Giving And Receiving Gifts – The Secret Rules For Expats

Ever wondered what to bring when invited for the first time to a local family in your new host country?

Do you remember this awkward feeling – a mix of joy and constraint – when receiving a beautiful present that you didn’t expect from a foreigner?


Not to mention the headache you got when you had to choose gifts to bring back to your brother, sister-in-law, uncle, nephews, auntie, grandma, grandpa… And the fit of jealousy from your mother in-law you had forgotten!

Gifts carry much more meaning than you’d think – and in ALL cultures.

Living abroad can mean 3 things:

1/ more social contacts with people from another culture (fellow expats or locals)

2/ visits to and from your family and friends

3/ cross-cultural marriages

All those interactions lead – at some point – to the exchange of gifts.


It’s tricky because there are no written rules about gifts.

So how do you know what to do?

By definition, a gift is something you’re not obliged to give.

In reality, deep inside ourselves, we know that nothing is less true…


Do you feel comfortable to arrive with empty hands at a friends’ meal, whatever the country you’re in?


So where does this feeling of obligation to give come from?

Simultaneously, when you’re offered a gift, you know you can’t refuse it. That would be insulting. Intuitively, you feel indebted to the giver. You owe him/her something back.

In an “Essay on the gift” first published in 1925, French anthropologist and sociologist Marcel Mauss proposed a fascinating explanation.

By studying so-called ‘archaïc’ societies from Polynesia, Melanesia, North American native Americans, he demonstrates that they had put in place a very sophisticated system of gifts.

By describing the characteristics of such systems, he deducted that they had influenced all societies on the planet and that we, in our so called ‘modern’ society are still impregnated from it.


So what are those unwritten codes about?

1. Obligation to give

There is honour and prestige conferred by the distribution of wealth and thus by giving gifts. What matters is not the amount of resources you possess but the willingness to give them out. You prove your “good fortune by spending and sharing material possessions out, humiliating others by placing them in the shadow of your name”. Moreover things are not merely inert matter. They are infused with the spirit of the donor. This is the so-called sentimental value we attach to well defined objects that have been given to us by dear ones.

2. Obligation to receive

Refusing a gift is an insult. It means that you don’t want to enter in a relationship. It can go as far as being a declaration of war.

But by accepting the gift, you know that you commit to something. “The gift is received with a burden attached”. Why? Because of the following point.

3. Obligation to reciprocate

The gift has to be reciprocated with the same or a higher value otherwise you lose face. This cannot happen simultaneously otherwise it’s simply a form of trade. There needs to be a period of time in between.


In summary, “the gift is therefore at one and the same time what should be done, what should be received and yet what is dangerous to take”


So what does it mean in our everyday life? In a foreign country? In another culture?

There are numerous guides providing details about customs and etiquette in each country. But you may not have the time to read them or life circumstances may occur that are not covered in a guidebook.

So what can you do? How do you know what’s appropriate?

Here are some elements to answer those questions:

1. Don’t question yourself about the local customs of offering gifts.

You know that this phenomenon is universal and has been around for thousands of years.

Sociologist Alain Caillé, university professor and founder of “La revue du MAUSS” based on Mauss teachings, asserts: the gift is the operator of friendship. The gift is a desire for recognition of shared humanity.

2. Choose a gift with care if you value the relationship with the person you want to honor.

The gift will define your position in the relationship.

3. The value of a gift doesn’t necessary mean monetary value.

A gift comes with a soul. The more personal it is for you, the more deeply it will connect you with the receiver.

4. Accepting a gift means that you agree to enter in a relationship.

Be mindful about the incumbent obligation to reciprocate within a decent time period.

This unwritten albeit moral and universal obligation, if not respected, can trigger different reactions: insult, contempt, resentment. disappointment, indifference.

In most cases, the relationship dies.

I told you: gifts are not neutral.

I found those insights extremely precious. They confirm what I had always felt. But I could never have imagined that they were valid somehow all around the world.

What about you? What’s the most embarrassing gift you’ve ever received? Or the most surprising one you’ll never forget?




  1. On the day I left ‘my’ Asian country for the last time, reasonably distant (in terms of closeness of relationship in my mind) friends travelled a fair way to bring a gift that was a handmade re-creation of a local ceremony. Unfortunately in the rush of time & the limitations of language I never exactly understood what the meaning of the ceremony was (?!?) but I’ve still kept it because it showed me that they thought enough of our relationship to make a real effort to farewell me.

    In terms of gift-giving & gift-receiving, the most helpful thing I ever did was to talk to my local friends and ask them what they felt about gifts, what they normally did/didn’t do.
    So for example upon the death of someone a plate of rice was the best gift to give, and best given immediately post-passing as it would be used to feed the many expected guests. Although it may have felt like a ‘hollow’ gift to us, anything else would have been confusing to the recipient.

    Actually as a general rule, asking questions of local friends was the best way to find most things out – better than reading books/asking expats etc.

    • Thanks so much, Sean, for sharing those experiences and your golden tip. The gift from your Asian friends is amazing. It’s a beautiful story. The plate of rice makes a lot of sense when you know the explanation behind. But you really need to be briefed. I’d never have guessed it.

      2014-04-03 21:14 GMT+11:00 Disqus :

  2. When I came to China in 2005 I was aware of the importance of “guanxi” or the relations that are sought before conducting business. What I soon
    became aware of was the aspect of creating an obligation that may be relied upon for some future personal or business need.

    Being an American I was all too familiar with the practice of students bringing gifts to teachers or employees gifts to managers. We referred to them as apple polishers or brown nosers. Such a practice was designed to keep the benefactor in a good frame of mind when it was time to assign grades, raises or promotions.

    What I discovered in China was the intent to create an obligation for preferred treatment. As a teacher and later the director of education I was constantly being presented with gifts that I was not comfortable in accepting. This caused me to seek advice from a close Chinese friend.

    I was told that this was very normal and the way to avoid the curse of obligation was to politely refuse the gift three times. Responses like: Oh, I don’t desire such kindness; I can’t accept such a lavish gift; I have done nothing to deserve your kindness, etc, are designed to acknowledge the gift without incurring the obligation. Eventually you can accept the gift with gratitude and kindness in order to allow the giver to save face.

    For students in China it is all about the marks and how one achieves them does not seem to matter. It is more important to get a high mark than to learn something that may be of use later in life. This is one of the reasons that those with certificates that prove competence in use of the English language cannot speak or understand the language.

    Recently my dear and close friend was beset with a perplexing problem that was the result of accepting an envelope as a gift from a supplier at her company New Year’s party. The envelope contained a thank you note and 1000 RMB, not a large amount of money by any standard so no thought was attached to the intent.

    Three months later the manager of the department did not renew the contract with the supplier but awarded it to a competitor. All hell broke loose with the supplier ranting about the gifts he had presented to my
    friend and the production manager and now he was being cheated. Allegations were made that the competitor had made enormous gifts in
    order to procure the contract.

    I told my friend that the gift was not big enough to be considered as something out of the ordinary expression of gratitude that was contained in the note. I felt the best way for her to move on was to return the money and not dwell on the hurtful remarks that the man had tossed around in his rage over losing business. Truth is the man had become very careless in the manner which he conducted his business.

    Maybe this is why people fight over the bill at a restaurant so they do not have to feel some obligation to another for such an act of kindness. Oh yes, as a foreigner in China you need to be aware of this ritual when it is time to settle the bill. You should at least make an attempt to pay for it and then protest when you are not allowed to pay. Maybe even declare that next time you will treat. I have fought with extreme prejudice to pay and never succeed, which to my relief could have cost 3000 RMB.

    Bear in mind I do not assert any expert knowledge in Chinese culture or customs nor have I had any formal education or training on the subject of gift giving in China. I only attempt to share my personal experience that I have been told is normal behavior and that my conclusions are accurate. I have many more examples I could share but I do not have the time to write a book on the subject, maybe another day when my hands have become too idle for my driven personality. Best wishes and enjoy this adventure called life.

    • Thanks so much, Bill for your answer, a beautiful gift in itself. It’s striking to see how this reality corresponds to Mauss’ analysis. A beautiful illustration!

      2014-04-09 11:51 GMT+10:00 Disqus :


  1. […] It was just a few weeks before Christmas, so needless to say that they weren’t in the mood for shopping and making gifts. […]

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