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Is It the Thought That Counts? Gift-Giving in an Intercultural Context

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division
February 3, 2020 Hsin-Yu Chen The Pennsylvania State University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 1. Feb. 2020

Inside, Outside, and In Between:  An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

When I moved from Florida to Pennsylvania, one of my closest American friends gave me a wonderful gift: a personalized clock. She thought the clock would be both a nice decoration and a practically useful item for a new home. I was really happy and touched by her kindness and thoughtfulness. However, I still remember feeling slightly uneasy. In Chinese, the pronunciation of “giving a clock” (送鐘song zhōng) is the same pronunciation that means “attending a funeral ritual” and wishing people to “rest in peace.” As a result, not giving clocks as gifts is an unspoken custom in Chinese culture. Although I do not believe in superstitions, these deeply rooted cultural expectations still raised a strange feeling in me when I received my friend’s gift.

This experience prompted me to consider how a simple act like gift-giving between friends is steeped in, and profoundly influenced by, many unspoken cultural traditions. Given the ongoing importance of promoting diversity on college campuses, we have more chances to make friends with people from different cultural backgrounds. With this opportunity for making new connections, however, comes added risk of miscommunication. No act makes this opportunity and risk more evident than giving and receiving gifts, one of the basic acts of friendship.

Gift-Exchange as a Cultural Practice

Although the practice of gift-exchange is found the world over, cross-cultural, gift-giving etiquette sometimes makes such practices more complex. For example, when I was young, I learned that when receiving a gift, I should accept it with both hands, as a sign of respect to the giver. I was also told that opening a gift immediately is impolite. Just as a compliment should be declined the first time it is offered, in Chinese culture, people often initially refuse a gift and respond, “No, you should keep it for yourself” or “Sorry for letting you spend money.” In response, the one who prepared the gift says something to alleviate the feelings of the receiver, like “Don’t worry, I just picked it randomly” or “No worries, it’s not that expensive.”

These rituals are very different from what I experienced and observed in the United States. In US culture, it seems more acceptable to open the gift immediately and straightforwardly express appreciation and excitement. Often, the giver explains how the gift was prepared specifically for the receiver, to make the receiver feel special. Over time, I have come to realize how, in an American context, traditional Chinese reactions might give the impression that we don't like the gift or don't appreciate the sentiment behind it.

The complications of gift-giving don’t stop there. There needs to be a giver, a receiver, a gift, and an occasion or special context. To whom to give, what to give, when to give, why to give, how to give, and how to respond are all related to the cultural background. For example, friends getting married is a common occasion that often involves gift-giving across many cultures. What to give, however, can vary significantly. In the US, the couple often creates a wedding registry so friends and guests can just buy the things on the list. In Taiwan, it is traditional to give a red envelope with money in it. The closer the relationship, the higher the amount of money. Since the recipients are now a married couple, the amount needs to be even, but givers should avoid the number 4 as 4 means “death” and “unlucky.”

Thoughts That Matter

So far, I have only been talking about Chinese and American culture. But these are only two of countless unofficial traditions and norms across the world. How can any one person hope to navigate the host of cultural differences, traditions, taboos, monetary expectations, occasions, symbolic meanings, and values behind products, colors, and numbers that can make simple and common gift-giving behavior troublesome?

Today, of course, we can go on the internet to quickly learn about other traditions and behave appropriately. What might be even more important, however, is thinking about the deeper meanings and feelings behind gift giving. Although it is important to be considerate about others’ cultural norms and taboos, the invisible part of the act also merits consideration: that is, the symbolism embedded in the giver’s feelings about the recipient, the occasion, and/or the relationship between the giver and the receiver. Occasions for gift giving, whether a birthday, anniversary, wishing someone good luck or to get well, saying thank you or sorry, generally stem from love, caring, affection, respect, appreciation, and/or the desire to build connections and relationships. As a result, gift-giving often brings about positive emotions between givers and receivers.

When the giver expresses these feelings and emotions with a gift, the receiver obtains not only the gift itself but the feelings, thoughtfulness, care, and love that went into it. It may be one of the benefits of our increased intercultural connectedness that more and more people are coming to appreciate this intangible aspect of gift-giving. In my experience, in Taiwan nowadays, people increasingly tend to be straightforward in showing their appreciation when receiving gifts, which in turn may bring the gift-giver positive emotions.

Though being aware of rules and norms is important, sometimes, when we focus on them too much, we may miss the fundamental point of sincere interactions. Because cultural norms are not static, sincere communication and interaction may be an important way to adapt to our multicultural world.

Reflecting Back to My Experience of Receiving a Clock as a Gift

When I saw the personalized clock, I just loved it! Seeing how excited my friend was to see my reactions, I hid my "secret," as I valued her sincere thoughtfulness and kindness more than anything else. I openly expressed my appreciation and excitement without feeling restricted by cultural traditions. After I moved into my new home and put the clock up, I sent her a picture to let her know how much I cherished it. It was only after we had caught up several more times that I shared my “secret.” My friend was surprised and felt bad about not knowing the norms in my culture, but I told her that since we were speaking English, the Chinese pronunciation didn’t affect anything.

Instead of negatively impacting our friendship, this situation made it stronger, because we both thought from the other’s side. If I could relive this moment again, would I react the same? It depends. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong answer. Rather, the people, the context, and the sentiments are what matter.