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The Subtle Art of Gift Giving (and Etiquette)

Imagine you organized a party for some special guests. You put in a lot of effort to book the venue, to pick the best food, to put up decorations, and to pick a special gift. During the party, would you tell your guests all the effort you put in?

I am from North America, and the North American culture tends to be very direct. I would probably tell my guests all the effort I put in to organize the party, to pick the foods that they like, to find the best decorations, to pick a useful gift, etc. All of this shows how much I care about them. After all, I wouldn't put in this much effort for just anyone.

However, different cultures have different customs. I learned that in eastern cultures, they wouldn't say all the hard work they put in. In fact, they even downplay all their effort, saying that they did not put much effort, that the food isn't that good, that the gift isn't that thoughtful. I was totally astonished to learn this. Why would they do that?! Wouldn't that make the person feel like they aren't important?

When I learned their reasons, I realized there is merit to their way of thinking. Firstly, we should not be arrogant to assume that we did a great job. Perhaps we think we did a great job preparing the food or picking a thoughtful gift, but the other person does not think so. Then it would be very awkward. Moreover, no one likes people who boast about themselves or are self-assuming.

I remember seeing a friend give what he thought was an amazing gift to someone, but that person did not have a big reaction, so he was disappointed, and the receiver felt awkward. If he had downplayed his efforts, he wouldn't have been so disappointed, and the receiver wouldn't have felt so awkward.

Secondly, we don't want to give pressure to others or make them feel like they burdened us. They might not like the food, or perhaps the gift isn't something they want. When we assert how much effort we put into it, they feel awkward and have to pretend to like it, or they feel embarrassed that they made us go through so much trouble.

Indeed, I've had to pretend to like gifts that others gave me, or pretend to enjoy the food at a certain restaurant. No one enjoys being fake. If instead, we downplay our efforts, then there won't be any awkwardness.

It's important to add that in eastern cultures, after the host downplays their effort, the guest is supposed to praise the host, saying, "No no, your food is good! Oh I love the gift!" This helps to build a good relationship between them. But if the host already praised herself, then it's not very meaningful for the guest to praise the host.

Which Standard Should I Follow?

So, is there a "correct" or "best" custom to follow? Well, the best custom to follow is probably the one that your specific location is used to. As the saying goes,

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

In other words, we should respect and follow the local traditions (otherwise you will annoy and confuse people). If I am in an eastern country like China or Japan, I definitely should not emphasize how much effort I put into my gift. But even if I am in North America, I could still be more careful to not emphasize my effort too much so as to avoid seeming arrogant and giving others pressure.

For example, this past Christmas, I got some gifts for some friends. I personally thought the gifts were very thoughtful and high quality, and they actually cost a lot more than what I would normally spend on a Christmas gift. However, I didn't say anything about the effort or money. All I said was, "Oh yeah I thought you might like it!"

I purposefully said "might" instead of "I knew you would like it!" to avoid giving them pressure just in case they didn't actually like it. I also did not mention the price so that they would not feel pressured to get me an expensive gift in the future. However, I did not downplay my efforts and say, "I just picked it kind of randomly. It's not that thoughtful." That would seem strange and uncaring in North America.

My friends told me they genuinely loved the gift. I can feel happy knowing that I did not pressure them to say those words, that those words are their sincere feelings.

Extension: The Art of Etiquette

Ultimately, gift giving is a form of etiquette and manners.

We can also extend this idea towards many other things in life. Below are a couple examples:

1: Restaurant Meals

When ordering food at a restaurant, we don't need to be so direct and say, "I will order this pasta dish specifically for you because I know you love pasta." That would give them pressure to like that pasta, or they feel like a burden that you cannot order what you want to order because of them. Instead, we can say, "Oh this pasta dish sounds like it might be good! We can try it!" If there are shared dishes, offer for others to take some first.

Also, try to not eat too fast or too slow compared to others. That way, it won't be awkward if someone finishes much earlier or much later than everyone else.

2: Favors

Instead of saying, "Let me help you do the dishes," we can ask, "Could I do the dishes?" If we say, "Let me help you," we are being self-assuming that we are helpful, that they want our help. We will also think we were great for helping them, and we might be upset if they don't thank us. That then gives them pressure or makes them feel like they burdened us. By saying, "Could I do the dishes?", we are being humble and considerate of their feelings.

After doing a favor or task for someone, we don't need to say, "I spent so much time and hard work to do that task for you." They might think, "Oh. Well, I'm sorry for being such a burden to you. I guess you don't want to put in all that effort for me?" or "Did you really put in a lot of effort? You didn't even do the job well!" Instead, we can simply say, "I finished that task. Let me know if it is OK." This is much more humble.


We all like people who are humble and considerate. When doing things for others or giving them gifts, we can practice humility and consideration by downplaying our efforts. This way, we don't seem arrogant, and they don't feel pressured to appreciate us or feel like they burdened us.


Weekly Wisdom #221


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