On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail heard from a colleague and her sister about the annual troubles—and occasional heartbreak—of shopping for a gift for their dad. Aymann realized he was just as bad. For guidance, they turned to Micky Onvural, chief executive officer of the men’s clothing company Bonobos. She explained why men are so hard to shop for, and why some men are uncomfortable with the whole idea of receiving gifts. The following is an excerpt from Micky and Aymann’s conversation and has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
Aymann Ismail: So what do men want as gifts?
Micky Onvural: That feels like a gajillion-dollar question.
I feel like I just put the spotlight on you.
You did. It’s really bright, particularly first thing in the morning. Yes, I think buying for men is really hard. I struggle with it. I market to men every day of the week for a career, and I still struggle with what to buy my dad, my brother, my husband.
If you struggle with it—
What hope is there for the rest of you?
Why do you think it’s so hard?
I think it’s hard because two things. One, I think men are terrible at articulating what they want.
I’m right. I know. It’s like I know men. I think the second thing is that when you think about a gift that a man really loves, it’s usually related to something that they are deeply passionate about. And nine times out of 10 if they have the means, and they’re passionate about it, they go get it for themselves.
And in my case, that normally happens a week before my husband’s birthday. And I’m like, “Now I’m really stuffed because now that thing I was going to get him, I can’t anymore.”
Seriously? Do you remember what you were going to get him?
Well, this happens all the time. So this happened most recently with the Apple Watch, the new Apple Watch. It’s my husband’s birthday tomorrow, actually. And so I was going to get him the Apple Watch.
And then he just went and bought it himself?
And then he went and bought it himself.
So frankly, I actually don’t have a backup plan right now, and I’ve got about 24 hours to figure it out.
So is shopping for men generally more difficult?
Yes. I think it is generally more difficult, because men are real creatures of habit. And what I mean by that is if a man finds a brand he loves, he’s going to stick with it. If a man finds an experience, or a passion, or a hobby, he sticks with it. And so quite honestly, you run out of gifts. Do you know what I mean? If someone’s passionate about technology, it sort of runs out after a while. And then I think the other thing that makes it really hard is, in my experience, men are what I like to call surgical strikers. So that is if they need something they will go search for it, and they will go buy it.
There’s not the same thing that you have with women where it’s about the experience of unwrapping the gift. And it’s about does it look pretty? Does it smell nice? Does it make me smell nice? Does it make me look pretty? And so there’s this very different dynamic when it comes to gifting, but it’s OK. I don’t think all is lost. I don’t think it’s that men are now resigned to having terrible gifts for the rest of their lives. I think that it’s about finding those passion points, and I think it’s about how do you turn those passion points into experiences.
For me, my favorite gifts are things that I’ll use all the time, but I’ll never think to buy for myself. Like, for example: My wife got me this big, fluffy, purple robe. And it’s so obnoxious, and it’s so bright, and it’s so soft and I wear it every single day of my life.
But you would never have gone out and bought it yourself.
Where do we even buy robes from? I don’t know. You know? I shop online. I’m not going to just go to like robes.com and pick up the purple one.
But this is my point about you. When you shop, you search for it.
I searched for a new pair of jeans. Whereas she probably searched either fluffy robes, because she was inspired by something, or she just went browsing.
I don’t know where it came from, but I remember it showing up and being like, “Oh, you got a new robe.” She’s like, “No, Aymann, that’s yours.” I was like, “Ooh, this is great.”
So why do you think it’s so hard for men to articulate things that they want?
I think it’s in part because they’re not conditioned to talk about what they need and what makes them happy. I do think that’s a big part of it. And so as a result, it expands from everything. From health care, and not talking about that, all the way through down to the somewhat mundane or trivial things in life—like a gift. So I asked my husband that question of, “What was the best gift I ever got you?” His response was, “Our kids.” Which was very sweet.
It was cheating, it was very sweet. But the point was that he didn’t want to talk about it.
I just think it feels a little crass to him. And I think that’s true for lots of men, that expressing that, because it seems so trivial, isn’t worth it.
So one of our co-workers, Danielle Hewitt, is stumped. She and her two sisters, they love their father so much, but they have no idea what to get him. The biggest problem is they don’t get to spend too much time with him. They live in New York, and he lives somewhere else, and he’s always traveling.
I think my advice to them would be actually to lean into the distance. And what I mean by that is they gift him something that reminds him of them once they’re apart. So whether that is photography, whether that is a memento from a childhood memory, or something like that. But I think that would be my first idea: How do you actually bridge that gap when they’re apart?
To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “Why Men Say They Want ‘Nothing’ for Xmas.”