Making Sure Your Gifts Will Be Appreciated

Depending on the cultural or family context, an outright gift of
cash can create misunderstanding.

Ever had the experience of giving a cherished gift, only to notice confusion on the part of the recipient?

If you are giving to someone of a different culture, their customs and culture may misinterpret for instance a gift of cash as crass or as a violation of a cultural norm.present handoff

In many areas of California, and in the US, families bridge racial, religious and language differences in the local populations. In business circles, especially in big cities where many cultures and contexts come together, an innocent gift may inadvertently create a cultural misunderstanding.

Of course, people who travel internationally for the holidays may be more attuned to these differences in customs around gift giving. But even those people who have lived abroad for some time can get an unexpected reaction should they forget local customs in a social setting.

In the spirit of the holidays, I thought I would offer a quickie list of do’s and don’ts when making gifts across cultural divides. Givers should gain, in that their gifts will be even more appreciated once the recipient realizes the thought that went into the selection.


In many western countries, Christianity may be the dominant religion. However in inviting people to holiday gatherings, don’t assume that everyone shares your beliefs. This issue sometimes comes up in families within the USA as well, if members have married people of other faiths. In these situations, it may be better to create some neutrality around the event, either in choice of day, décor, or festivities, or in honoring several customs or faiths at the same event. Depending on the cultural context, it may be wiser to give a gift to children, for instance, on another day than the religious holiday.

Cultural contexts

Gifts of money are not well received in certain cultures, especially if the recipient perceives himself or herself of a superior social rank. For instance, most people in the US would not give a boss a gift of money. A bottle of wine, yes, but not a gift card or money. However people living or from the Middle East may be also offended by a gift of money. But this norm varies too. In Jewish families a gift of Hannukah “gelt,” that is, chocolate money coins, is perfectly okay and fun for children. In Chinese cultures, red envelopes stuffed with cash are exchanged among family members and between bosses and employees. The amounts inside may be nominal such as $1, to bring luck for the coming year; or they may be a significant gift.

When visiting the homes of a host or hostess who originated from another county, you might also think about their expectations of guests. For instance, guests may or may not be expected to bring a gift to dinner, such as flowers or a dessert, or a small gift from their home countries. When in Mexico, for instance, or socializing with people from this country, you might bring white flowers, as they are considered uplifting. However when visiting a Japanese family, white might be a taboo color, symbolic of death.   For other cultures, other colors have these connotations. It pays to do a little research.


The overstuffed bear in a big box under a Christmas tree may attract the attention of the little ones. But the bear may come and go in just a year or too while a gift of college savings can grow over many years, and make a tangible difference in the life of your child or grandchild. Don’t hand over an envelope with cash if this is your goal. Do open a college savings 529 account or transfer shares of stock into a custodial account for a child.

The College Board reported that average college costs in 2012-2014 were $8655 for in state public colleges, $21707 for out of state public colleges and $29056 for private colleges. These numbers are growing an estimated 7 percent every year. Parents particularly may appreciate that you are helping teach their children to save a portion of their incomes for the many years ahead.

Having college savings available after high school graduation is a wonderful blessing, because the alternatives are quite burdensome. Rising interests rates make student debt increasingly unattractive despite tax deductions available for interest. And uncertain equity valuations in homes make it unwise for parents to finance college using home loans.

Looking ahead

Gift exchanges are a fun and wonderful way of celebrating families and friendships. Following a few rules of etiquette makes the gift even more pleasurable for the recipient.

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