Friday, July 15, 2011

Registering a complaint

Yesterday, on the train ride home, I sat down next to a girl I would guess was somewhere between five and fifteen years younger than me. I’m not basing that on looks, mind you, because my field of vision basically took in the fact of an empty aisle seat and a female person endomorphic enough not to spill over into it seated by the window, and then I sat down and continued reading my book. No, I’m basing the age estimate purely on the subject matter of her cellphone conversation, which centered around things like the busy social calendar of wedding season, and baby showers, and other domains primarily of interest to people in their 20s or maybe early 30s. I had an expansive opportunity to amass these context clues, because said cellphone conversation was carried on at the same volume one would use if one were at home alone and speaking over background noise, and the conversation lasted the entire 50 minute train ride.

Of course I found this girl’s blistering obliviousness a bit irritating, but also please note that I am not conflating that with my stab at her age. This is not an “oh those Gen Y-ers or Millennials are so self-absorbed and rude” screed. There’s plenty of rude Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers and Greatest Generationists to go around, too, and stupid knoweth no age. That said, man this girl was dumb. Above and beyond the whole conduct-a-too-loud-to-ignore-hourlong-conversation-on-a-crowded-train thing, part of her call jumped out at me when she said (pretty sure this is word-for-word) “Yeah, I didn’t want to get you anything off your gift registry because, you know, that’s so impersonal … but, I didn’t really know what you needed or wanted? Sooo …”

If you can't think of something nice to give, give nothing at all, right?
The crazy thing is, I’ve heard similar arguments before and they never fail to blow my mind. I know that some people, who by and large already have problems with feeling overly entitled to begin with, can abuse the hell out of the notion of gift registries, or turn them into testaments to a complete lack of common sense, or whathaveyou. But I think that gives registries a bad rap. On balance I think gift registries are awesome. Personally I always get a little stressed out around gift giving occasions because I know it’s the thought that counts but I would also like to think that I can get the person something they actually might like or need (or ideally both). I just find that to be much harder in practice than in theory.
I get where the opposite side is coming from, I do. If you are truly close to someone then you should know them well enough to know their likes and dislikes and possibly even anticipate their needs. It’s not hard to understand someone envisioning their strongest friendships as being so full of sharing and caring that Friend A knows engaged Friend B has already inherited Great-Grandmama’s 19th century china service for 12, but what Friend B could really use in health and happiness would be a crepe pan to remind her of their senior-year trip to Paris, and perfect wedding gift QED. By which I mean I can relate to wanting that scenario to happen, but I also think it’s wildly improbable. So get over it.

I know, the whole gift registry process inserts a department store’s digital inventory system as a middle-man in the “I care about you, I want to get you something special” configuration, but I still don’t get the whole “impersonal” thing. It’s extremely personal, since the person you want to get the gift for is the person who set up the registry in the first place! (Unless you are more of a friend of the groom, because obviously it was his fiancée who set up the registry, but assume same-difference for the sake of argument.) If you knew me, personally, only well enough to know I love books, and you wanted to get me a gift, you could go to a bookstore, go to the new releases table, pick up a best seller, and deliver it to me while saying “I thought you might like this.” OR you could go to my Amazon wishlist and get one of the hundreds of things I’ve put there myself. Which of those approaches is more “impersonal”?

Gift registries can be annoying, or vulgar, or any number of other offenses. But if you accuse them of being “impersonal” I think what you really mean is “I am feeling sorry for myself because I won’t have a chance to show off what a great giver I am”. Although that’s not really true, because as much as I appreciate registries for providing me with exactly the kind of crutch I like to lean on, I also fully think that no one should feel obligated to stick to the registry exclusively (for that matter I don’t think anyone should feel locked into giving a gift at all, and brides who bitch about people who gave them cheap, off-registry gifts are among the ‘zilla-est) if inspiration leads them a different way. So what kills me is the kind of person who can say “Oh, I have NO idea what I’m going to get Madysen for her wedding, I just know I don’t want to get anything off the registry because that’s lame” and not recognize the slightest incoherence in that train of thought.

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