Her Culturally Incorrect Gift Giving

by | Mar 30, 2017

Top view of a wrapped box
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Last updated on April 7th, 2020

Often when travelling we meet people who touch our hearts in a special way or, we’d like to show our appreciation to a host or tour guide for their hospitality and kindness. This is when culturally correct gift-giving is so important. We aim to please with our tokens of appreciation, not offend. Yet, there are times when our good intentions are spoilt simply because we’re not aware of some of the major do’s and don’ts. Here are a few culturally sensitive guidelines that Journeywoman has learned along the way.

Muslim cultures alcohol is forbidden. Even the finest wines and champagnes are an absolute no-no and will always be considered in very poor taste.

Does someone in China make your heart beat faster? Want to please this man with a Swiss Army knife? Don’t do it! To him, a sharp object symbolizes the cutting off of friendship.

Ditto if you’re sending a gift card to someone in China. It’s best to avoid using red ink. In that context, it, too, suggests the severing of the relationship.

Have a guy in Mexico? Think pink but shun purple when choosing his present. In Mexico purple is reserved especially for funerals.

Got a honey in Japan? Never, never decorate his gift with white gift wrap. White is connected with death, not love. He won’t be impressed!

Want to thank your male tour guide in Vietnam? Never give him a t-shirt with a cow or owl cartoon on it. Both these animals have negative connotations attached to them — the cow suggests stupidity, the owl, death. A far better cartoon choice would be a spider that promises “much money.”

Giving a present in India? Use wrapping paper in the lucky colours of green, red or yellow. Never use the unlucky colours black or white.

Always remember to use two hands when offering a gift in Sri Lanka. Use one hand and it suggests to the recipient that you are not giving this gift freely and with pleasure.

If you are invited to dinner in Taiwan, bringing any type of food present (fruit basket, chocolates) is a “no-no.” While you may have the best intentions, the message your gift carries is that your host requires help in feeding her guests.

In China, never give a married man a green baseball cap. In this part of the world, wearing a green hat suggests that your wife or girlfriend has been unfaithful. Either this man will become alarmed, shed a few tears or become very angry. I think you’ll agree that none of these options are particularly pleasant ones.

(Source: Journeywoman files and Raise Your Cultural IQ, Louisa Nedkov)

Sometimes the best gifts are so simple…

One of the best presents to give a Journeywoman is a hemmed square of cotton material 3 ft. by 5 ft. Look for a dark colour or busy pattern that won’t show the dirt and you can’t see through. The best place to find this travel treasure is in the remnant bin of your local fabric shop. This ten-purpose cloth packs easily and becomes a travellin’ woman’s…

  • sarong at the beach
  • cover for bare shoulders in a house of worship
  • cloth for a picnic in your room or outdoors
  • shawl when the air-conditioning is too strong
  • screen from sun that is too hot
  • folded pillow on long bus rides
  • blanket on long bus rides
  • skirt — tied around your waist
  • dirty laundry bag
  • modesty screen when the only bathroom available is under the open sky!

Women’s words on good intentions…

People with good intentions never give up!
Jane Smiley, Duplicate Keys, 1984

I don’t see as it matters much how well you mean if it’s harm you’re doin’
Martha Ostenso, The Mad Carews, 1927

(Source: Quotations by Women, Rosalie Maggio)

Be careful with colours and objects…

In Chinese Brunei handkerchiefs symbolize grief, in China clocks are associated with death, in Japan gifts with large corporate logos are frowned upon and when offering flowers in Taiwan be certain not to give an odd number as that is considered unlucky. When choosing wrapping paper in Vietnam red, purple, green and blue are fine, in Singapore red is most acceptable. Black is always a tricky colour. Check carefully before using it in gift giving. While it can mean “trendy” in the Western world, it often only signifies death in other cultures.

Evelyn started Journeywoman in 1994, and unknowingly became the world's first female travel blogger. She inspired a sisterhood of women, a grassroots movement, to inspire women to travel safely and well, and to connect women travellers around the world. She passed away in 2019, but her legacy lives on.


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