The Invisible Culture of Gifts

The Invisible Culture of Gifts


The first time I ever went to Japan and a friend, Yoshi, gave my Australian friend, Vanessa, a gift. Vanessa responded with a big smile, a big hug and then immediately proceeded to open the gift. Yoshi’s face contorted; her body stiffened and her face managed to squeeze out an awkward smile.  Her silence screamed, “This is uncomfortable!”

Japanese communication styles are not predisposed to let someone know they have just offended. As a result, I doubt Vanessa knew her misstep. With all of the good intentions around giving and receiving there are still a handful of beliefs that surround both practices that may not be obvious to either the giver or receiver. What better topic to touch upon with the holidays right around the corner than giving across cultures.

One thing to keep in mind when giving gifts is that in some cultures, like Japan where gift giving is ubiquitous, you don’t open the gift in front of the giver. In others, like Australia, you absolutely do. In one culture, opening a gift can signify appreciation and celebration, while not opening it can seem unappreciative or dismissive. In another culture, opening it can seem a bit greedy or crude, while not opening it has an air of control and reserve which are valued.

Another aspect of gift giving that needs consideration is not just how you give, but what you give. In China, for example, scissor or knives signify cutting off a relationship and clocks and watches suggests the counting down of time, so are best avoided. That is not to say that if someone close to you wants to give a nice watch that people don’t do that, it is just a belief of which to be aware.

I had a Swiss colleague tell me Americans are thoughtless gift-givers. She said she had a closet filled with gifts that had nothing to do with who she was and that came from people that she didn’t really know very well. In her culture, she learned that you gift gifts to people in your intimate circle and you think very carefully about what to give a person based on their interests, likes and dislikes. Needless to say she didn’t grow up hearing, “It’s not the gift that matters, it’s the thought that counts.”

Some say in France it is best not to bring a bottle of wine to a dinner expecting it to be opened because the host will most likely have chosen their wine carefully to match the food and company. That being said, I have a friend who I visit regularly to whom I frequently bring a special bottle of wine and we revolve the meal and company around the wine. So no matter what you hear about gift giving when it comes to culture it is always best to remember, tools not rule – context is king.

A few context-based considerations include relationship, level of intimacy, age, appropriateness of expense and occasion. Also, employees have expressed frustration at not being able to give gifts due to their company policy in cultures that are very giving oriented. In these cases it is always best to follow policy and compensate with time and meals.

Back to Japan, when Vanessa opened the gift, it was a melon. Yes, it was a piece of fruit wrapped in the most beautiful box and paper that we had ever seen. Now it was Vanessa’s turn to contort her face. Her flashy smile went a bit crooked as her eyebrows rose in surprise. For the first time she was at a loss for words. She graciously thanked Yoshi who was standing there with a very similar expression.

Later while Vanessa and I were in the posh department store called Takashimaya we passed a bunch of melons that cost $75 each (and that was back in 1991)! They were wrapped in a similar fashion to the one that Yoshi had given her and it dawned on us that this piece of melon was a luxurious and expensive gift by all of our standards. Gifts mean a lot of things to different people, but in this case Yoshi had not only been giving her a piece of fruit, but was also trying to say how much she valued Vanessa.

May your holiday season be filled with the gift of cultural understanding and moments to reflect on suspending judgments about what is really going on beneath the surface.