Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
It’s Valentine’s Day, 1968 and my mother is holding a heart-shaped box. She abruptly opens the cardboard container to reveal a pathetic looking array of chocolates—one piece partially gnawed—the rest untouched.
“You see this present?” my mother scowls. “Your dad gave it to me today.”
I’m not sure where she’s going with this, so I flash her a noncommittal smile—hoping that she’ll soon reveal why she looks like she wants to kick something.
“I want you to learn from this debacle. You’re going to be marrying soon, right? So here’s the point. Never, ever, ever give your wife a tacky present like this!”
Dad is sitting on the couch not ten feet away, pretending to read a TV Guide while his wife of twenty-eight years continues to bad-mouth him.
“What’s wrong with the present?” I ask.
“You have to ask?” she continues.
“I always heard that it was the thought that was supposed to count”—hoping to help my Dad snatch a scrap of dignity from what appeared to be the beginning of a public tongue lashing.
“Exactly!” Mom continues. “Your father gave it no thought whatsoever. First, I’m trying to cut back on sweets, so candy is a bad idea. Second, as far as candy goes, this stuff is ghastly. The dog wouldn’t eat it. You see those teeth marks? The dog spit it out. Third, your dad got this junk for free. He ordered fifty cases of motor oil at work, and as a prize the supplier gave him this box of chocolates.”
“It was twenty-five cases,” dad corrects her, as if clarifying this point is going to bolster his cause.
Mom continues, “Valentine’s Day is time for people to express their affection to the love of their life. That calls for thought. You can’t ask your secretary to run out and buy a silk scarf or dash into a convenience store at the last minute and buy a car deodorant or, worst of all, offer your loved one something you were given as a free prize and expect her to think: ‘How thoughtful!’
“You can’t be thoughtful without actually thinking. That means you have to pull your head out of the Gunsmoke reruns that you guys are connected to like some form of electronic IV and actually think about your loved one. You must ask yourself, ‘What would she think is lovely and thoughtful?’ If you buy her some last-minute, tacky little thing, you’ll be giving her one more reminder of the unsettling fact that she’s married to a guy who only thinks about her when the lights go down in the bedroom.”
“Please don’t continue that train of thought!” I mumble to myself as I silently proffer a prayer to be struck deaf.
“Do you see what I got him?” she asks as she pulls out a small box. “Your Dad has been asking for something to hold his tie clasps and cufflinks. I made this for him.”
And sure enough, it looked like Mom actually had made the box she was caressing. I’m not exactly sure what you call the contraption, but it appeared as if she had knitted Dad a shiny metal box out of steel wool.
“For a month I thought about what to get for him. And then for another month I made this all by myself.”
Mom continues to rant while I wonder (1) when will she finish with this diatribe? (One that she’s obviously been storing up for quite some time), and (2) Do you actually have to think about another person in order to be viewed as thoughtful?
Mom eventually stopped her inflammatory object lesson and huffed her way into the kitchen where she promptly prepared a lovely tuna casserole pressed into the shape of a heart. And as you’ve probably already guessed, I missed the point of what she had to say. At the time I didn’t think I missed the point, but I did.
I realized that I hadn’t been paying close enough attention to Mom’s advice two years later when I bought my wife of seven months a birthday present. I thought about the gift a lot. I looked in stores and pored through catalogs and I saved every penny I could squirrel away. Finally I found the perfect gift. It was an eight-track, quadraphonic tape player complete with speakers. It was exactly what I wanted. I coveted it. I prayed for it. I had to have it. So I bought it for her.
“What’s this?” my wife asked as she unwrapped the gift.
“It’s a quadraphonic eight-track, complete with speakers,” I squealed with the same enthusiasm I would have offered had I purchased her something that she actually wanted.
“I know what it is,” she countered. “But you don’t really think it’s my birthday present do you? You wanted this, but because it’ll play music that we’ll both listen to, you’ve convinced yourself that it’s actually a present for me. The truth is it’s for you. And you figured I wouldn’t have the nerve to call you on your little trick. Well, you were wrong.”
At first I denied her accusation. Me—thoughtless and selfish? What was she thinking? Now that I have the advantage of thirty-five years of hindsight, I can admit that I had been a tad insensitive. I knew she didn’t care one iota about anything quadraphonic. I had turned into my father despite my mother’s vehement warning. The present wasn’t a free box of chocolates, but it was selfish and thoughtless nevertheless.
So, how long do you actually have to think about something to be judged as genuinely thoughtful? Here are ten signs that you may have thought too little, too late. (I’m writing this mostly to guys. Yes, it could be that it’s a woman who has been thoughtless, but I’m not ready to accept that alternate universe as of yet.)
Your Gift May Be Thoughtless, Selfish, and Last Minute If:
1. The “flourish” attached to the ribbon consists of an ice scraper and a Slim Jim.
2. The contents are made of “Genuine Swiss Cho-Ko-Late”
3. It comes with either a scope or a shoulder holster.
4. In some magical way, it’s supposed to make it easier to clean the bathroom.
5. It can only be purchased in a six pack.
6. It’s supposed to be worn and is just slightly larger than a tea coaster.
7. It’s a ticket to an event that is advertised as some kind of “o-rama”
8. It comes in two colors: khaki and camouflage.
9. It’s a poem (that’s good), but a limerick (that’s bad) starting with: “There once was a hot babe from Ohio. . .”
10. The label says: “This purchase helps fund Girl Scouts world wide.”
Just as Euclid informed King Ptolemy that there was “No royal road to geometry,” it would seem that there is also no royal road to offering a thoughtful gift. Nothing short of actually thinking about what the other person might want (cleverly communicating your love and devotion) will ever imply that you’ve been thoughtful. And, by the way, buying your way there never works. It may assuage your guilt, but spending a lot of money in and of itself will never say “how thoughtful.”
So, what’s a person to do? And does it really matter? With any one gift, it’s probably no big deal. Everyone should be entitled the occasional brain embolism where they buy their fiancé a Chia Pet or Clapper. But in the aggregate, what you purchase—particularly the thought behind it—communicates volumes. My business partners and I have written two books about how to communicate when the chips are down, and now I write about how to communicate (nonverbally and from a distance no less) when the chips aren’t down—when you’re supposed to be on your best behavior. The key, of course, is that you communicate your thoughtfulness by thinking about the gift a lot. As you’re thinking, here are some clues.
If you can buy something that has to be ordered several weeks in advance, that’s a good thing. If it’s special, one-of-a-kind, and reasonably priced, this too is good. Clever helps. Something fitted uniquely to one of your loved one’s finer character traits is always a home run. Romantic, but not begging for an intimate encounter, is always a plus. Handmade is good (unless it’s a hand-written coupon offering X number of hours of your “dyno-love”—making it both self-serving and last minute). In short, an ideal gift would say: “I thought about it for a long time, I searched high and low for something I knew you’d really like, I bought it, here its is, and it’s for you and you alone.”
And what did I get my wife this year you ask? One thing’s for sure—it didn’t come with the purchase of fifty cases of motor oil. I don’t have that kind of a job.