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How do I navigate cultural differences when giving gifts?

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Giving someone a gift can seem like a harmless gesture that should be received positively. However, this isn’t always the case. In today’s world, we regularly interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds. This can lead to some awkward situations when traditions and meanings conflict with each other. If you plan to give someone a gift from a different culture, it’s best to learn about their gift giving customs. That way, you avoid sending the wrong message, or, worse, insulting them. 

Presentation matters 

Some cultures highly emphasize how you present and give a gift. In Japan, what the gift looks like matters, so you will want to put extra effort into the wrapping. In many Asian countries (China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan), it is customary to refuse the gift before ultimately accepting it. This gesture shows you are humbled to receive their gift and did not expect it. Initial gift refusal is also customary in Russia. Only here, you should expect to leave the gift on the table when you leave. Most gifts aren’t opened in front of the giver. 

In Yemen and Saudi Arabia, it is a sign of respect for the recipient to inspect the gift closely. While we might find that off-putting in America, it is customary, and you should consider it a compliment.  

Know what hand to use 

Many East Asian countries expect you to use both hands when presenting your gift. In contrast, you should never use your left hand when gifting in India or the Middle East. 

Consider your relationship 

We have unspoken rules in America about what is and is not appropriate based on your relationship with the other person. Other cultures have their own version of these relationship gifting rules. For example, in China, it is common to give small gifts of appreciation for favors done. This can make gifting common. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are at the opposite end of the spectrum, with gifting only appropriate for very close relationships. Meanwhile, Russia is somewhere in the middle with the United States. Gifts should vary in value and extravagance based on your relationship with the other person. 

Avoid certain items 

Those who practice Judaism or who are Muslim wouldn’t appreciate pork or items depicting pigs. Muslims are also not allowed to drink alcohol, making this inappropriate. In many cultures worldwide, gifting a sharp object, like scissors or a knife, signals you want to end the relationship. Handkerchiefs are also potentially problematic, as they are associated with funerals in Japan and Italy. 

Look out for gift giving customs 

Learning about other cultures and customs encourages a deeper appreciation and closer relationship with others. It shows you took the time to learn because you care and prioritize your relationship with them. It also ensures you don’t want to unknowingly send the wrong message.

Embrace your differences. Who knows, you just might find yourself celebrating life’s many amazing moments in a new way too!

Happy gifting!

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