There is perhaps no other tradition as universal as gift-giving. Just as all humans must eat, sleep, and breathe air to live, cultures far and wide have almost instinctively been giving gifts for thousands of years.
It’s obvious that humans are extremely social creatures, and gift-giving is one of very few traditions considered appropriate for individual self-expression and societal contribution virtually everywhere in the world. No matter the national origin, cultural values, religious beliefs, age, gender, or other demographic – the general practice of giving gifts is embraced by pretty much everyone.
Gift-Giving Starts with the Empathetic Monkey Mind
Gift-giving is more than just something people are taught to do at a young age by their parents and teachers; it’s more than social conditioning. It’s actually an inherent attribute of human psychology, one that pre-dates human civilization itself.
Well before modern humans evolved, earlier primitive species (aka cavemen) gave each other gifts as a way to show feelings of love and affection. It may have just been a nice looking rock, a bone, a tooth from an animal, a branch from a tree, or any other natural item, but for early humans, it was common practice even long before more advanced tools and other items could be developed.
The same type of behavior can be observed in primates that exist today. A Duke University study that recorded the neuronal activity in monkeys as they performed reward-related tasks found that they’re much more generous animals than you might expect. When a monkey was given the choice to drink juice or offer it to a neighboring monkey, he unsurprisingly chose to drink it himself. But when he was given the choice to either give the juice away to the other monkey or neither one would be rewarded with it, he would choose to give it away to the other monkey.
After the monkey gave the juice to his neighbor, the researchers found that the anterior cingulate gyrus part of its brain responded. This is a region that’s associated with primates’ ability to make decisions based on social circumstances, and it’s found in the same area of the human brain that governs feelings of empathy.
The act of giving, it seems, is perhaps rooted more deeply in human psychology than science might ever know. What’s even more interesting about the act of giving a gift, however, are the intended messages, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and interpretations behind what’s being given.
Flowers of the World, Wrapped in Confusing Symbolism
Giving the gift of flowers is an extremely common tradition worldwide, especially for celebrations related to romance or important milestones. But in cultures around the world, certain flower characteristics can cause a lot of confusion for visitors who misinterpret their unique symbolic connotations.
Giving bouquets of an even number of flowers is considered to be offensive in Russia. As ridiculous as it might seem, Russians take it very seriously. In fact, if you try to buy a bouquet containing an even number of flowers, the florist will almost certainly say something about it first to warn you.
In Russia, even numbered floral arrangements are only used for funerals, so giving them as gifts is a strict no-no. In addition to that, yellow flowers are often reserved for funerals or to signify a relationship breakup, so to play it safe; choosing any color other than yellow for a gift to a person from Russia would be wise.
For a real life example of an unfortunate mix-up with floral symbolism, consider what United Airlines mistakenly did to celebrate a route expansion across the Pacific. The company introduced a new first-class service in Hong Kong, and decided to give white carnations to both personnel and passengers as gifts.
What United Airlines didn’t realize is that in this part of the world, white carnations symbolize death and misfortune. The company had to switch to red, a more positively interpreted color, upon realizing that their previous choice of flower gave the message that their flights were unsafe and possibly cursed with bad luck.
Think these types of situations indicate that humans are picky about receiving gifts? Maybe so, but society seems to be fine with that. According to a 2010 consumer shopping poll, about 39 percent of items purchased during the holiday season were intended for “picky” friends and family members.
Gifts You Simply Shouldn’t Give to the Superstitious
In many Asian cultures, superstition isn’t taken lightly. And just like the unfortunate blunder with United Airlines, anyone unfamiliar with some of these detailed cultural norms could easily be setting themselves up for embarrassment over having sent the wrong message.
Anyone in the US, or any other part of the English-speaking world, might gladly accept an expensive watch as a gift, but in China, you wouldn’t dare. The Chinese view gifted timepieces as cursed, representing a countdown in seconds to the receiver’s death if he accepts the gift. It’s as if their time is quite literally running out.
In Mandarin, the phrase to give a clock (sòng zhōng) actually is interchangeable with to terminate or to attend a funeral. If, however, the receiver of a gifted timepiece offers a small payment of money in exchange to the person who gave it, it’s believed that the curse or bad luck can be counteracted.
But the unluckiness doesn’t just stop there. If you ever find yourself invited to a wedding shower, particularly for a bride of Asian culture, don’t even think about getting her a mirror as a gift. It’s believed that marriage is meant to last forever, so the risk of a broken mirror and the bad luck it may bring to the marriage is avoided. To bring good luck to the marriage, the first gift that the bride chooses to open at her shower should be the one she uses before using any of the others.
Planning to send a fruit basket gift to someone in China? You better make it sure it doesn’t include any pears. To give a pear means that you hope that the receiver’s family endures difficulty and eventually separates. This superstitious belief stems from the fact that the Chinese word for pear sounds similar to the word for separate or leave.
There are a number of other strangely specific items you’re not supposed to give in many parts of Asia due to superstition, from green hats and umbrellas to handkerchiefs and pairs of scissors. Needless to say, if you plan to give a gift to someone from that part of the world and you wish make a respectable impression, you’d better brush up on their cultural beliefs and superstitions.
Really Bizarre Examples of Gift-Giving Etiquette
The gift itself is one thing, but how you go about giving (or receiving) it is quite another. There are all sorts of different rituals that cultures around the world have adopted as standard ways to give gifts, many of which would probably blow you away if you experienced them yourself.
The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania actually spit on the items they intend to give as gifts. In the English-speaking world, spitting is considered to be disgusting and rude, but the tribespeople do it out of respect for each other. Spitting is interpreted as a blessing, not as an insult.
It’s a tradition that stems from ethnocentrism – the judgment and evaluation of other cultures in comparison to one’s own culture. In fact, the Maasai spit on just about everything and everyone. They spit on people they meet; on newborn babies; on newlyweds; on newly acquired property; and toward the east, west, north, and south when they see something they’ve never seen before.
Just as the gift-giver has some superstitious responsibility in certain cultures, so too does the receiver. In China, Taiwan, and Japan, the receiver of a gift is actually supposed to refuse to accept it. It’s considered polite to do so, and the gift-giver expects it.
The giver may offer his gift multiple times to the receiver. It could be declined again and again. In fact, in China, it’s customary to decline a gift exactly three times before it’s considered appropriate to accept. Once the receiver finally accepts, he never opens the gift in front of the receiver. The same ritual is practiced in both India and Japan, where opening a gift in front of the person who gave it is considered hoggish and immature.
The Irish are known to decline gifts a few times before accepting as well. In Ireland, the custom is believed to originate from the potato famine that swept the nation in the 1840s. During this time, people had to first make sure that anyone offering gifts could actually afford to do so.
In Turkey, however, you’re expected to do the complete opposite. If you visit someone’s home bearing a gift, the first thing you’re supposed to do is hand it over and watch the receiver open it, right in front of you. The Turkish even consider it to be impolite if a receiver doesn’t say that he loves the gift – whether it’s genuinely true or not.
A Whale of a Thanksgiving
So, to whom do we give gifts? Typically, the first people who come to mind are friends and family. And, while giving to the needy or charitable organizations is a rapidly growing trend, some cultures go beyond that with some of their own holiday traditions.
The Iñupiat Eskimo people of Northern Alaska celebrate Nalukataq in June as their own version of Thanksgiving. But instead of turkey, they eat whale meat. The end of the spring whale hunting season is marked with a big festival to celebrate a successful season, and to distribute meat, blubber, and skin to members of the community.
It’s an Iñupiat tradition for whaling crews to share large portions of their bounty with the rest of the villagers, out of pure generosity. You’ll see families hauling massive platters or bags of whale meat back to their homes. Whaling captains who give away part of their catch earn the ultimate respect from the villagers, and secure higher status for themselves within the community.
Souvenir Gifts for Everyone but Yourself
A Thanksgiving whale feast might sound strange, but around the world, other cultures also have unique gift-giving traditions, and some of them last all year long. Consider the fact that the Japanese have an entire culture centered on giving souvenirs. Omiyage (the Japanese word for souvenir) is taken so seriously that it’s actually a social obligation to bring these gifts back to family members and coworkers upon returning from a trip to a particular region of Japan.
Tourist shops in Japan are chock full of colorful boxes containing gifts, or souvenirs. They’re are almost always food items, and, unlike souvenirs sold in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, omiyage are meant to be given away, rather than kept for oneself. Japanese travelers will often also give them to people who couldn’t make the trip, or as a way to politely apologize for their own absence.
Although the custom’s origin isn’t exactly clear, it’s been said to be associated with making sacred pilgrimages to Shinto shrines. Anyone traveling to the shrines was expected to bring back items of religious significance for their families – charms or rice wine cups – as proof that they actually did visit the shrine.
The Japanese believed that the items would help bring them the same sacred protection that the pilgrims were granted. This is thought to be the underlying reason why omiyage is such a big deal in Japan today.
Remember to be Generous to the Dead, too
As if that weren’t eye-opening enough for you, Mexicans take things to a whole new level by offering gifts to people who aren’t even alive anymore. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday celebrated at about the same time as Halloween in Mexico and other south-central regions to honor, remember, and show respect for deceased family members and friends.
On this holiday, families build ofrendas – altars decorated with dead loved ones’ favorite flowers, possessions, sugar skulls, and foods. The tradition often concludes with leaving the items at their graves as gifts.
It’s believed that at midnight on October 31, the spirits of the dead are allowed to come down from heaven and reunite with their families for 24 hours. Some families will spend two months’ worth of income on gifts and decorations to honor their dead relatives, in hopes that their spirits will bring protection, good luck, and wisdom to their lives.
Sometimes, gift-giving can say so much more about the person giving it than about the person (or spirit) receiving it. As part of the custom, givers typically expect to feel some sort of specific emotion.
A Universal Tradition that Will Live On
In a modern world, where we’re constantly bombarded with advertisements and marketing messages for every product or service imaginable, it’s easy to forget why it’s so important for us to give gifts to the people we care about. A gift is a medium for expressing ourselves beyond the physical limitations of our body language and our voices, and giving gifts is part of what makes us human.
It doesn’t take a lot to realize how very similar we are to our ancestral cavemen, who gave sticks and rocks to their loved ones, and the monkeys that give juice to their neighbors. No matter how detailed and complex our gift-giving traditions may seem, we all do it out of love and kindness.