Christmas, a male friend told me, is hell for men. "We're completely out of our element buying presents for women," he said. "We never know the right size, we're embarrassed to buy lingerie, the prices are high, people in the stores push us around." And, he added emphatically, "Women are terrible to buy for them they're so damed picky. They never like anything useful."

Maybe he's right. When I did my own Christmas shopping one weekend this month, I watched the men who were also shopping. On the whole, I decided, they weren't doing too badly.

At the perfume counter in a large department store there was a collegeage man dressed in denim jacket and jeans. He stood, patiently waiting his turn, clutching a Christmas list on notebook paper: "Dad -- tools; Cindy -- cassettes; Donna -- Ciara perfume."

A saleswoman with long, brassy hair, plum-colored nails and rings on eight fingers, finally waited on him. He wanted some Ciara perfume, he said.

It must have been for Donna.

The salewoman automatically corrected his pronunciation of Ciara (Chee-ara) and presented him with a large gold package. "This is it. It's perfume for $12.50," she said.

He rocked a little from foot to foot. "do you have cologne?"

Another, larger gold package was laid languidly beside him. "It's $11.50," the saleswoman said, inspecting her nails.

The man stared at it for a few seconds. The saleswoman began to tap her fingers lightly against the glass counter. Then she looked up, on sudden inspiration. "We also have a smaller cologne for $8.50," she said, producing a third gold package.

He brightened. "Yeah -- that's fine." As the salewoman rang up the sale, he announced, "This is for my sister. That's why, you know, I didn't want to spend much money." He laughed nervously. The saleswoman only smiled and said nothing. Donna's name was crossed off his list.

In the women's nightwear section of the same store, there were a father and two adolescent sons paying for a long blue football jersey nightgown with the number 20 on it. The saleswoman wrapped it in a delicate paper of pink and-lavender, with plastic pastel flowers on the top. I wondered about the woman they were buying the football jersey for: Would she have perferred a slinky black negligee? Did she like football? Was she a good sport? Did she like the number 20?

Further on, a short, dapper man in wheat jeans was being helped by a saleswoman whose artfully arranged hair pointed toward the ceiling. They were trying to agree on a sweater to go with a pair of designer jeans.

"Now, what size did you say your wife is?" the saleswoman asked, flicking through the hangers of sweaters.

The man looked up, frowning. "Size? For what?

Sweaters, she told him patiently.

"Oh, an 11."

"Well," the saleswoman said triumphantly, "then she would wear this sweater in a large size." She displayed a hideous shaggy sweater in competing stripes of rose, gold, turquoise and black. It could have been designed by someone on-hallucinogens. I hoped he wouldn't take her advice.

He didn't. "No," he told her firmly. "She doesn't like to wear anything in a large size."

No less was the man I saw a few minutes later, in the sportswear department. He was portly, with carefully combed hair, and stood muching from a bag of chocolate cookies. Beside him were two boys. One I assumbed to be his son, since he was also eating from a sack of cookies.

The man asked a tall, chicly-dressed saleswoman for a navy blue blazer in a size 8. She told him that they carried only junior sizes; he would have to take either a 7 or a 9. She would suggest a 9. It was always better to go with larger sizes.

The man was outraged. "I think you're only guessing about that," he accused the woman.

"C'mon, Dad. That's close enough," urged the boy with the cookies.

"Nope," the man said with finality. "I've been buying clothes for this woman for 16 years, and I've never had this problem before. I'm sticking with a size 8." He stalked out with sons in tow.

Further down the mall, in a jewelry store, were two high-school boys dressed in windbreakers and jeans. They were bent intently over the counter, carefully inspecting its contents. A salesman in a suit and wide tie and hair carefully blown dry, waited on them.

"Now, look at this," he said, fingering a small ring. "That's not just cut glass you're looking at. It's real diamond clip we've got here. And for only 70 bucks, too. It's not bad to get a diamond for 70 bucks these days."

He squinted at the ring, and added, "And . . . it's really kind of pretty when you look at it."

The boys inspected the ring. They debated whether the girl friend of one of them would like it. How would it look on her hand? Were the stones arranged nicely? Was the band too thin?

The saleswoman was obviously bored. He knew more about women than they did. "Now, if you want to know what the ladies really like, I can tell you," he said authoritatively. "They always want the nicest ring around . . . Of course, you might not be able to afford our nicest ring."

The boys chuckled nervously. They agreed that was a problem.

Two doors down in the mall, there were, oddly, no men in a lingerie store of national, provocative fame. Only women lingered, rummaging through the sheer underthings and nightgowns adorned wth sequins and lace. The only hint that men might enter into buying decisions was a hand-lettered sign above a rack of silky, multicolored underclothes: "For 'Him.'"

I asked the saleswoman, a Dolly Parton lookalike in a skintight red sweater-dress, about the absence of men in the store.

"Oh," she said. "They come in here all the time. You've just missed them."

Did they buy different things, depending on whether they were purchasing for wives or for girlfriends?

She raised a carefully penciled eyebrow. "Well, I would imagine so, honey."

I was impressed. The men I'd seen hadn't been overly helpless or befuddled. Probably Donna would like the Ciara perfume and the high-school girl her first ring. The man with the size 8 wife doubtless would find a blazer to fit her, and the husband buying the designer jeans seemed to have good taste. I did worry a little about the football jersey. nightgown. But, then, it could always be returned. And I had only seen one man carrying a crockpot.

I talked again with my male friend. I recalled that he had once told me he always bought kitchen utensils for his mother at Christmas when he was young, and had never understood why she hadn't been pleased. I asked him about it. Hadn't he bought her an eggbeater one year?

He looked at me suspiciously. "Is this for an article?"

Well, yes.

"In that case, I only want to be referred to as a friend -- no names, okay?" Okay. Assured of this, he continued. As it turned out, his father had helped him on buying sprees for kitchen items.

"We used to go out every Christmas Eve and get something like that," he said. "One year it was spoons for the kitchen. Another time, yeah, we did get an eggbeater. I remember that. But the best year was when we got her an electric can-opener. What a great present."

An electric can-opener? A great present?

My poor mother-in-law.