Gift-Giving Etiquette: A Brief Guide

How to navigate the often unwritten rules during the holiday season

The holidays are a time for goodwill and expressing appreciation for others, but there is always the chance of an awkward moment when you receive a gift or give one to someone you do not know that well. There are rules of etiquette for gift-giving, but everyone's interpretation of these unwritten rules is different. To avoid embarrassing moments, here's a brief guide to holiday giving.

Key Takeaways

  • Everyone has their own rules for giving gifts, but a little common sense goes a long way.
  • Every situation is different, so keep in my what is appropriate for, say, a co-worker at the office, in-laws, or a host at a dinner party.
  • Try to be culturally aware, as well as aware of the situation, and always show your gratitude when receiving a gift.

Should You Give What You Get?

Exchanging gifts is common during the holidays, but it is not always mandatory. In many cases, people give gifts without expecting anything in return, and the gift is simply a thoughtful gesture. For example, a guest might give a host of a holiday party a box of homemade cookies or a hand-knit scarf.

However, if you would rather exchange gifts, keep a small assortment of generic ready-to-go gifts on hand. These items could include holiday ornaments, chocolates or other sweets, and scented candles.

You may be concerned because you are short of funds this holiday season and unable to buy as many gifts as you would like. If this is the case, explain to friends and family that you will not be able to buy extravagant gifts this year. Those closest to you are bound to understand, and they might even feel relief because the expectations surrounding mutual gift-giving are lowered.

Should a Gift Given in Exchange Be of Equal Value?

When giving gifts, you should aim to spend an amount that you are comfortable with, not one that you assume another person is spending. Some feel compelled to give a gift equal in value to a gift received. The value can be difficult to assess, however, and most people are not concerned with the monetary value of a gift. The thought that goes along with the gift is typically more meaningful.

Spending excessive amounts on a gift may make the receiver feel uncomfortable. Depending upon your relationship with the recipient, you may feel inclined to explain that you got a good deal on their gift (perhaps you got a gift card at a discount) to ease their concern.

Similarly, assessing the value of a gift you have received is relegating the act of giving gifts to material gain, which is not what the holidays or gift giving should represent. Truthfully, if you have given some thought into what type of gift the recipient would like, the price tag is irrelevant.

Be Culturally Aware

Not all cultures celebrate the holiday season in the same way. Make sure you understand the traditions and norms of anyone to whom you plan to give a gift so that you do not offend or embarrass them.

For example, it is a cultural norm in North America to publicly unwrap a gift when it is received. However, in many cultures such as some in Asia or South America, the proper etiquette is for the receiver to wait until they are in private to open a gift.

In Chinese culture, giving someone an umbrella as a gift suggests that you want the friendship to end. 

History Repeats Itself

Have you ever given a gift once and felt that the tradition had to continue indefinitely? You may wish to consider this before beginning a new gift-giving tradition. Some traditions, once begun, are hard to end.

Gifts for All

Another common gift-giving conundrum is whether you have to give a gift to everyone within a particular group or segment of your life if you give a gift to one person within that group. For example, you may give someone you frequently have lunch with at work a gift and wonder whether you should do the same for the whole office.

A general rule is that you don't have to give a gift to everyone in a group. But you should do so discreetly in order to not make others feel excluded. In the case of the lunch companion, give the gift when the two of you are alone rather than in front of other colleagues.

Show Appreciation

If you receive a gift, even if you don't give one in return, always show your appreciation, regardless of whether you like the gift or not. If you are presented with the gift in person, smile and thank the gift giver. If you receive a gift by mail, call the gift giver as soon as you can to alert them that the gift has arrived. You should also send hand-written thank-you notes whenever possible.

Honor Your Host

When invited to someone's home during the holidays, it is good etiquette to bring a token of appreciation in exchange for the invite. These gifts should not be extravagant or overly personalized. Often a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, flowers or another holiday-themed gift will suffice.

Workplace Giving

Giving gifts in the workplace can be awkward for many reasons, not just those noted above. When giving corporate gifts, be aware that sending out gifts with loud corporate logos can appear tacky. 

Additionally, depending upon your workplace, you may receive tax benefits from gift-giving. This can include gifts that come in the form of charitable donations. Many countries, including the U.S., allow some tax write-offs from corporate gifts, depending on your industry and the nature of your work.

The Bottom Line

What we give as gifts and how we receive them says a lot about us as individuals. It is inevitable that there will be an awkward moment during the holiday season, but most people understand the experience. Bear in mind that many people simply give gifts to show appreciation, and a simple thank you in return is all that is required.

Article Sources
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  1. CNBC. “Holiday Etiquette: The Top 10 Rules for Gift-Giving This Holiday Season.”

  2. Penn State. “Gift Giving in East Asian Culture.”

  3. Town & Country. “A Modern Guide to Gift-Giving Etiquette.”

  4. IRS. “Are Business Gifts Deductible?

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