Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dueling gift traditions

When I was a child, my mother taught me that when handed a present, the proper thing to do was to open it in front of the gift giver, and then politely thank him or her for it whether you thought it was what you wanted or not. If you didn't like it, you weren't supposed to fake enthusiasm for the gift, but you weren't to let on you didn't like it, either. Thank you for thinking of me isn't lying. It's acknowledging that the other person wanted to please you, even if they didn't. This is known as being civilized. You can let them get to know you better later, if it comes to that.

So, fine. I was tested from time to time, when I'd open a gift and wonder how I'd managed to come across as somebody who would like that. But it wasn't any big deal, generally. Thank you makes people feel good. It's a gift you can give anybody. Any time. (People who give home decor and tell you exactly where and how to display it call for a slightly different approach, of course. There's a fine line between presenting a gift and trespassing. Learning how to say thank you while carefully not agreeing to take something with strings attached is a necessary life skill. It is called learning to deal with difficult people.)

I learned that being gracious was basically a good policy. And, besides, gifts can grow on you, if you give them a chance.

But then I went to Japan to visit a friend who was teaching English. While I was there, some Japanese ladies handed me a gift. Dutifully, I started to open it.

There were sharp intakes of breath. I thought my hostesses were going to faint.

They did not know a whole lot of English and I had only a few words of Japanese at my disposal, but I managed to ask if I'd accidentally done something wrong.

Obviously, I had, of course. The ladies looked uncertainly from one to another, with that 'who's going to tell her?' look that seems to exist cross-culturally.

Finally, the explanation got past the language barrier. In Japan, they said, you never open a gift in front of the giver. Shifting your attention to the gift suggests that the thing is more important than the person.

Oh. I can see that. Good point.

On the other hand, not much beats watching kids open Christmas or birthday presents.

What to do? What to do?

Personally, I decided to pick either Japanese rules or ancestral rules depending on the circumstances. I like the Japanese emphasis on people being more important than stuff, but I also don't want to be a spoilsport. Besides, I like to think I can get across that the person is what matters, and the stuff is mostly for message and fun.

Then I got married. And found there are differences between my family's traditions and my husband's family's traditions... some subtle, some not.

I guess that's pretty common. Yes?

Luckily, we're all pretty quick to laugh at ourselves around here. :)

1 comment:

johng said...

We have the same problem.

I think I like the Japanese intent. Perhaps thank you notes can serve to fulfill that intent.

Not sure if you've ever heard of this CD distributor in Portland. We ordered some cathedral Christmas music and received this tongue-in-cheek shipping notification.
You Oregonians know how to bring a laugh!

"Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with
sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure
it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over
the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money
can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party
marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of
Portland waved 'Bon Voyage!' to your package, on its way to you, in
our private CD Baby jet on this day, Wednesday, December 6th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did.
Your picture is on our wall as 'Customer of the Year'. We're all
exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!"