Thought of the Day, grand romantic gesture department

Gifts shouldn’t be about what you want someone else to do, or be.

vintage photo of a man in a pierrot costume playing the banjoSo, dear reader: what unexpected gifts have you received that you still remember fondly? Would an anonymous banjo ever have simply made your day? Or would it freak you right out to the point that you would change cities and your name?

I ask because it appears that there are some people like the anonymous banjo gift guy at Metafilter who really are confused about how gestures that work well in romantic comedies actually play out in real life.

Parting thought for the parents amongst us: how well do your kids react to totally unexpected gifts that they’ve never dropped you any hints for?

Categories: ethics & philosophy, relationships

30 replies

  1. That wasn’t Romantic Comedy that was stalking.

  2. You know that article is a parody, right?
    That said it’s sad that things like that do actually happen.

  3. The wording of the post and the first comment made it seem like maybe not, so I thought I’d check.
    It is interesting that something like this can be a humourous parody article as if it’s common sense that that kind of logic doesn’t actually work, when there are plenty of people who really do think that if they’re persistent enough that person who hates them will one day realise their real feelings of love. Even if it’s not taken quite to the extent in that article, people do follow that logic to disasterous consequences.

  4. I really like recieving gifts that have a bit of the giver’s tastes in them. That is, while it’s always lovely when someone takes your tastes into consideration, I like receiving gifts that I nonetheless wouldn’t have chosen if I was buying for myself — because then it really does become more of a personal exchange, rather than just a transfer of property.

  5. I only see one link above that one, and I thought the point of it was just to give the source of the quote as good etiquette, not direct our attention to read that source before the link to the onion article. It looked to me as if the onion article was the entire impetus and point of the post, hence the confusion over whether it was linked as a parody or not. Sorry about that, I’ll keep it in mind when I’m reading further posts here.

    • For absolute clarity then, let me lay it out: when I title a post something “of the day” and include a block of quoted text right at the beginning, then it is the blockquote that is the major point of the post.
      Isn’t that how everybody does it?

  6. I’m used to reading quotes as something relevant and interesting to begin a chapter/post with before getting to the point that the quote refers to, not as a link to the actual point.

    • Well I’ve edited the post for clarity then, because this has ended up being a really irritating derail. (edit)I’m also rather astonished that you could read a post full of questions and think that one link was actually the point, rather than all the questions. And that one of the questions being about an anonymous banjo (edit the second: in a post illustrated with a romantic icon holding a banjo) didn’t lead you to do some more reading for context.

  7. I read the original question at MeFi and… my God. If a man from my past gifted me a banjo because “I can think of nothing in this world more beautiful than this girl playing the banjo. I mean, Christ, just that mental image of her sitting under a tree in spring sunshine, picking a banjo. That is something I would keep until the worms picked it from my rotting brain.” …
    … I would honestly fear for my safety. The fantasy is normal and fine, but the urgent need to act on it is not.
    The nicest gift I’ve ever gotten was a gift I never did get because the arrangements unfortunately never panned out. My husband was planning on telling me to pack up enough clothes for a few days and taking me out to the car. He would then drive me to New York to visit my long-time best Internet friend I had never had the chance to meet (in physical space). I wanted so bad to be able to visit her, and the surprise element is so beyond his normal style — he is not a “romantic” at ALL (I’m only about 2% romantic, so it works) — that it was just all the more special.
    But the meaningful gifts I’ve received came from people who had an established and current relationship with me. Coming from a random person it wouldn’t have any meaning. It’s the knowledge of a person that creates the meaning in a gift. And having more knowledge of a person than the person wants you to have — or presuming information about the person that the person would not allow — makes it disturbing and invasive.

  8. @Beppie

    I like receiving gifts that I nonetheless wouldn’t have chosen if I was buying for myself — because then it really does become more of a personal exchange, rather than just a transfer of property.

    I can see the attraction in that with someone who you are in a current relationship with (as Amandaw points out, this is a non-trivial distinction!). It opens up possibilities of doing new things together. I still wouldn’t be very impressed if either a random person or an ex gave me an expensive gift that corresponded to their fantasy about me rather than something I’d expressed any interest in.

  9. My partner & I call those gifts bowling balls, in reference to Homer’s gift to Marge.

  10. Of course that was even worse than a fantasy about what Marge would like for a present – Homer’s idea was that she wasn’t supposed to like it so he would get to use it instead. Which is consciously selfish jerk behaviour rather than deluded selfish romantic behaviour.

  11. My father-in-law once gave my mother-in-law a chainsaw for Mothers Day. To be fair I gather she also wanted the household to own a chainsaw but it’s a better story if one doesn’t mention that aspect 😉
    Adam and I occasionally give each other “chainsaws” particularly of the TV series DVD variety, which is fine as we have pretty similar tastes. The recipient will usually open the gift, grin and say “Chainsaw?” To which the giver will sheepishly reply “Maybe…”
    My daughter’s main Christmas present last year was completely unexpected, we gave her a table easel/art supplies box with paints, brushes etc and a set of Derwent water colour pencils. It’s been a huge hit. All three of my kids will often ask for “a surprise” when asked what presents they would like, the challenge to deliver on that is growing as they get older.

  12. Gifts shouldn’t be about what you want someone else to do, or be.
    The first gift my father ever bought my mother, for their first Christmas together, was… a vacuum cleaner.
    You can never get too much objectification for Christmas, is what I say.
    One of my favourite Not Always Rights, on the topic of bad gift decisions.

  13. My then-boyfriend (now partner and father of our child) once came home from work and gave me a rubber chicken he had bought on the way, for no reason whatsoever .
    I named him Herbert.
    I have pictures of Herbert… with various of my friends, in the local city, on our road trip to Melbourne, in Paris, London, Liverpool, on the plane, with various celebrities at Madame Tussauds, bopping the unwaxy and very real Sir Terry Pratchett on the head… Herbert’s been around. He’s been living in my son’s toybox for the last little while. I think it’s almost time to pull him out, give him a bubble bath (he likes those) and take him on another trip somewhere.
    I still tell people: Most. Romantic gift. Ever.
    For real. Tops impersonal choclates, jewellery, lingerie and stuffed animals any day of the week.

    • @Aphie, that strikes me as a gift on the basis of “I bet she’ll get a kick out of this” and it didn’t require anything from you other than (hopefully) enjoyment of its possibilities.
      It’s not a banjo, which is difficult to master. Rubber chickens generally require a small degree of aplomb in the flourishing thereof, and nothing more.
      I’d love to see any pics you might have of Herbert bopping Pterry.

  14. The person who pointed out that the original poster on the MF thread was in the throes of Manic Pixie Dream Girl-itis was spot on. I’ve known people who get this urge for “grand gestures”, and it is always, no exceptions, about making themselves look good. The people who really make grand gestures of generosity usually have an exquisite sense of what’s appropriate, and don’t advertise.
    The most unexpected gift I got was when my husband arranged for the last leg of a flight back to the US from the UK for me (we had been apart a month) to go first class. That bit I knew – but what I didn’t know was that he had flown down to SC to meet me so we could spend the flight together. That was romantic. On the other hand, an anonymous banjo (and I’m a musician) would immediately make me go “stalker!”.
    I can’t watch romantic comedies any more, because the behaviour of the men is so stalkeriffic. And it’s not reciprocal – men don’t like it when women pursue them single-mindedly, as the comedy “All About Steve” mocks. It’s got way too much of the predator-prey vibe about it – once the predator has made his choice, the desires of the prey have nothing to do with the outcome. And Nice Guys[tm] buy into this idea – if he wants her, then she should date him. *brrrrr!*

  15. Here is a tale of two bikes.
    Bike no. 1: a present from an ex-boyfriend, a road riding fitness freak. He built it himself, with a high quality Reynolds frame and all the very best bits. As light as a feather and with love built into it. That was the best present ever.
    Curse the bicycle thief that eventually took it away.
    Bike no. 2: Appeared in my Dad’s office from a younger man he had been mentoring and who was getting more stalkerrific by the day. My Dad was in a real panic and had to make sure Y.M. understood he had to take the thing back before some kind of conflict of interest developed. Eventually he had to sever his connection with Y.M. b/c it was all getting too creepy.

  16. It’s not a banjo, which is difficult to master.

    A brazen slur on rubber chicken masters!

  17. Oh wow, that’s my comment!
    I couldn’t get over the original poster thinking that making it not creepy would make it a wonderful gesture. Even if women didn’t worry about random gift meaning stalker, it would still be a bad gift because it’s nothing to do with the woman and everything to do with a fantasy.
    All of my ‘yay gifts’ are food related. Odd little ingredients. Cookbooks. I’m vastly uncomfortable with expensive gifts in general, particularly those that create a sort of performance aspect. Actually, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with a lot of gift giving. But the food stuff gets around that – it’s a practical yet frivolous and special thing that I can share. Although some people can fuck even that up (my mother in law manages to make gifts of vanilla and saffron less than awesome with her expectations).
    An anonymous banjo? I’d be freaking the fuck out and probably finding out who it really should have gone to.

  18. Getting any kind of anonymous gift would freak me out. There’s mention in the metafilter thread of a woman getting roses for a year from an anonymous person (later revealed to be her best friend). Apparently she was fine with this because roses have a cultural meaning and she liked them. That wouldn’t be my response: being sent something I like seems almost more creepy to me because it suggests someone is secretly keeping notes on who (they think) I am. A one time expensive banjo would be less uncomfortable than 52 bunches of $5 roses – each week I’d be reminded that I was part of someone’s fantasy, with no say in the matter and no real way to remove myself.
    For me, a gift is lovely because it is a manifestation of a valued relationship (which can have varying degrees of intimacy). So:
    Best gift: a tiny plastic airplane my three year old daughter gave me for Christmas. I’ve been traveling a lot and promised there’d be no more work trips in 2010. Nell gave it to me to remind me of ‘flying to other places’. I felt she understood me enough to offer something I’d never think to buy myself. A definite high point as a parent and as a recipient of gifts.
    Creepiest gift: a mix tape (back in the day) for Valentine’s Day, from one of those ‘nice guys’. Nothing overtly threatening but filled with songs I ‘should’ like (who wants to be improved?), on Valentine’s Day (who wants to be pressed into a romantic connection?), followed by a berating phone call when I didn’t immediately acknowledge receipt.
    Most romantic gift: my partner bought a weekend away to a place I had seen when driving by on a day trip, when we were first together. He was a student and paid down the amount by $10 a week, coming out of his Austudy, over the course of 9 months.
    My kids are four and three. When I get them a present they haven’t wanted and don’t like it simply doesn’t exit for them. They’re certain of their desires and disinterested in what other people think they should be, and so they seem to feel no pressure to pretend they like something, or to even accept it. I think it would be liberating.

  19. @tigtog – I flatter myself that rubber chicken flourishing requires a certain personality. The romanticism I saw in the gift was that the giver had perceived such a personality in myself – not out of HIS desire for me to be a Rubber Chicken Wielder (or banjo player) but because that was the sort of person I was. If I had received a banjo because I was the sort of person who would enjoy playing such an instrument – even if I never had – I would have been touched equally, I think – regardless of skill required in its mastery.
    I feel the creep factor comes in where
    1)it’s somebody else’s fantasy of the gift-receiver rather than a specifically perceived banjo-playing bent in herself by the giver
    2)the extravagance of such a gift from a relative stranger and
    3)past relationships haunting the gesture.
    I’d find a banjo from a perfect stranger who thought I SHOULD play it very odd and somewhere between rather creepy and quixotically whimsical, depending on the circumstances of its giving, the person, etc. From an ex-boyfriend, someone with whom I have been intimate (at least on an emotional and mental level, if not physical) at some point, the creep-factor would ramp off the scale, with overtones of ownership – which is enough to make me run very fast in the opposite direction, these days (been there, dated that Nice Guy).
    And alas, I have no actual boppage photographs online of Sir Pterry, but here is poised to self-bop, Herbert in hand: (will need mod magic, please)

  20. Kids and gifts? 12 months ago we gave our art-student daughter an iPod and our music-student daughter a digital camera. The gifts were dreamed of but not expected because of the expense, and so were a total surprise and a complete hit. Priceless!
    Me? Well, we also have quite a few chainsaws in our house (I love the expression and might borrow it, if that’s OK). But I think my favourite gift from my husband is a pewter brooch in the shape of a stingray, that he bought from a designer in Kaikoura NZ when we visited several years ago. It’s rather lovely and a great conversation starter. I had to put it away for a year or so after the Irwin incident (because people thought I was either in mourning or mocking, and I was neither), but now I wear it often. I love it for the memories of our family road trip through that part of the world.

  21. @mimbles
    Ha! I thought mine was the only family with a chainsaw story. My father gave my mother a chainsaw for her birthday after they got married. She had told him that she’d like something for the house as a present, since they didn’t have a lot of money, but at two months post-partum, was not pleased to have it insinuated that he expected her to be responsible for the firewood.

  22. Ooooh, that’s way into move-to-another-state-and-change-my-name territory. Although it would probably still make me personally uncomfortable, I can see how a much smaller gesture—for example, “I brought you this flower, because your smile brightens my day and I wanted to brighten yours”—could go over well with some people. But this… this is not about her at all.
    This does remind of the one romantic gesture I saw in a movie that I actually thought was sweet, though: In Stranger Than Fiction, when Will Ferrell’s character shows up to ask out Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, who owns a bakery, he’s carrying a box full of small paper bags and explains, “I brought you flours.”
    It works because it’s not expensive, which hints at the ownership issues that Aphie mentioned, it’s personal, and he’s asking her out face-to-face, on a sidewalk, in public (though at night, which could have been better), at her place of business, rather than leaving them on or or showing up on her doorstep at home, which, come on, we all know carries the not-so-secretly threatening undertone of “I know where you live.”

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