usually a person who you do not get along well with – who offers something too nice to you. When the rival company invited all his employees to a Christmas party, Tom's first impulse was to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, but then he decided that it was a good idea to get together to smooth things out. A very common current saying to express the same warning is “there’s no free lunch.”
So, it is apparent – as suggested by idioms connected with gifts and presents- that gift-giving is not just a matter of buying a token and making a speedy delivery of it. It is connected to emotions even if we think it is not. Give the wrong gift and you will be made to feel frustration. Nail it and you are the next action hero. Forget about showing up with one, and your chances of survival are very slim.
If you feel identified with the men in the article, and you find it difficult to find gifts even for people whom you know well, you can always find a “gift token” or a “gift voucher,” which may prove less thoughtful and personal but quite practical. There’s always the possibility to return or exchange “unwanted” gifts. Some people may find “regifting” quite easy when they do not like a present they receive.
If, on the other hand, you do not feel like any of the men speaking about their tribulations when trying to get a thoughtful present, you may be one of those people who enjoy engaging in “gift giving” and think that “it is always better to give than to receive.” Go for it and enjoy it!