Sunday, May 18, 2008

Giving and Receiving Gifts

I consider it a part of my responsibility as an ESL tutor to address cultural issues and especially cultural differences that enable my ESL students to understand "American culture" a little better. As most of my ESL students are very advanced, I don't often make culture the main topic of any lesson. Of course, it invariably comes up. There isn't really any way to avoid it! The student usually brings the topic to class.

The depth of our discussion about culture depends on the topic and the interest of the English language learner. I'm often able to explain the origin of many aspects of "American culture," the "why" of what we do, and a bit of history about the custom. To further our conversation practice, I also elicit information about the customs in the student's home culture.

Last week, a student stumped me by asking me the "why" of something we Americans do. She wanted to know why we often ask when receiving a present, "Should I open it now?" First, I was able to confirm that, yes, we usually do ask this question. However, the "why" of it was something I couldn't definitively answer. I speculated that it has something to do with economics and embarrassment. That the receiver of a gift doesn't want the giver to feel embarrassed about the cost of the gift, whether it is a costly or an inexpensive gift.

I'd love to hear some suggestions from other people familiar with American culture as to why we ask, "Should I open it now or later?" And I also welcome non-Americans to share their customs around receiving gifts in their home countries.



Melissa said...

Another reason someone might ask "should I open it now?" is because the gift might be something that is personal.

Also, that might be how the person who received the gift is trying to say that he doesnt want to open the gits right away.

Overall I think it is said as a guage to see if both parties are ok with the present being open at the present time publicly.

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Anonymous said...

I agree that embarrassment on both giver and receiver ends plays a part in it. I also think Melissa's comments are useful to bring up to a student (As a side point to ponder, how would we direct a student to respond if they suspected the receiver was asking the question because they did not want to open the gift right away?)

Other thoughts:
Sometimes there are special reasons for not opening a gift right away. The most common I think would be when the gift is given in advance for a holiday (i.e. Christmas, V-Day) or a birthday. We often wait for the special day to open the gift, but we may ask if the giver wants us to open it now. Maybe it's a seasonal gift (e.g. a Christmas ornament or poinsetta) that should be enjoyed before the holiday is over. Or maybe the giver isn't going to be around to see the reaction to the gift later...or just is too excited to wait to give it. There are other common occasions where people might wait to open gifts: gift given in advance of a party where people expect mass gift-opening like a baby shower, or gift given at a house warming or other party where gifts are perceived as optional and opening them in front of others who did not bring a gift may be rude. At a wedding, gifts are rarely opened in front of guests, perhaps because of the sheer volume of gifts, perhaps because reception time is expected to be spent on eating and dancing and other activities.

I also wonder if we have in our culture more of a concept of the anticipation of opening a gift, supported by the prevailing cultural image of presents waiting for weeks to be opened under a Christmas tree. Perhaps we spend money on wrapping and decorations partly because we expect the gift to be enjoyed for a while before it is opened at the time the receiver deems right.

Lastly, I wonder if the question comes from our placing value on things like privacy, time, and convenience and less value on the ceremony of gift-giving and even the gift itself. In some cultures gift-giving is a major sign of friendship or comes with an underlying implication that something is expected in return. People in those cultures would be expected to make a bigger deal out of gifts and may be less likely to wait to open them.

I think it's valid to point out to students that while it *might* be acceptable to open a gift later in the US, it could potentially be perceived by even Americans as being rude and ungrateful if there is not an adequate expression of thanks at the time of giving and perhaps later (with a follow-up phone call, email, or note of thanks). I know that I have at times felt embarrassed to open a gift in front of the giver, but I have also felt slightly miffed at a few receivers for tossing an unopened gift aside without showing what I thought was appropriate enthusiasm.