Anthropology of Gift-Giving and its Cultural Implications

The Gift

What does a gift mean to you? It could be a gesture of appreciation, a thoughtful memento from a loved one, or something to be accepted with no strings attached. The concept of the gift is a complex one within anthropology, as it holds several different meanings depending on the cultural context and the people involved. Gift-giving is by default a multi-person exchange —  it involves both the person doing the gifting and the one that is receiving the gift. French anthropologist and sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote a book in 1925 titled “The Gift”. In it, he explained that gift-giving is a reciprocal act, and tightly links the gifter and the receiver together in a social bond. Mauss argues that this bond means that gifts are not without an implicit debt or price, but instead “are never completely separated from the men who exchange them.” Read Mauss’s “The Gift” here!

Two pairs of hands holding a gift wrapped in teal paper and with a gold bow.
Marcel Mauss emphasized the social bonds and reciprocity involved in gift-giving; Image source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Gift-giving can range from being a means of strengthening social ties, to binding a community together, to simply being a way of displaying courtesy and good manners. Here we will explore some gift-giving traditions around the world, in order to better understand the cultural implications they hold for participants in this exchange. If you are planning to travel internationally, both this article along with this Travel Guide on Travel Etiquette to Follow When Visiting Abroad are helpful reads for preparing yourself for the diversity of cultural practices in the world!

Asia

There are many different gift-giving practices and traditions in Asia, each with its own meaning unique to the culture of the country. From East to South Asia, gifts are given and received in very specific and meaningful ways. Some countries we can examine in detail are Japan, China, and India!

Japan

The Japanese gift-giving culture is based on respect and reciprocity. Gifts are usually given in formal settings, around O-seibo (year end) and O-chugen (midsummer). The person receiving the gift is expected to refuse it at least three times to show patience and humility, but eventually accept it respectfully with both hands. The giver themselves presents gifts to anyone they owe gratitude to, such as colleagues, superiors, and clients. The reciprocal factor of gift-giving is strong in Japan — the receiver is expected to repay the gesture with another gift of similar or higher value (although not necessarily right away). One interesting gifting taboo in Japan is bringing potted plants when visiting someone’s house, as it is said to bring sickness. Another important tradition in Japan is the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which holds deep value just like the practice of gift-giving.

A person in a traditional Japanese outfit holding a gift wrapped in pink traditional cloth.
Japanese gifts are part of a tradition that emphasizes respect and reciprocity; Image source: KCP International

China

Similarly to Japan, people in China are very aware of the give-and-take nature of gift-giving. Refusing a gift multiple times is expected, as it shows that the receiver is modest and follows good etiquette. The number four in Chinese sounds similar to the Chinese word for “death”, so any gift related to the number four is bad luck. By contrast, red envelopes full of money are gifted to children for good fortune, most commonly during Chinese New Year. The receiver then places these envelopes under their pillow for a full week to “cash in” on this luck they got. In the gift-giving exchange, the receiver more than likely always returns the favor with another gift. This practice highlights how they recognize and appreciate the value of the initial gift they received. If in China, make sure to check your numbers and expect something in return when giving a gift!

A young Chinese girl holds a red envelope gift filled with money.
A child holds a red envelope, which is a Chinese gift that brings good luck to the receiver; Image source: Chinese American Family

India

Numbers are also important when giving a gift in India. When cash is your choice of gift, then you should make sure to steer clear of even numbers: odd is the way to go! For example, when presenting someone with $100, Indians will add on an extra $1 to make the gift total add up to $101. This extra dollar is thought to bring good fortune to the receiver, since it lacks the finality of a “0” and hints at more gifts to come! The hand with which you give and receive a gift is crucial in India. The left hand is considered unclean, so all gift-giving (and other actions like eating) is done with the right hand. There is a Cultural Abundance of Indian Traditions, which ranges from spirituality, to family, to art. Along with gift-giving, they all signify an appreciation and value for one’s community.

A close-up view of an Indian man eatin food on a banana leaf with his right hand.
Eating, as well as gift-giving and other important actions, are done with the right hand in India; Image source: TripSavvy

Africa

The continent of Africa also has countries with unique gift-giving traditions and etiquette. Some of these countries include Egypt, Ghana, and Zimbabwe.

Ghana

Business relationships are very valued in Ghana, and this is reflected in the gift-giving practices of this nation. Companies give out gift hampers or baskets to their employees, clients, and partners — oftentimes at the end of the year around Christmastime. This value of business connections also extends to other occasions such as funerals of a colleague or a colleague’s family member. The other company workers commonly donate money to help pay for the funeral, which is a gift that they do not expect to be reciprocated. Instead, this type of gift shows goodwill and respect towards the relationships that one forms and maintains in the professional sphere of one’s life. If you would like to learn more about business culture in Ghana, visit here.

Three wicker baskets filled with food, and covered in plastic wrap.
Gift baskets are common Christmas presents in Ghana among those in business relationships; Image source: Graphic Online

Zimbabwe

Gift-giving does not always have to be indirect and wrapped up in modesty! Zimbabwe is the perfect example of a country with a culture that is not afraid of being open about expecting gifts from others. In fact, people even directly ask others for gifts, if the occasion calls for it. Unlike China and Japan, gifts are never refused in Zimbabwe. It is considered impolite to express disinterest in a gift, especially since it might reflect a disinterest onto the giver themselves. No matter who the gifter is and what their situation is like, any gift is welcomed with open arms! The way of thanking someone for a gift is also unique in Zimbabwe. Rather than verbally expressing gratitude, one physically demonstrates their thanks through gestures (such as jumping, whistling, or dancing). Gift-giving is celebrated openly and freely in this country!

Zimbabwean women in traditional clothing, holding up handmade baskets.
Traditional binga baskets might be potential gifts in Zimbabwe; Image source: Garland Magazine

Egypt

Social bonds and relationships are especially solidified through gift-giving in Egypt. Just as Mauss states, every gift brings together the participants in the exchange, tying them together into a “contract”. People in Egypt present gifts to others in their personal and professional networks, and even sometimes to the relatives of those connections. Important occasions to celebrate with a gift are college graduations and weddings. Gifts are a way to sustain relationships for the long-term, and ensure that you recognize the presence of friends and family in your life. An interesting practice in Egypt is to double-wrap a gift with two different colors, so that the receiver has to unwrap the gift twice! Flowers are given in very specific situations only: for an illness or a wedding. Read more about Egyptian culture and social relationships in Egypt here!

A group of Egyptian women dancing with the groom and bride at a wedding.
Egyptian weddings are the perfect events for gift-giving in the community; Image source: Arab News

Middle East

Gift-giving traditions are very different in the Middle East than in the rest of the world. There exists a wide range of gifting practices within this region alone, as can be seen with the examples of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. If you would like to read more anthropological analyses of cultural traditions in this part of the world, read this article: Anthropology of the Middle East: Dispelling Ethnocentrism, Gender, and Veiling!

Saudi Arabia

Interestingly, in Saudi Arabia, gifts are not easily given and received. In fact, gift-giving is seen as embarrassing except for when it is between very close friends. This points to gift-giving as a more private tradition in Saudi Arabia than in other countries, as the giver and receiver must have a close enough relationship to enter into such an exchange without feeling uncomfortable. Two specific gifts are forbidden for men in this country: gold and silk. This is because the Prophet Mohammad declared that those two items could not be worn by men of his nation. Any gift that is given, however, is expected to be of the highest quality. It is not uncommon to have one’s gift closely examined upon receiving it, since it shows respect for the giver of the gift and the gift itself.

A close-up of a person holding a small gift in their hands.
Gift-giving in Saudi Arabia is very personal, and between close friends only; Image source: About Her

Turkey

Contrary to Saudi Arabia, Turkey has a robust gift-giving tradition in which the receiver opens the gift in front of the giver. The Turkish jump at the opportunity to celebrate any occasion, big or small, with a gift! The gift of gold carries a special meaning in Turkey: in weddings, a traditional gift to the bride and groom is a gold coin. The size of the coin (small, medium, or large) is determined by the closeness of relationship to the pair. The larger the coin, the closer you are! In this way, the gift also demonstrates a physical representation of social bonds between people. The coin marks and reinforces one’s relationship with the married couple, and the gesture is returned by the receiver at the giver’s own wedding. If the size of the coin changes at that time, then it shows that the relationship between the two has also changed.

A Turkish gold coin with a red ribbon.
A traditional Turkish gold coin which is gifted to the couple at their wedding; Image source: Dreamstime.com

Europe

The many countries in Europe each have their own way of giving gifts, as the variety of cultures in the continent is reflected in the various methods of gift-giving that exist there. Some specific countries with distinctive gifting practices are Russia, Ireland, and France.

Russia

Russians are very careful in ensuring that their gifts are not perceived or interpreted in the wrong way. This means while gifts can be given at transactional/business meetings, they are done so at the end to avoid the appearance of a bribe or incentive. Similarly, overly-expensive gifts are avoided in case they might contain a negative implication. In a gift-giving exchange, the giver often minimizes the value or importance of the gift. If refused by the receiver, the giver leaves the gift with them when leaving and downplays that action as well. Gifts are a preferred form of gratitude, however, over thank-you cards in Russia. A nice way to send thanks is through flowers, although if you do choose flowers as a gift, make sure to avoid an even number of bundles and yellow tulips — read about Flowers and their Unique Meanings in Russian Culture!

A chart of flowers and their meanings written in Russian.
A chart explaining the complicated Russian flower etiquette in gift-giving; Image source: Understand Russia

France

Flowers are also prominent within gift-giving culture in France. While appropriate for visiting someone at home, there are certain flowers to avoid: red roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums. The French also value gifts that appreciate learning and the arts, so books are a good choice to convey the giver’s intellectual status as well! However, one must make sure that one does not accidentally look down on the intelligence of the receiver by choosing a book that is too simple. Therefore, the gift within French society does more than create and/or strengthen a relationship — it also positions the giver and receiver’s societal and intellectual status  in relation to each other. Someone can earn a reputation of having “good taste” solely through their gifts, since they reflect back on the choices of the giver.

A bottle of red wine for celebrating is resting on a wooden background.
In France, wine and other gifts such as chocolates and perfumes showcase the giver’s good taste; Image source: Frenchly

Ireland

The refusal of a gift by the receiver is very common in the country of Ireland. This practice is similar to that of China, Japan, and Russia, in that one shows humility by not immediately accepting a present from someone else. However, there is a fascinating history behind the tradition: during the potato famine of the mid-19th century, also known as the Great Famine, refusing a gift was a way for the recipient to confirm that the giver could afford to part with the gift.  This was especially helpful in indirectly coming to an understanding with the giver, without embarrassing them or asking them about their finances outright. This reason for the Irish refusing a gift a few times when offered demonstrates how history can change a society’s traditions, which then become crucial in how people act and interact with the world around them.

A historical black and white picture of the Irish peasants in the potato famine.
The Irish potato famine is the reason why people initially refuse gifts in Ireland; Image source: Britannica

The Americas

Moving onto the Americas, we encounter a great variety of cultures and countries, each with their own concept of the gift. We can look at the United States as an example from North America, and Bolivia as one from South America.

The United States

Christmas is, of course, one of the biggest gift-giving traditions in the United States, and it is a holiday which is centered around buying gifts for friends, family, and coworkers. The Christmas culture has become very commercialized in today’s day and age, but it has humble origins in the celebration of St. Nicholas, a bishop from Turkey who spread his riches to the poor population. Native Americans also have their own ritualized gift-giving practices. Rather than the host receiving a gift from the guests, he or she instead gives gifts to them. This etiquette emphasizes the guests as worthy of honor and gratitude, especially when they are gracing an important occasion such as a wedding. The diversity within the United States lends itself to a diversity of perspectives on gifts and the cultural implications they have.

Wrapped presents on the floor in front of a Christmas tree.
The holiday of Christmas is an important time for gift-giving in the U.S.; Image source: MoneyWise

Bolivia

In Bolivia, as in other South American nations, certain gifts have a deeper negative meaning and should be avoided. Examples of such taboo gifts include knives, scissors, and other sharp objects. This is due to the fact that these objects signify to the receiver that the giver wants their relationship to be cut, or ended. Metaphorically, then, sharp gifts imply a severance in the two people’s social bond, rather than the intended effect of the gift reinforcing their bond. So if you are ever in South America or Bolivia, make sure not to choose a sharp object as a gift! It will do more harm than good in your relationship with the recipient.

A silver pair of scissors wrapped in a red ribon.
Scissors are a taboo gift in Bolivia and other parts of South America; Image source: Real Simple

Oceania

We cannot forget Oceania in our exploration of gift-giving traditions around the world! Although some of the nations in this region may be small, they have unique social customs which highlight the importance of the gift in daily life.

New Zealand

The Māori of New Zealand have a very special ritual within their community and society. Known as Utu, translatable generally as “revenge”, this concept relies on restoring balance and harmony in the world. This means that whenever something good happens to you, you must in turn reciprocate with your own good action. As a result, Utu is central to gift-giving in Māori culture, because reciprocating for someone’s good action can be done in the form of a gift. However, Utu also refers to when you have been wronged by someone, in which case you can demand a gift from them to fulfill this restoration of balance. This multifaceted concept of the gift in New Zealand shows how important cultural context is when analyzing gift-giving around the world. Read more about The Māori – A Silenced Heart of New Zealand to understand the deep traditions of this indigenous population.

Māori women dancing while wearing traditional outfits.
The Māori use Utu as a ritual of reciprocation and balance; Image source: Kiwi and Kiwi

Fiji

Gifts are a symbol of status in Fijian culture, especially in traditional practices that are passed down throughout the generations. One such practice is the marriage proposal, made to a girl’s parents for her hand in marriage. In such a ritual, the prospective groom presents his in-laws with a sperm whale’s tooth, called tabua, which represents good luck and spiritual power. This gift of a sperm whale’s tooth not only has an important cultural meaning, but also signifies the man’s successful ability to obtain such a tooth in the first place. Their rarity makes them expensive, and this gift proposed has become a way for families to assess each other’s social status before entering into a contractual relationship. In this way, the gift in Fiji is a symbol of wealth and power — something which is important to consider when forming connections and social bonds with others.

Sperm whale's teeth on necklaces and resting on blue cloth.
A sperm whale’s tooth is traditionally used as a proposal gift in Fiji; Image source: The New York Times

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Since gift-giving is so dependent on context, its complexities must be examined in situ, within the culture it is practiced in. However, even within a single culture, the tradition of the gift is not stagnant. In fact, gift-giving’s fluid nature means that it also changes along with a culture and society! Some cultures have shifted in their perspective of gift-giving, but many have continued to maintain rigid regulations surrounding obligation, reciprocity, and courtesy when dealing with gifts. In either case, it is important to understand and appreciate how gifts play a social role in creating and maintaining connections with others.

One woman giving a gift wrapped in pink paper to another woman.
Gift-giving between friends and family can be analyzed in terms of reciprocity and social bonds within anthropology; Image source: Best Life

Embedded Within Societal Structures

The meaning and intention behind a gift is not just tied to the object itself, but translates into the relationship it works to strengthen. Long after the physical gift is forgotten or discarded, the memory of the giver’s gesture and goodwill lives on. For that reason, Marcel Mauss aptly conveyed the gift’s position within a societal structure, as it acts like a glue that mediates and connects people together. Gift-giving then transforms from a singular, isolated practice into a reflection of a culture or society’s values. So the next time you are giving or receiving a gift, take some time to think about the cultural implications behind the action. You might be surprised at what you discover!

A close-up shot of a blue present, wrapped in a dark blue bow.
The gift is embedded within the societal structures of cultures and communities around the world; Image source: Investopedia

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