How I learned to stop being a jerk and love the wish list

Some years ago (on another blog) I said some extremely stupid (and dickish) things about wish lists. One friend brought the dickish aspect to my attention, and I felt like a complete heel. As well I should have. I didn’t say what I said merely because I was a jerk1. I had reasons for feeling the way I did. But like any emotional baggage, we are seldom aware of just how off-kilter our perception is thrown by carrying it

I know the sources of some of my emotional baggage at that time about wish lists. Each year as the traditional giving holiday approached, I would receive requests from various distant relatives for a list of things I would like, or at least some suggestions of things I’d like to receive as presents. I certainly empathize with the frustration of not knowing what to get someone, but the problem that always arose with those is that the very relatives who most needed a list from me, often didn’t understand what most of the things I put on the list were2. I wasn’t intentionally being obtuse, I just use things they’ve never heard of. And when I did list things they understood, they thought it was strange—I couldn’t really want pens3 and paper, could I?

And don’t get me started on the time my Grandma decided that “desk toys or office supplies” meant a pair of Billy Basses8.

My other emotional baggage about wish lists runs a bit deeper. I suspect I know which relatives in my childhood instilled it, but I don’t recall any specific incidents. Whenever I resort to a wish list, there’s a tiny voice in the back of my mind admonishing me, “If you really loved/cared for this person, you wouldn’t need to resort to a list to find them a gift. You’d know what they needed or wanted.”

I know that guilt trip is b.s. If for no other reason than I know that the relatives who have given me truly bizarre gifts9 do actually love me—they just aren’t interested in the same things I am, and simply don’t know of the existence of all sorts of things I enjoy.

The truth is, even for friends that I know extremely well, spend a lot of time with, and share enough interests with that I understand about subtle and obscure things within their areas of interest, I don’t always know whether a particular thing I have found for them is something they already own14.

It was coming to grips with that—buying something that someone already owned15, that allowed me to start using other peoples’ wish lists mostly guilt-free. And the more I’ve done it, the easier it is to check wish lists. And, of course, there’s nothing that says I have to stick to the wish list if I find something that seems like the perfect gift.

The other thing that has really helped is my Mom getting over her web shopping anxiety. The first time she picked several things off of people’s wish lists, she was grinning and laughing with delight for days afterward. “It was stuff they wanted, even if I didn’t understand what they were! I didn’t have to worry it was the wrong thing!”

Mom also helped get me over my guilt for some of the expensive things on the list. “I figure that’s stuff you are thinking of buying for yourself someday. The wish list makes it easy for you to find later.”

I still do a lot of my shopping by trying to think of things the person would like. But it is soooooo nice to have the Wish List to check my instincts against!


1. Make no mistake, I was being a jerk. It’s just jerkiness wasn’t the only reason.

2. Sometimes I just didn’t think. Most of the people I socialized with knew that a “thumb drive” was a USB flash memory device that was usually smaller than your thumb and was extremely useful for transferring files from one person to another back before services like Dropbox or features like Airdrop became common. But I also worked with plenty of technical people who didn’t use or recognize the term “thumb drive.” So I shouldn’t have expected my relatives who thought that Windows XP was hard to use would know it.

3. I don’t write out on hard copy as much as I used to, but for most of my life before the advent of the iPod Touch I always, always, always had at least two writing implements in my pockets4. And a notebook, notepad, or sketchbook was always nearby. If I had my backpack, there would be several more pens and mechanical pencils, along with spare pencil leads, erasers, and other support mechanisms for those.

4. And about 99% of the time at least one of the writing implements in my pocket was a four-color pen5.

5. I started using 4-color pens on the debate team6 in high school, and quickly came to rely upon the ability to color code my notes7 as I was writing them.

6. Yes, I was that kind of nerd.

7. And also that kind.

8. And before you say, “Well, it could be a desk toy…” keep in mind that the whole point of a Billy Bass was to mount it to a wall!

9. Like the time I got an entire stack of accounting text books from someone because 1) they knew I liked books, and 2) they knew that back in college I had majored in Mathematics. Do you know how hard it is to explain to someone who is completely clueless about any of the sciences the difference between accounting (the administrative tracking of certain types of financial data) and mathematics (the academic study of axiomatic systems)10?

10. I didn’t say anything disparaging about the gift, it’s just that I was so confused when I opened it that my dismay was obvious to everyone watching. And then the person insisted that I explain why I didn’t love accounting11.

11. Switching to an Amazon Wish List helped a little bit with that relative’s confusion. They at least would see a picture and a product description of each item. Unfortunately, the ones most likely to ask for a list were also the ones who were afraid to order anything online. Not just that they were afraid of putting their credit card information into a computer, but they found an online shopping system too complicated to use12.

12. Which generated comments to the effect that they never knew how to find the things on my list, because nothing like any of the things on my list were ever at any stores with which they were familiar13.

13. Never mind that 4 out of 5 things on my wish list at any time are books and movies.

14. And as any of my friends will tell you, I am the absolute worst to shop for for that exact reason. This is why my husband imposed a rule on me some years ago that beginning a few weeks before my birthday through Christmas, I’m not allowed to buy myself anything other than food or clothes or the like.

15. Or several of us buying the same thing for a friend—often something that they already owned.

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