January 13, 2008

Cultural differences: To open the gifts or not

In my previous article Cultural differences: Opening gifts, I made some guesses as to why gifts are not generally opened by the recipient in front of the giver in Honduras: out of courtesy to the giver, in case they don't like the gift; it might be considered rude to flaunt your gifts; it might embarrass someone who gave a modest gift; or maybe it would seem greedy to dig right into the gifts.

According to Hondurans Aaron and Angel, it turns out I wasn't far off base. Aaron commented:
But deep in my subconscious, I don't like to open my gift in public, because, if I don't like it, I might not be a good enough actor to pull off a convincing "THANK YOU!", and embarrass the giver.
But if you are considering that it is the thought that counts, you can sincerely thank someone for thinking about you, even if the gift wasn't something that you wanted or needed.

Ángel said this:
From what I remember, the custom of not opening the gifts during the party is due to:

1) not trying to look greedy by taking importance in the gifts instead of the giver that is coming to the party. Thus one takes care of people that even show up with no gift at all.

2) Not embarrassing someone that might have given a modest gift by opening it in front of all the other guests.
These answers help me to understand the custom.

Minerva (European) made some interesting comments from another perspective:
LOL, I am used to that from home country. I still remember how awfully surprised - and at least mildly disgusted - I was when I encountered the opening gifts in the presence of guests habit in the USA. "What a crass commercialism", I thought, "How tasteless to be so interested in WHAT you got when it is a THOUGHT, not a thing, that should count". For years I was rebelling against this habit of displaying the content of gifts by giving gifts less generous that I would have given the same person in those countries, where nobody's generosity - or ability to afford expensive gifts - is so blatantly put on display. Hurray, Honduras!

In countries where gifts are not displayed, they might not even be signed - sort of anonymous. If you want to know who gave you what - in case you got something very personal (hand made or something you dreamt about a long time, or something you know required a lot of thought) - you need to remember the packaging. I wonder if Japanese gifts are always anonymous (they have always been handed to me by a giver, thus with no signed cards attached), since Japanese put at least as much thought in original (time consuming, lavish, etc) packaging than in the gifts itself. And if anybody tore the packaging of a Japanese gift the way Americans do, the Japanese would be shocked and more than mildly insulted. And not only Japanese...
I hope that Minerva and others don't think that all Americans are the way she described. That seems a bit of stereotyping based on my own experiences in the U.S. Several of the N. American commenters expressed the sentiment that we just want to share in the happiness of the recipient and really do care whether they liked the gift. To ignore the gift or hide it away without comment seems a bit unappreciative and, yes, crass (!) to us.

"Obligatory gifts" to someone you don't know as well may fall into another category altogether. Maybe it isn't as important to know whether the person liked it but surely it is important in most cultures to say thank you?

This makes me think of baby or wedding showers, where one of the highlights of the party is the opening of the gifts, where everyone oohs and aahs over each gift in turn and appreciation is shown to the giver. I suppose to someone of another culture that could be considered crass, but I always enjoyed seeing the gifts so much even though I wasn't the one receiving them!

My opinion is that Minerva is misinterpreting the motives behind opening the gifts, at least most of the time. While there are probably clods who value the most expensive or best brand name product more, that really cannot be said across the board. If it was so, I would have quit making handmade gifts a long time ago.

I have no idea where the U.S. custom of opening gifts came from, but it never, ever occurred to me to attribute it to commercialization or greed. As Minerva says, it is the thought that counts, and by showing your appreciation, you are honoring the person who thought about you!

Even as children at Christmas, we were always expected to take turns opening one gift at a time and to thank the person who gave it. We were also taught that it was the thought that counted, not the actual gift, and to show appreciation even when the gift might not have been exactly what we had hoped for. Heaven forbid that we were ever so rude as to act displeased with a gift! Gifts were opened carefully and slowly, often remarking on the beautiful or clever packaging, saving the ribbons and sometimes the paper as well. Really! It's true.

All that said, I'll admit that I've been to some children's birthday parties where I was embarrassed for the child and his parents. Unchecked greed was definitely the theme of the day. But it isn't ALL Americans who act this way!

I also remember one wedding where the bride and groom sent out a mass emailing to the guests asking who had given the (expensive brand name I forget) crystal wine glasses because the card had been lost and they wanted to thank the giver. Since several of us never received a thank you before or after the email, we could only assume that our gifts weren't worthy. That was crass. ;-/

Here in La Ceiba, even though a gift is wrapped, it is often given inside a Carrion department store bag, possibly to show that the gift was purchased at one of the best stores in town - even when sometimes it wasn't. ;-) I sometimes do have a feeling that handmade gifts are not valued as much. So commercialism isn't limited to the U.S. either.

Most of us wouldn't mind the private opening if we just received a little thank you later on. Like Sharon, I have given handmade gifts that have taken many days/weeks to complete. To never receive a thank you or even acknowledgment really does hurt a little. If they didn't care for the gift, it would be so much easier the next time to just pick up some last minute thing at the store.

As Wayne mentioned, if you didn't give the gift in person, there is also the practical consideration that you don't even know if the person ever received it. Similarly, if it is the wrong size/color or they already have one, we could assist in exchanging the gift - something that isn't always easy to do in Honduras. If you don't know, you could go on buying the wrong size for the rest of your life!

This is definitely a cultural difference with those on the side of not opening the gifts thinking it is a little rude to open them and those on the side of opening gifts thinking it is a little rude to not take that opportunity to show appreciation to the giver. We have to get used to the customs of the country where we are and it sounds like tolerance is needed on all sides. But we shouldn't assume the worst reason for the custom in either case.

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