Soft Skills: Cultural Differences in Gift Giving

Posted by Nancy Callan on 11 November 2012 | 5 Comments

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One of the most important things we can do as ESL teachers is to help our students crack the cultural code. Gift giving has a lot of unspoken rules which may seem inscrutable to newcomers. Unconvinced? See if you were aware of these cultural attitudes to gift giving in other cultures:

  • In Japan, red cards are associated with death notices.
  • In Saudi Arabia, perfume can only be given to a woman by another woman or a close relative. 
  • In Thailand and many other cultures, giving a knife signifies the intention to sever the relationship.
  • In China, giving a clock symbolizes death. 
  • In Egypt, giving flowers is confined to funerals and weddings only.
  • In Hindu culture, a gift made from leather or anything from a cow, which is considered sacred, would be inappropriate.
  • In Indonesia, giving food may signify that you feel the recipient's hospitality is lacking. 
  • In some cultures, giving an umbrella is thought to bring misfortune. 
  • In some cultures, giving a gift to your boss is expected. 
  • Gifts of towels and handkerchiefs are associated with funerals in many cultures.
  • White flowers are associated with mourning in many cultures. 

So, what about here? Is it just the thought that counts or do we also have unspoken rules about which gifts are considered appropriate

Take a look at this picture from Callan's Holiday Jigsaws and Callan's American Holiday Jigsaws. This mother does not look very happy about the gift she just received for Mother's Day. Any idea why that might be? 

Some mothers don't like to be reminded of their assumed role as the family maid and prefer instead a gift that is more personal. Others might be pleased. Gift giving is certainly not an exact science. It's as important to understand the recipient as it is the culture.

Generally speaking, in North America, it isn't considered appropriate to give a gift to your boss, as it may be perceived as an attempted bribe. Gifts of clothing and perfume are generally considered highly personal gifts only appropriate for people who are closely related or in a romantic relationship. However, clothing below the elbow or knee, such as gloves or socks or tights, is often acceptable from anyone. Less personal giifts, such as wine or stationery, are often considered appropriate for people with whom you have a professional relationship.

I've made a discussion worksheet on this soft skill of culturally sensitive gift giving, deliberately including a clock, a knife, an umbrella, clothing and perfume as a springboard to discussion on cross cultural differences. You may find this topic fits well with study about Christmas or other holiday traditions. While geared to mid-beginner to upper intermediate, you may be able to adapt it for use in beginner or advanced classes, as well. Feel free to copy it for use in your classroom. Click on the image below to view it large on your computer and download if you choose. 



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  • Thanks for the kind comments. I just thought I'd add that gift #2 was something I actually received from a female student.

    Posted by Nancy, 31/12/2016 11:21am (3 years ago)

  • Excellent! Thank you so much for sharing this great resource. My class of 12 seniors over the age of 55 used it this week.

    Posted by Kelly Morrissey, 18/11/2015 3:55pm (4 years ago)

  • My students and I adore your books and activities, so on their behalf I would like to thank you for the relevant, fun and professionally presented materials here and for your books. Happy 2014!

    Posted by Stella Baker, 06/01/2014 1:48pm (6 years ago)

  • Thanks! We're writing thank you letters in my elementary class today and this is the perfect warm-up activity/conversation starter.

    Posted by Erin, 22/10/2013 1:59am (6 years ago)

  • Nancy, this resource is wonderful! My students had a lot of fun talking about their traditions of giving gifts. It would be great if your next book were about multicultural traditions in Canada. I bet it would be a hit among ESL teachers. Thank you for all your hard work. I am looking forward to seeing your new books available for purchase.

    Posted by Olga Khellebust, 07/12/2012 10:41pm (7 years ago)

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