American gift-giving customs

The American holiday season is traditionally surrounded by gifts, decorations, food, and family. Every culture has its own gift-giving customs and traditions, including in the United States. While American culture is very casual compared to most, there are still some gift-giving etiquette tips to consider. 

Major American gift-giving holidays and events

There are five major gift-giving holidays and various significant life events in American culture that are usually celebrated with a gift or some gesture of appreciation. In general, gift-giving is never required. Whether or not you should give a gift depends on your situation and what you and the gift receiver consider appropriate. 

Valentine’s Day – This holiday devoted to love is celebrated annually on February 14. On this day, loved ones show appreciation for each other through greeting cards, romantic gestures, flowers, or other gifts. According to Wikipedia, Valentine’s Day originated “as a Western Christian feast day honoring one or two early saints named Valentinus, Valentine’s Day is recognized as a significant cultural, religious, and commercial celebration of romance and romantic love in many regions around the world.”

Easter – Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the United States, the date of Easter can differ from one year to the next; however, it always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. Easter is celebrated with gift baskets filled with candy and small gifts for children and festivities like Easter egg hunts and special family gatherings. 

Mother’s Day – A celebration of mothers and motherhood that takes place annually on the second Sunday in May. Mothers are shown appreciation with gifts and gestures. 

Father’s Day – Annually celebrated on the third Sunday in June, Father’s Day honors fathers and father figures. Gifts or gestures are given in appreciation. 

Winter holidays – Major religious gift-giving holidays take place in December. Christian and non-Christian minorities celebrate Christmas, while other holidays take place such as the African American holiday of Kwanzaa and the multi-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. These holidays emphasize gift-giving and cultural traditions of food, decorating, and various observances. 

Weddings and bridal showers – Weddings often call for multiple gift-giving occasions such as bridal showers and the wedding day. As with other life events such as the arrival of a new baby, you may be given a registry where you can choose from a selected list of gifts requested by the person or the couple of honor. Registry details are usually included in your invitation. Wedding and bridal registries most often include things for the couple’s home.  

Baby showers – A baby shower is a gift-giving party for a couple expecting a baby. The event helps to prepare the new parents for the next stage in life with gifts that a new infant and parents would need like diapers, baby clothes, and more substantial gifts like cribs and car seats. Generally, gift registry details of pre-selected gift options chosen by the new parents will be included in your invitation. 

Birthdays, Anniversaries, New Homes, Graduations, and other life events – A gift can be expected at celebrations honoring a person’s major life events. These gifts do not have to be big, but it should reflect the personality of the gift recipient.

Gift-giving etiquette

In many cultures, there are well-defined rules on gift-giving. Although the rules are less strict in the United States, there are still some customs that will be helpful to know. Keep in mind, situations might vary on whether or not a gift is appropriate. It’s mostly dependent on your relationship with the recipient, as gifts are generally exchanged between close friends and family. If you are unsure, it’s always helpful to ask someone close to the recipient on what they might expect for the occasion. 

What to give – Americans are pretty generous when it comes to gift-giving and may give gifts when invited to someone’s home for the first time, or as a token of friendship. While this isn’t always expected, it’s much appreciated. If you’re unsure what to give, you can’t go wrong with a gift that represents your home country, food such as chocolates or baked goods, or if they drink alcohol, a bottle of wine could be a nice choice. 

How to give – Gifts should be presented in wrapping paper or a gift bag and given when you arrive, or there may be a designated table where you can drop off your gift. It’s not uncommon for Americans to open gifts right away. 

Don’t ask recipients what gift they would like unless it’s a close relative or friend. This may make the recipient uncomfortable and feel that they need to give a gift in return. Instead, consider their hobbies or interests or ask a friend or family member what they would enjoy. If possible, include a gift receipt. Sometimes it’s hard to know what size, color, or style the gift recipient might prefer. This gives the recipient the opportunity to exchange the gift with something that might suit them better. It doesn’t mean that your gift isn’t appreciated, but it ensures that your gift will be enjoyed. 

What to expect – Wharton Operations and Information professor Katherine Milkman say there is evidence that shows “altruistic gift-giving without any hope of reciprocity…makes people happy.” 

If you receive a gift, be sure to thank the gift-giver, and depending on the occasion, you may ask if you should open the present now, or wait until later. If you open the gift in front of the gift-giver, be sure to thank them and give positive comments like, “This is exactly what I need” or “What a lovely color.”

If you receive the gift by mail, contact the gift giver and tell them the gift has arrived. You may feel uncomfortable if you don’t have anything to give in return, but you can always send a gift at a later date. What’s important is your gratitude as the gesture is meant to show appreciation, and the gift-giver may only be hoping for a simple thank-you in return. 

How much to spend – When giving gifts, Americans aim to spend any amount they are most comfortable with, not what they think the other person is spending. Most people receiving gifts are not concerned about the money spent, but rather the effort that was made to give them something to enjoy. Americans often feel uncomfortable when receiving expensive gifts from anyone outside of their immediate family. 

Gift giving in the workplace

Gifts can be very effective at building and maintaining relationships and showing appreciation towards your clients and coworkers. However, it’s important to understand workplace protocol before any gifts are exchanged. 

Business gifts to clients and customers – Check your company’s policy on gift-giving and be sure to take into account whether your client is allowed to accept gifts from business associates. Many companies have rules that outline when and how to give and receive business gifts. It’s not common to bring gifts when meeting a customer for the first time or as a thank you for their business outside of the holiday season. 

If permissible to give gifts, they should be creative and thoughtful. Be sensitive and assume that not everyone celebrates the same holiday, so try to avoid Christmas-themed gifts. Follow guidelines and understand the culture of the gift-recipient to avoid an awkward situation. Avoid gifts that are too personal, which may make the recipient feel uncomfortable or anything too extravagant as that could be misinterpreted as a bribe. 

Appropriate business gifts could include: 

  • Tickets to an event
  • A meal at a nice restaurant or a catered lunch
  • Fruit or food baskets
  • A bottle of wine
  • Items manufactured by your company
  • Shareable food items like candy or baked goods
  • Flowers or a potted plant
  • Personalized notebooks or stationary

Gift exchange with coworkers – During the winter holidays, gift exchanges such as “Secret Santa” or “White Elephant” have become increasingly popular in the workplace. These gift exchanges avoid you having to buy a gift for everyone in the office or only for a select few and ensures that everyone receives a gift. In a Secret Santa gift exchange, you are randomly assigned one person in your office to buy a gift for. Often, the identity of the gift-giver will not be revealed until after the gift exchange. 

White Elephant gift exchanges add an extra layer of fun to the gift exchange. Those participating in the gift exchange must bring in one wrapped gift that anyone in the office might enjoy. The players can either pick an unwrapped gift from the pile or “steal” a previous player’s gift. The player whose gift was stolen is then able to do the same. You can view the official rules here

Some supervisors or members of the management use the winter holidays as a time to show appreciation to their employees. This could be in the form of a catered lunch, group activity, monetary bonus, or small tokens of appreciation. It is not often expected for employees to give a gift in return to their employers. 

Gift giving in the United States is often a gesture of friendship, love, appreciation, or in celebration of the big moments in one’s life. While gifts are not always expected, they should be received with gratitude, regardless of how one feels about the actual gift. Gifts should reflect the recipient’s personality and culture while representing the value the giver places on the relationship. Don’t feel the need to buy expensive and lavish gifts. The ones that are more thoughtful and meaningful are the ones that will be cherished and remembered.

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