What’s the Deal With? Gifting Protocol

0715_WTDWSome of you expats may still be confused by the unwritten rules of China’s gift exchange etiquette. In many cases, gifts are refused early and often. They’re saying, “Oh, that’s too much. I can’t take it,” or “You’re so courteous. You shouldn’t spend so much.” This isn’t the end. The gifter is impervious and the conversation continues, “It’s just a little something, please kindly accept it.” At this point, accepting the gift and another refusal are both acceptable.

These manners are most often applied to business associates, not-so-close family and, if a favor is asked, friends. Detecting the legit turn down is simple. A light tone, smile and a softer push indicates a bluff, while a firm tone, rigid expression and an unyielding rejection shows determination. The gifter should observe these signs carefully to make the next move.

Why on earth do Chinese have to play tug-of-war? Well, nobody wants to be considered greedy. For the same reason it is rare to open a gift in front of the gift-giver. Also, if it involves hongbao (cash)—not unusual, especially when asking for a favor—it’s best to open it in private.

The custom of gift giving is more complex than this initial game. Standing up, reaching the hands out and receiving the gift with both hands are important rules. Taboo gifts can be bad omens. Generally speaking, knives and scissors are inappropriate because they symbolize a cutting of the relationship; a clock is also controversial. They are a reminder of the marching of death and the wait while attending a dying parent.

Because Chinese like to take fruit to visit the sick, it’s not so wise to give a fruit basket either. If you like to give gifts, seize an opportunity during festivals. Suitable gifts are already chosen—mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Day and zongzi for the Dragon Boat Festival.

There is also value in understanding Eastern numerology. If your Chinese friends bring two bottles of wine to your house-warming party, don’t think they are alcoholics. Even numbers are always better, except for the number 4, which should be avoided always. It’s also very important for giftees to return the sentiment, unless a favor has been performed.