In Defense of Getting Your Significant Other a Terrible Present

Because let's face it: Starbucks gift cards are the Starbucks coffee of holiday presents. (Perfectly useful, but kind of boring.)
Publish date:
December 19, 2013
holidays, shopping, Christmas, gifts

When I was packing up to move from San Francisco to Chicago, my then-roommate picked up a box and peered at it.

"Is this a jewelry box?" she asked. "It's kind of…plain, isn't it?"

I hesitated. "Kind of," I said.

Before I could continue, she cracked it open. "WOOOOOOOO!" said the box, cheering wildly.

To her credit, she didn't drop it. "What the hell?"

"It's an applause box!" I said, grinning at her. "It supports all my bad decisions."

Useless? Likely. It's not actually a great jewelry box, since the speakers that allow it to clap whenever you open it take up most of the room inside that would generally belong to, um, jewelry. But it still came halfway across the country with me, as did my ransom note kit, my Unicorn Being a Jerk book and my collection of sexy mermaids. These are all gifts my best friends have gotten for me over the years, and though an undiscerning eye might find them bizarre or ugly, I treasure them. And, frankly, I think that as adults, we don't value "stupid" gifts enough.

I know that for a lot of people, gift-giving can be a stressful time, especially if you're in that nebulous space with someone where you're on the BFF Train but not sure which stop you're at.

Unlike, say, birthdays, holiday gift exchanging often carries a reciprocal feeling that's hard to let go of, even with people you're really close to. It's not usually a matter of dollars spent, although that can play into it -- it's often the cultural connotations the gifts carry.

If you've ever tried to buy a present for a friend you're trying to hide sneakingly romantic feelings for, you know that a sweater that said "Bros!" in the cold fluorescent light of a department store can suddenly take on unforeseen squishier connotations once it's in the middle of being unwrapped.

And of course, all this is even further complicated by the fear of getting someone something they'll hate.

According to a recent survey by PlentyofFish (which was kindly emailed to the xoJane editors), the holidays are apparently a prime time of year for idiocy in the form of gifting. While 55% of women said the worst gift they ever received from a partner was "tacky clothing or jewelry," 19% maintained that it was an "appliance" (not a bedroom appliance, one assumes).

Which I get, I guess, although the smoothie potential of a nice Cuisinart really holds a potent eroticism all its own. If you spend a lot of time and effort coming up with a nice gift for the boyfriend only to receive a Claire's stud earring 12-pack in return, that would be kind of a blow to the ego.

However, the answers to the "Worst gift ever" survey also included a "Who let the dogs out cookie jar," "bottle with expired salad dressing inside," "loaf of bread," "necklace that read 'sexy bitch' in rhinestones" (apparently so tacky it transcends the broader "tacky clothing or jewelry" category) and, my personal favorite, a "lion face pillow." Personally, I think those sound like amazing gifts.

Listen. If someone gave me a "rock that was found in the road" (another answer to the survey) and a helpless expression for Christmas, I would laugh for the next five hundred years. Would I be a little annoyed? Possibly. But I would still appreciate the ingenuity (and gutsiness) it took to wrap a rock up for a present in the first place.

Giving someone a "weird" gift is an amazing solution to all of the potential tension involved with reciprocal giving. At its best, it's an opportunity to demonstrate to someone that you know them and care about them enough to look beyond the standard "Starbucks gift card that I bought on the drive over here" fallback plan. At its worst, it's a chance to make your significant other -- or best friend, or housemate, or boss that you have an admittedly disconcerting level of hero-worship for -- laugh at your idiocy.

That "applause box" that I mentioned, for example, is one of my all-time favorite gifts, despite its admitted uselessness. First of all, it's undoubtedly a hilarious concept. But it also brings to mind the hours I spent wandering around campus with the friend who gave it to me as we fantasized -- at length -- about how great it would be to have a mobile laugh track follow us around. (This is probably not necessary to spell out, but both me and said friend are slight attention-cravers.) It's clear he thought it would crack me up, but it also sort of symbolizes our relationship.

It's the same thing with almost every weird or objectively terrible present I've received. The horrifying scarf TOK knit for me (pictured above) took time and effort, which I appreciate, and I smile whenever people stammer out comments along the lines of "That scarf sure is -- something," because TOK is one of the most fashionable people I know and the irony makes me laugh. And the Fall Out Boy tank top from El is probably not something anyone older than 19 should be caught dead wearing, but it reminds me of our days carpooling to work in San Francisco and blearily coming up with plot lines to short fiction based on their latest album.

Even stuff that my friends clearly knew I would hate, like bacon-flavored lip balm or tickets to see a community theater production of "Les Miserables," shows that they know me well enough to pinpoint exactly what will make me roll my eyes. Maybe I have a skewed view of affection, but I find that pretty touching.

So this holiday season, if you find yourself with a little extra income but stumped for gift ideas, why not go to Regretsy or Gadgets and Gear and pick out the thing that makes you laugh the hardest? If worst comes to worst, they can always give it back to you in revenge next year.

Tell Kate all about the weirdest presents you've received, either in the comments or on Twitter: @katchatters