Giving a present to someone from a different society can be a way to show appreciation and a way to build bridges, but the little things can easily turn a thoughtful gesture into a massive faux pas, or even a social event into a fist fight. For instance, particular types of flowers are sometimes associated with funerals, so bringing a bouquet of these to a dinner party can really upset your hosts. In other countries, presenting a gift without holding it in both hands is a sign of insincerity and can easily cause the gift and the offer of friendship it represents to be refused. In some places, opening a gift in front of the giver is mandatory while it’s considered rude in others.
Some of these customs make a lot of sense when you understand the reason behind it. In France, the host of a meal is expected to choose an appropriate wine, so this is not a suitable gift for such occasion. In Singapore, all government employees are prohibited from accepting gifts from business acquaintances, as this could be interpreted as bribery. On the other hand, some customs from others countries are quite difficult to figure out. Say, in China, gifts are almost always exchanged in front of a third party, while in Japan it’s considered polite to refuse a gift two or three times before accepting it. It’s an etiquette minefield out there, so let’s look at some of the strangest, the most baffling and the least expected customs from around the world.
In Russia, China, and other former Communist countries, International Women’s Day (March 8) is celebrated as a kind of hybrid Mother’s and Valentine’s day and women are often given gifts on this date.
In Turkey, wedding gifts are usually gold coins or jewelry, and are often pinned to the bride’s dress.
Symbolism is important in Italy, where gifts shouldn’t be wrapped in black or purple as these colors symbolize bad luck and death. Red flowers represent secrecy, while yellow implies jealousy. Something very similar is also seen in Russia and Brazil.
In Holland and certain other countries, gifts with a sharp or pointed edge can be taken to mean a break in a relationship. If a knife is given as a present, it must be reciprocated with a coin to avoid such assumption. The coin is sometimes tied to the blade to make sure that the recipient doesn’t get to use it when he has no spare change.
When writing a thank-you or birthday card, it is always better to avoid red ink when scrawling someone’s name, which is taken as an indication of their death in various countries. Among the Masai people of Kenya, gifts are typically spat on before being handed over, a symbol of good intentions, as opposed to our usual negative perception when somebody or something is spat at.
Various Oriental cultures do not agree with giving mirrors as wedding gifts. Marriages are supposed to be made durable, while mirrors are not and breaking one can mean bad luck.
According to ancient Scandinavian law, giving a gift in return for one received is mandatory. While this law is no longer enforced, it still affects gift-giving etiquette in countries such as Norway, where anything from weddings to national holidays is used as excuses for exchanging gifts.
In order to avoid confusion about the giver’s intentions, Brazilian men often describe a gift to a female acquaintance as being “from his wife”.
In Japan, the actual nature and cost of a gift are far less important than the way it is wrapped and how it is presented.
Numerous cultures consider it important to give gifts in pairs, in odd numbers only or avoiding unlucky numbers of items as gifts or floral arrangements. Unfortunately, they don’t often agree about which numbers are unlucky.
In Thailand, the parents are expected to receive the same number of birds or fish as the age of their child who is having his or her birthday. The animals are then ritually blessed before being set free, which is supposed to bring good luck.
A well-made compass is a particularly valuable gift in the Muslim world because the recipient can use it to determine the direction to Mecca. Buying gold jewelry for a man can be offensive, but not silver.
Overall, there are very few universal rules when it comes to selecting and giving gifts. Making sure that a gift is aligned with the recipient’s interests shows some forethought, while it should be neither too expensive nor too cheap, since either may cause offense or embarrassment. Finally, when invited to a family home, bringing small gifts for the children is rarely inappropriate.