Things to Know About Gift-Giving in Different Cultures


Why do we give gifts?


Social conventions are ritualised social practices that are part of all cultures, such as greetings, gift-giving, meals, and table manners. From childhood, we learn these norms and behaviours, more or less unconsciously, by observing and interacting with our parents, family members, friends, and authority figures, and thus internalise them.


Gift-giving is an important ritual that is practiced around the world in both private and business contexts. It serves several functions: to show our appreciation, to reward someone, to establish or maintain a relationship. Gift-giving is an essential part of building relationships with friends and business partners. This ritual is influenced by cultural norms, values and customs, and in every culture there are unwritten rules and expectations. It is therefore easy to make a faux pas that can result in a face-threatening situation for the giver and/or the recipient, even though we may be more forgiving of a foreigner. On the other hand, gift-giving practices seem so natural and ingrained that it is difficult to accept that they are not the same everywhere. It is therefore worth finding out about the relevant customs before dealing with someone from another culture, as the following incident shows:


A critical incident


Anita runs a German company that does business with clients all over the world. Some potential Chinese clients visit her to explore the possibility of establishing a business relationship. On the last night of their visit, Anita gives them a cuckoo clock as a typical German souvenir. They take it back to their hotel to unwrap it. The next day, before they leave, they are very reserved. Anita never hears from them again. Later she learns that the Chinese word for clock sounds the same as the word for participating in a funeral ritual.


Picture: Cuckoo clock


Important aspects of the gift-giving ritual


The following cartoon shows the individual steps of the Spanish gift-giving ritual based on the sequence described by Lourdes Miquel.

Picture: Description of the Spanish gift-giving ritual


Important aspects of this ritual are that

  • the gift is opened in the presence of the giver
  • the recipient tells the giver that she shouldn't have bothered to buy a gift
  • the recipient comments on the wrapping and/or wonders about the contents of the package.
  • the recipient shows joy upon seeing the gift
  • the giver downplays the importance of the gift
  • the recipient insists on liking the gift


Culturally-specific gift-giving aspects


The following diagram outlines some key aspects of the gift-giving ritual that are culturally specific:


Picture: Gift-Giving Wheel - Aspects of the gift-giving ritual



A commercial about a wedding present


The commercial The Wedding Present forms part of an advertising campaign that highlights the consequences of misunderstanding local customs in a humorous way. It was made for the London-based bank HSBC bank (The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) in the early 2000s. It is about a wedding in Malta, where the guests receive a present from the newly wedded couple as a reminder of their special day. Type “HSBC wedding present” into a search engine to see the video.


Giving a gift at a wedding is a token of appreciation of the newly weds and a gesture to help them to set up their lives together. Although the underlying motivations for giving a present are similar in different cultures, the idea of an appropriate present may vary. For example, while cash gifts are disapproved of in various cultures, in others it is customary to give money as a wedding gift, including Italy, Spain, Japan and China.  


The following video provides some more insights into gift giving customs in China:



Suggested use of the wedding present video in class (starting from a B1 level)


First Step – Previewing activity


Gift-Giving Quiz



Do you know the answers to the following questions?

  1. Why should you avoid practical gifts such as key chains, ties, jewelry and perfume in Brazil?
  2. Why should you wrap your gifts in red paper in China?
  3. Why do Chinese people think it is polite to refuse a gift before accepting it?
  4. Why wouldn't you give flowers to traditional Egyptians?
  5. Why do Japanese people open gifts in private?


Step 2 – While-viewing activity


Who are the people in the video?


Where are they?


What is happening?


Who gives and receives a gift at a wedding in your country?



Step 3 - After-viewing activity


Look at the Gift Giving Wheel.

What do people need to know about gift-giving in your country?



Answers to the quiz


1.  Why should you avoid practical gifts in Brazil?


They may be considered too personal.

2.  Why wrap gifts in red paper in China?


Because red is considered a lucky colour.


3.  Why do Chinese people think it is polite to refuse a gift before accepting it?


They don't want to seem greedy.


4.  Why wouldn't you give flowers to a traditional Egyptian?


Flowers are traditionally used for funerals and weddings and should only be given to very westernized Egyptians.


5.  Why do people in Japan open gifts in private?


If the gift turns out to be a poor choice, "loss of face" will result. If several gifts are given to people of different status, opening them privately prevents any possible comparisons.




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