Late Holiday Shopping Brings Home a Bundle of Revelations


December 24, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- On the seventh day before Christmas, the couple went out together to shop for presents. And came home with a bundle of revelations.

Until then, mind you, the pair appeared to be a very model of compatibility. They shared everything from a passion for calamari to an impatience with Mario Cuomo.

No predetermined sex roles skewed their partnership. Indeed, they were capable of sharing a kitchen, a checkbook and a tennis court without contemplating spouseicide. Who would have guessed that a gender gap of massive proportions would come unwrapped over gifts?

This is what happened: They entered the store, side by side. He walked directly toward a display case, spotted a pair of earrings for his daughter, checked the price tag and said -- this is a quote -- ''These are nice. I'll buy them.''

The entire elapsed time of this shopping trip? About 43 seconds.

It is entirely possible to regard this as normal -- if you belong to the subset of human beings who also think it's normal for 250-pound men in padded uniforms to make a living crashing into each other to move a ball down a field. She, however, was stunned.

This is how the woman would have done it: She would have 1. checked out every item in the store; 2. agonized over whether this daughter already had a pair of round earrings; 3. held the blue color up against the lavender; 4. checked the round against the square; 5. thought about the implications of one daughter's earrings against another daughter's scarf; 6. worried about blue, asked for cherry red; 7. wondered if there were another pair on sale; 8. picked the black ones.

Minimum elapsed time? 43 minutes, including a break for aspirin.

The couple thus discovered after these many years what every Christmas salesperson learns their first season on the job. By and large, women go shopping; buying is just the end result. Men go buying; shopping is the dreaded necessary means.

In any given year, most of the woman's friends approach Christmas shopping as a marathon event of 26 days and 26 malls duration. Most of the man's friends approach it as a three-day --. They start later, panic harder and purchase faster.

The woman devised a sexual Santa quiz: One friend at work bragged recently about a one-day blitz, breaking the record for presents-per-hour. Another friend admitted to collecting goodies all year -- just a few more to go. Check the gender on your answer sheet.

The woman wonders if there is any research to explain this sexual gap in consumer style. Is it possible that it's all nature, not nurture? Her foreplay, his focus? Perhaps it's a gift of the Chromosome Magi -- XX for shopping, an XY for buying.

What would the sociobiologists have to say? Would they pin it on our ancestors? His anthropological forebears were geared to pursue any mammoth that came into view. Hers went cruising the Designer bushes, picking only the ripe berries out of the patch.

The right-brain, left-brain crowd might find the dividing line in the cortex. On the right side, women regard shopping as an art, while on the left, men regard it as an analytical chore. She wants to be creative; he wants to get the job done.

And what spin would modern gender-watchers put on the shopping differences? According to the current cultural divide, men are directed toward goals and women toward relationships. He wants to make a decision; she wants to make everyone happy.

Maybe men see a shirt on the counter, while women see a relationship. What does this shirt say about how well I know someone, understand them, can give what they want?

Surely it takes less time to buy a tie than an emotional statement. A 43-minute gap if there ever was one.

By the time the couple has returned home, packages in hand, the woman has turned a shopping trip into a sociological tract. But sorting out her bundles and revelations, it now occurs to her that maybe this is just a case for Single Sex Shopping.

There is, you see, a postscript to their seasonal adventure. In the kitchen, he takes out the results of his speed-shopping and pauses to wrap them with meticulous, time-consuming care. She takes out her carefully chosen presents and sloppily scotch-tapes them into their wrappers with abandon.

So much for small-motor coordination and chromosomes. One good thing about gender roles, she thinks. They can almost always be exchanged.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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