Gold, stocks or money?

When it comes to gift giving, what’s appropriate and what is not? With the Holiday season just around the corner, let’s see how different cultures handle gift giving.

First some examples because customs can be so intriguing! A few weeks ago I was invited to the birthday of a girl turning one, the girl, who had 3 outfit changes, was covered in gold by the birthday guests. While having a delicious piece of cake I sat next to an elderly Dutch couple who asked me: Do you get this? Why do they give the girl gold? That’s not a toy she can play with, nor will she actually wear that jewellery. Needless to say, the little princess isn’t Dutch. That made me think. Why do we have certain customs when it comes to gift giving on special events, and maybe more importantly, what’s the meaning behind these traditions?

These customs go from unwrapping a gift in front of everyone or saving it for later, to the type of gift that is appropriate for a certain situation. Gift giving is an important tradition in pretty much every culture and the thought behind a gift is pretty universal as well: bring happiness to the receiver by letting them know you thought of them.

It’s interesting to think about these traditions because the world around us changes. At this moment in the Netherlands, 1 in 25 people has a migration background. With that, traditions and customs that surround us are likely to change as well.

Of course, there are plenty of differences worldwide when it comes to what is appropriate. Such as the one a Dutch friend of mine experienced a while ago:  she moved to the USA, her new neighbours invited her and her family over for dinner. She brought flowers and a bottle of wine. The hostess was a bit overwhelmed by the expensive gift, as flowers as very expensive in the USA compared to the Netherlands. My friend being Dutch, was totally unaware of this, she noticed the flowers where expensive, but that’s just what she is used to bring to someone you visit, and so she did. My no means she intended to overwhelm her lovely new neighbours.

Let’s look at some international customs when it comes to gift giving. Like the example above in the USA.  Most of these customs can be traced back to either cultural or religious traditions, others have to do with the symbolic interpretation. There is a difference between traditions in business and in personal life, for now the focus will be on personal gifts.

First of all, it’s not just about the gift itself, it’s also about the wrapping and the timing. It’s like a little traditional dance of which everyone seems to know what is expected, unless you are in the unfortunate position of being a newbie to the customs that apply.

In South Korea for example, expect a little resistance and offer the gift a few times. When it gets accepted, thank the person for accepting. In Hong Kong, use both hands to give a gift and to receive a gift. In America, just put the gift on the designated “gift table” and the gifts will be unpacked after the party. Make sure to write a note if you want them to know it’s yours. In Russia, after a nice meal you are supposed to send your host a small gift instead of a thank you card. In the Netherlands, don’t give any sharp objects, because that represents the breaking of the relationship. You can avoid this, by giving a 1 cent coin with the gift, but still it’s better to avoid the risk. And whereas in the Netherlands a potted plant is a great gift, in Japan it’s thought to encourage illness of the host. Also in Japan you should avoid giving anything in 4’s, like 4 chocolates, as the number four phonetically sounds like the word for death. As in Europe number 13 stands for bad luck and should be avoided in flower bouquets for example.

Gifts should be wrapped up all over the world, but the way to do this, and the appropriate colours to use vary widely. The next blog on Dialogue with the Dutch will be on the customs of colour use.

One thing that is always a good idea is chocolate. Chocolate can be great to bring to someone’s home, it can be a thank you or a just because gift. Just make sure not to give 4 or 13 chocolates in certain countries to avoid bad luck.

What about special occasions like a wedding, funeral or the birth of a child? Well, in general you could say that the intention is to give a lasting gift, something with fixed or better yet increasing value. This is where the crux can be found, because what is “lasting” differs in Europe, North America, Middle East, Balkan, Latin America and so on. A few examples: in Middle East and Balkan countries, gold is a popular gift. When a baby is born, he or she will get gold coins. The idea behind this is that in case of less fortunate economic times you can easily sell it to have some money. In the Netherlands money is popular for weddings, the receiver can spend it any way they please. In the USA, stocks are given from one generation to the other on special occasions. For funerals in Iraq, expect a live lamb, in the Netherlands, expect a coffee and a cheese sandwich. Needless to see, if you expect a lamb and you get a cheese sandwich, you might feel a little misunderstood. The same goes the other way around.

As important as the traditions around gift giving are, the colours used are perhaps even more important, the next article will explain why the colour green has a totally different meaning in the USA and in the Netherlands, and why red in India isn’t the same as red in Germany. For now, have a happy holiday season, may you give and receive beautiful gifts, and enjoy the company your with even more!