Gift giving traditions around the world

christmas gifts and ornaments
Photo by Jill Wellington on
Gifts are an important part of building relationships but did you know you could actually offend someone if you did not present the gift in a certain way. It is a good idea to do some research when giving gifts to people of other cultures.
Below is a compilation of some useful advice I gathered from the internet. Please do add to the list any particular traditions you may have come across. After all the intention is to spread love through gifts not cause offence. Right?
Experts say that “giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends.” It’s an evolutionary trait that even the earliest humans participated in. While the tradition of gift giving is universal, there are some specific cultural rituals. Here are some international, gift giving traditions that may surprise you:
  1. Know your colors. Most cultures have certain colors that they avoid in gift giving. In Brazil, it’s best to avoid giving purple items as a gift since this color represents mourning. In Morocco, the colors pink and yellow are associated with death.
  2. Luck in odd numbers. In India, it is back luck to give gifts wrapped in white or black paper. And if you give a monetary gift it’s best to give an odd number value like $101 for good luck.
  3. Polite rituals that bring good fortune. Like in India, it’s a Chinese customto add a monetary contribution if you give someone a wallet, even if it’s a penny. It’s a way of wishing them good fortune. Gifts associated with the number 8 are considered lucky. And in China, it’s also polite to refuse a gift before accepting it.
  4. Avoid a faux-pas. Japanese culture also dictates that one should refuse a gift a few times before finally accepting it. It is also important to receive a gift with both hands to show gratefulness. Lastly, giving a potted plant is considered taboo because it is thought to represent sickness.
  5. Remember to think twice. Think again before sending flowers. In Egypt, giving flowers is reserved for weddings or if someone is sick. It is also traditional for gifts to be wrapped twice with two different colors.
  6. Handle with caution. If you travel to Thailand remember to handle gifts gently. It’s considered rude to rip the wrapping paper when opening a present. It’s always best to unfold the paper.
So whether you’re at a business meeting in Seoul or visiting a friend’s home in a small village in Provence, there are destination-specific guidelines you can (and probably should) follow to offer and receive gifts without causing offense. Here are some traditions to be aware of on your travels.
Insist a little China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan
In many countries in East Asia, when offering a gift, you should expect to be refused once, twice, or even three times. This is done to avoid seeming greedy or impatient. If you’re being offered a gift in one of these places and want to be polite, you’re well advised to do the same. Also, when the person finally accepts, you’re expected to thank them.
Hand it over with care India, Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia
In Asia and the Middle East, how you handle gifts is very important. In India and the Middle East, the left hand is considered unclean so use your right hand to give and receive gifts (unless they’re so heavy two hands are required). In East Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam), always offer or accept a gift with both hands, palms up.
Give gifts as a thank-you Asia, Russia
Throughout Asia, gifts are given to show gratitude after receiving a gift and as a thank-you for hospitality. In Russia, thank-you cards are thought of as impractical; send a small gift to your hosts after a dinner or overnight stay instead.
Leave sharp objects at home East Asia, Brazil, Italy, Peru, and Switzerland
In more countries than you might imagine, scissors, knives, and basically anything pointy or sharp represents the severing of ties and relationships—a gesture you’d probably prefer to avoid if you’ve gone to the trouble of buying and wrapping a present.
Avoid taboo objects China, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan
In China, don’t give someone an umbrella—it means you want the relationship to end. Also avoid giving a green hat; in China and Hong Kong, they communicate the decidedly unfriendly message that your wife is cheating or your sister is a prostitute. Straw sandals, handkerchiefs, and clocks are also taboo in these two cultures because of their association with mortality. Skip brooches and handkerchiefs in Italy for the same reason, and in Japan, forget about handing over a potted plant as a hostess gift—it’s thought to encourage illness.
Pick a lucky number Asia, Europe
When you’re gifting multiples of flowers, money, or chocolates, always be sure to steer clear of unlucky numbers. In East Asia, even numbers are lucky. Number four, which has the unfortunate luck of sounding like the word for death in many Asian languages, is an exception. On the other hand, odd numbers, with the unsurprising exception of 13, are locals’ choice in Europe and India.
Wrap it up Everywhere
Etiquette experts from around the world agree that gifts should always be wrapped. That said, the symbolism of colors varies from country to country. Avoid white, black, and blue gift wrap throughout Asia, as they’re associated with mourning. And while yellow paper is cheerful and appropriate for celebratory gifts in India, in China it’s covered in black writing and used exclusively for gifts to the dead. In South America, black and purple are eschewed because of their association with death and religious ceremonies, and in Italy purple is simply considered unlucky. To avoid any of these faux pas, have gifts wrapped by a pro in your destination. Color, folds, and ribbons aren’t just an important element of presentation—in many cultures they’re symbolic and the wrong wrapping could send the wrong message.
No gifts, please Yemen, Saudi Arabia
In these countries, receiving a gift from anyone but the closest of friends is considered embarrassing. If you do happen to have a best buddy from this part of the world, expect to have any gift you give thoroughly examined—it’s a sign of appreciation and respect for the gift and giver, who’s expected to carefully select the best quality available. For men, don’t give anything made of silk or gold.
We live in a world full of countries and cultures that possess fascinating and downright bizarre gifting traditions. Did you know, for example, that Santa Claus originates from a small town in Turkey and not a grotto in Lapland? And were you aware that, in rural Soviet Russia, the most valuable gift you could give someone was a piece of firewood? Humans are a curious species, and our interactions and gestures of goodwill provide some good examples of that.

1. Britain

Lottery tickets are bought and exchanged here more than they are anywhere else in the world, and often make a suitable birthday gift. Though diamonds originally symbolised 75 years of married life In the UK, they are now associated with 60, as Victoria’s 60 years on the throne marked her Jubilee.

2. China

Again, Chinese gifting is a bit of a numbers game. As an example, anything to do with the number four is a bad omen, as in Chinese it sounds similar to the word ‘death’. After receiving a red envelope, children will customarily touch their envelopes under their pillows for seven nights as a wish for good luck. Birthdays, however, aren’t formally celebrated until one turns 60.

3. India

As left hands are considered unclean in Indian culture, gestures such as touching, passing money, or giving gifts are to be done with the right hand. Contrary to some other cultures, an odd number of objects or currency denotes good luck. For example, £11 should be given as opposed to £10.

4. Israel

Despite the kind gesture, thank you cards and notes are not a common part of the gifting custom in Israel. Contrary to the way American Jews exchange gifts during Hanukkah, those from or residing in Israel won’t typically receive gifts from one another.

5. Italy

Italian kids are certainty a bit spoilt. In addition to a visit from Santa, children have their stockings filled by a fallacious witch at the end of Epiphany on January 6. Interestingly, gifts are not exchanged between or within companies, as the act is deemed a little tacky.

6. Japan

There are staunch traditions when it comes to gifting etiquette in Japan. One of these guidelines stipulates that presents should be refused up to three times before their acceptance. Also, every year on March 14, men are expected to return the value of their received gifts threefold.

7. Native America

Native American gifting etiquette is exactly the opposite to that of any other culture. Traditionally during weddings and powwow celebrations (birthdays aren’t always recognised), guests are the receivers of gifts rather than whomever the host may be.

8. Russia

Due to the way Russia was governed during the Soviet era, Russians celebrate New Year with more gusto than they do at Christmas. While Vodka might seem the most suitable gift for a Russian, a lot of them would see it as an unimaginative gesture. Many even perceive the notion as insulting.

9. South America

The majority of people from South American countries will see the offering of sharp objects as a sign that you want the relationship with them severed, so scissors and cooking knives are best avoided. On the eve of January 6 at the end of the Christmas period, Argentinian children will customarily leave their shoes by their beds to be filled with small gifts. Meanwhile in Brazil, seaside settlements will send gifts of flowers, fruits or jewellery out to sea to honour the Goddess of Water.

10. Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to be directly asked for a gift. When one has been bought even without requesting it, the worst you can do is to refuse the offering, even if the family giving is starving. Also, gestures of thanks are preferred over verbal reciprocation. These may include jumping up and down, dancing, or whistling.

One thought on “Gift giving traditions around the world

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  1. Reblogged this on EDUSERVE and commented:

    What is a favourite item you love to receive as a gift? Is there anything that is a big no no your culture?

    Did you know in Egypt, giving flowers is reserved for weddings or if someone is sick. It is also traditional for gifts to be wrapped twice with two different colors.!!


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