Gift-giving is an integral part of any culture. While we may all have our own ways of showing appreciation, certain cultures have their own traditions when it comes to giving and receiving a gift. In fact, even if you have good intentions, giving a gift in the wrong manner or at the wrong timing could cause offense to the recipient. What are some customs you should adhere to when giving a gift in various countries?
Insist that the person accept it.
In most parts of East Asia, it is considered polite for a recipient to refuse a gift a few times before accepting it, in order to avoid coming across as greedy or impatient. The giver should insist that the recipient accept the gift until they finally do, after which the giver is expected to thank the recipient for accepting it.
Avoid giving taboo items.
Many cultures consider the giving of sharp or pointed objects to be a sign of the severing of friendships. As such, it is best to avoid giving scissors, knives or other similar objects when in doubt.
Some countries also have certain other taboo objects. For instance, it is not appropriate to give someone a clock in China, because the phrase for “giving a clock” sounds exactly the same as “attending a funeral”. Giving someone a clock symbolizes the passing of time and may suggest that a person’s time is running out, especially if the recipient is senior. Some people may extend this interpretation to the gift of watches as well, while others may not. Another object one should avoid giving in China is an umbrella, as the word for umbrella sounds like the word for breaking up, and as such is thought to mean that the giver’s relationship with the recipient is falling apart.
In a number of countries, such as Italy, Sweden and East Asia, the giving of handkerchiefs quite literally represents tears and crying at funerals. Soap should generally also be avoided as it could mean the washing away of friendships.
Never give a potted plant in Japan as it is thought to bring illness. Giving one to a sick person in particular is thought to mean that their illness will get worse by taking “deeper root”.
It is important to note that a gift of the same item can have completely different meanings in different cultures. For example, the gift of a ceremonial sword is a symbol of power in some parts of Africa, but in Switzerland, it is a sign of aggression.
Watch your hands.
In some cultures, especially in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the left hand is considered unclean and one should never give a gift using the left hand. Instead, use the right hand wherever possible, unless the gift is heavy enough to require both hands.
On the contrary, in East Asia, one is expected to give and receive gifts with both hands and the palms facing upwards.
Choose auspicious numbers.
When giving gifts in quantities in most parts of Asia, steer clear of the number four as it sounds like the word for death in most Asian languages. Other even numbers are considered lucky in East Asia, particularly the number eight, which sounds like the word for wealth. Avoid the numbers nine and thirteen in Japan as they are also considered unlucky.
On the other hand, superstition suggests that the giver should go for odd numbers when giving gifts in Europe and India, except for the number thirteen.
Choose the wrapping carefully.
While it is considered good gesture to wrap up a gift in most parts of the world, what is considered an appropriate wrapping depends on the country. Black wrapping is generally associated with death, so it should be safe to avoid. Asia also associates white and blue with mourning and funerals. Red would be an appropriate color in China, as it is auspicious. Yellow is a safe choice in India, while it is used for gifts to the dead in China. Steer clear of purple wrapping in Italy and South America, as it is associated with bad luck and religious ceremonies respectively.
If wrapping a gift with ribbons or ties, keep in mind the importance of numbers in some countries. After all, it would be unfortunate to put all the effort into a gift but inadvertently cause a misunderstanding with minor details such as the embellishments on the wrapping.
Be aware of the gift-opening customs.
In some places, such as America, it is usual for the recipient to open the gift in front of the giver so that they can thank them for it. However, do not be surprised when recipients in other countries do not open their gifts right away. In Asia, it is considered good manners to wait until the giver has left before opening a present. Appreciation for the gift can be shown by writing to the giver later to thank them, or returning a gift of a similar or higher value at an appropriate time.
In Russia, when giving a gift to a host, the giver is expected to downplay the value of the gift by stating that it is simply “a little something” for the recipient. It is normal for the recipient to refuse the gift out of politeness and modesty, after which the giver will place it on the recipient’s table before leaving the house.
Avoid giving gifts sometimes.
While giving gifts may be a way of showing your appreciation in most countries, it is not so in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where it is considered embarrassing to receive a gift from anyone who is not a very close friend. As such, avoid bringing a gift when visiting someone in these countries unless it is to a good friend. When presenting a gift to a close friend in these countries, the receiver usually inspects the gift thoroughly to show their appreciation and respect for the giver in their choice of gift. Of course, the giver is expected to choose the best quality available of the item they are giving. Additionally, avoid giving anything made of silk or gold to a man recipient.
Although some people may say that it is the thought that counts when giving a gift, it is also important to be aware of any cultural implications when choosing, wrapping and presenting a gift. The best way to avoid any faux pas would be to engage a professional gift-wrapper in the desired country, who would then be able to advise the choice of item and select the best presentation for the gift.