Fellas, is it gay to get your bro a Christmas present? Will people think you, y’know… care about your bud? That you put actual thought into something he might like? That, God forbid, you wanted to non-sarcastically let him know that he’s been a really good friend this year? Nah, best to just forget the whole thing and go back to aggressively crossing the streams at the homemade urinal in his garage (no homo!).
But let’s say you do want to get him something because you — gulp — like him and appreciate his friendship. How should you go about it? We asked a gift-giving professional and an expert on male psychology and friendships, because it’s not Christmas and/or a male friendship unless you needlessly overcomplicate everything.
Beginning a New Holiday Tradition
The fundamentals of getting a gift for a buddy are the same as they are for any other gift you’re giving during the holidays. “Gift-giving should always be an easy, fun exchange between friends,” says Aileen Avery, gift expert and author of Gift Rap: The History and Art of Gift Giving. Avery explains that the holidays are the perfect time to begin a gift-giving tradition, but only begin one if you feel like it’ll be welcome and if you want to get them something. “If it feels awkward, then perhaps your friendship isn’t at the gift-giving stage yet,” Avery says, and that’s okay.
As men, we’re not really conditioned to be giving out gifts to each other. As Avery explains, “Boys are taught to give gifts to teachers, parents and siblings from a very young age just as girls are, but at some point, boys stop giving gifts as frequently and girls continue. Some studies have shown that — generally speaking — women connect through emotions and men through shared experiences, which is why women think about their friends and want to express their love more often than men.”
If you decide that you want to begin a tradition, Avery says, “Guys, in particular, tend to give alcohol as first gifts, because, let’s face it, perhaps that six-pack will be shared.” Alcohol is a safe, manly, not-too-vulnerable first step in a gift-giving tradition, so if you’re weirded out by the whole thing, get your bud a six-pack or an exclusive Christmas beer from his favorite craft brewery — that kind of stuff can be done without too much emotion attached.
Categories of Gift-Giving
If the standby gift of booze isn’t what you want to exchange — either because they don’t drink or because you want to get a little more personal — it helps to consider what kinds of gifts you can give. “The kinds of gifts should be based on the type of friendship and any shared experiences,” Avery explains. While there’s nothing official about this and there’s plenty of crossover gifts, there are generally four main types of gifts to be exchanged among guys, says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and the author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. The four categories are: a generic joke gift; a serious gift for a guy you don’t know too well; a serious gift for a close friend; and an inside joke gift.
Category #1: The Generic Joke Gift. This one’s easy: Something you might get for a male officemate that you’ve picked out of the secret Santa hat. Imagine an item you might see at Spencer’s — that’s what this category is generally about. Dirty jokes or some mug with a quote from Homer Simpson on it is the easiest type of gift because it’s not too personal and the gratitude from the recipient is usually expressed with laughter.
Category #2: The Serious Gift for a Guy You Don’t Know Too Well. This one’s a bit more personal. Because there’s no laugh, there’s some transparent caring in the moment. A gift like this is generally something generic that everyone needs or will use. Laura Fabrizio, gift-giving expert of Coastal Concierge, explains that things like a nice pair of gloves or a scarf can be given to anyone, including your guy friends.
Practical gifts — or useful gifts — may work here too, especially for guys that are hard to buy for. Avery explains, “Men don’t shy away from practical gifts. If a man’s friend needed a power tool, he would see no reason not to gift it, but if that same man gave his wife a vacuum cleaner, he might be sleeping on the couch that night.” Whereas a practical gift for your partner usually fails because it’s impersonal, for a guy friend, it’s just the opposite. It doesn’t say “I had to get you something,” like it does with a spouse — instead, when given to a guy, a practical gift says, “I know that you needed this, so I wanted to get it for you.” The gift-giving gesture alone isn’t expected in a guy-guy friendship, so practical gifts are fine because the gesture alone is generous.
Category #3: The Serious Gift for a Close Friend. “I know you, and I know your tastes,” says Greif, explaining the serious gift for a good buddy. If the person’s a history buff, you can buy them a book about the Civil War or a campaign button from their favorite president. If they’re into comics, perhaps a vintage issue you know he doesn’t have. Avery adds, “One guy I know is an avid camper, and he and his male friend are always giving each other some sort of camping gadget — of which there are thousands — so they’ll never run out.”
This type of gift speaks to the person, and because of that, it may be the most difficult type of gift to give: There’s no joke to laugh off the emotional nature of the moment. It’s a gesture that purely says, “I care about you,” so it’s usually the most emotional type of male gift-giving and it will likely only be given between guys who don’t struggle with showing their emotions.
Unless it’s alcohol, which, once again, occupies a unique place here. Getting your buddy a pricey bottle of scotch that you know he loves can be heartfelt and personal, yet still “manly.” So if your friendship is tight and you want to buy a gift, yet you’re still a bit uncomfortable about it, booze is still the old standby.
Category #4: The Inside-Joke Gift. This one is really a combination of all of the above, which is why it might be the most effective kind of gift to give to your bro. It’s got the heartfelt significance of serious gift-giving, yet it still evokes a laugh, which helps to cover up the emotion of the moment. “Inside jokes are great for gift-giving,” Avery explains, because they’re funny, yet still speak to the individual.
So if you find a bottle of that rare brand of tequila that you know made your old roommate blackout in college, that’s perfect. Or maybe it’s something that reminds them of the most quotable of your favorite movies together. If he loves The Office, buy him a Dundee; if you two always used to watch The Sopranos together, get him a baseball cap with the “Bada Bing!” logo on it. Gifts like this generally don’t serve a purpose like the practical gifts do, but they do speak to the individual and are especially good when they speak specifically to your friendship and the memories you’ve shared. The goal with this kind of gift is to say “I care,” but still get the laugh.
What to Avoid and What to Remember
Getting gifts for your guy friends isn’t quite the emotional minefield that spouse gift-giving can be, but there are two main points to be aware of. One is that guys can get competitive with gift-giving: Because we tend to compete in everything, gift-giving can also fall victim to this, so if you find yourself trying to one-up your buddy’s gift year after year, you should either take a step back and remember why you’re doing this, or maybe even step away from the tradition altogether. If it’s not fun anymore and all you’re doing is competing, you’re not really getting the point.
Finally, don’t force it. If your friendship isn’t ready for gifts yet, that’s okay, you can try next year. If your friendship is never right for gift-giving, that’s okay too. Just remember that when giving gifts to anyone — even your bros — the idea is to give the gift in the spirit of giving. That’s always the most important part — even if you’re just buying your buddy a bottle of booze.