When I was teaching in South Korea, there was a very large influential culture of giving gifts to people. Often, gifts were given between colleagues. Often gifts were given between family members or between colleagues. There were gifts from elders to young people and also gifts from teachers to students and vice versa on special holidays or graduation ceremonies and things of that nature.
Korea was and still is a very big gift-giving society. And this took a lot of getting used to because I really hadn’t anticipated gift giving as a means of gratitude in the workplace, but also as a selling strategy, and sometimes even as a method of manipulation to get people to comply with what they wanted from me to do for them. Like bribery, but in a less aggressive way.
Robert Cialdini in his book Influence talks a lot about the law reciprocity. How if you give a gift, you feel obligated to give a gift in return, or at least to purchase something in exchange for what was given to you. And Joseph Sugarman in his book Triggers: 30 Sales Tools You Can Use to Control the Mind of Your Prospect to Motivate, Influence, and Persuade says much the same thing and even notes that sometimes the urge to give more than what you’ve been given is on the person who has been the recipient of the first gift. So by giving the first gift, you essentially initialize a snowball effect of one-upmanship that almost never ends until one of you gets fired or dies. So be prepared for a war of attrition or to surrender.
I have noticed that when I do give gifts, people do feel very grateful for gifts but sometimes, especially in South Korea, they also feel that they don’t want the burden of having to return what’s implied inside the gift, the symbolic meaning of the gift. They don’t want the burden of giving a gift back. Which is the way God created re-gifting? So you feel better and worse at the same time when you give a gift you were given.
When I was teaching in South Korea, it was okay that many older teachers gave me gifts, but sometimes I would go out of my way and buy gifts for the teachers in return, and they would shake their heads and say, “Oh, no, no, no, please.” And they would kind of make an “X” with their arms to try to banish the gift away and keep the gift away because of what the gift might do to them, psychologically, and the extra burden it would place on them to have to give back. The kind of obligation that was entailed. I mean at what point does one upsmanship get ridiculous? When you go into debt for a gift? No?
So, there is, I think, a very keen understanding from teachers that I worked with and from the community at large of what the kind of responsibilities was that are attached to gifts. Even from as small a gift as incense to as large a gift as new notebooks or new planners or even entire lesson plans. There was kind of an onus to give back even whenever you gave the tiniest of things.
One time, I went to a cafe, got some coffee, and I brought it to my teacher in the night course that she was instructing (many students in South Korea have to take classes at night). When I did this, she didn’t quite enjoy the experience like you would imagine. Even though she was grateful. For her, the experience was kind of a mixed feeling because it implied that she had the burden of being nice to me and remembering this gift giving experience. In essence, it would color her behavior toward me. And why not make someone begrudgingly like you, that seems normal, right?
So, gift giving is a very kind of sensitive practice. It’s something that you can do, but you should also be aware of the cultural significance of it. The power of it. And you should understand that many people are kind of wary of being given gifts because of what they mean. As Joseph Sugarman states in his book, “the consumer is very smart, smarter than you think and smarter collectively than any single one of us. With all the experience I have in the marketing of products and with all the product knowledge I’ve gained over the past 50 years, you can take my word that the consumer is quite sharp” (p. 179). This quote, I think, is really appropriate because it kind of highlights and emphasizes the fact that people are smarter than you think they are, and you should be aware that other people are aware that gifts have symbolic meaning. They know what a gift means. And sometimes they give gifts with a vengeance, quite aggressively. So prepare for the onslaught of crude giving. It’s terrifying.
Even just a slight recollection of those holiday gatherings that you might have had, maybe over Christmas or some other religious holiday, will help you understand this a little better. You probably are already aware that gift-giving can be manipulative and it can be kind of strategic, as well. And it can be a way of politicking.
Alternatively, it could also be just a nice gesture as well. It’s all in the context and how you sensitively do it, of course.
No matter what culture I’ve ever been in and whether there was a language barrier or not, when I genuinely gave a gift to somebody else because I thought they genuinely wanted it and that they would genuinely appreciate it and it served some utilitarian value, they were very appreciative of the gift. So it’s a very sensitive practice and my best advice to you is that if you’re going to give gifts– and you really should in some circumstances–I would advise that you make your gift thoughtful. And that it isn’t just kind of a tool that you use to kind of seek advantage over a certain situation. People will see through to that. Be thoughtful and listen to other people and based on what you’ve heard from other people in their expressed needs, give them that. No more, no less. Don’t buy them a Corvette, of course. But something small that shows thought and consideration and, most importantly, given off-holiday. This is a real key. If it’s during the holidays, that shows obligation. Off holiday shows kindness or desperation. Take your pick.
But if it’s off-holiday and completely unexpected, that shows thought.
So, for example, when a teacher expressed to me that she didn’t have enough games for her class after big exams, I gave her my own games. This was a gift with no strings attached. No expectation of reciprocity.
Sometimes, I noticed that a teacher didn’t have many pens, so, I get her some pens. And sometimes, yes, I would go out of my way to get a teacher some coffee.
When I was teaching in Thailand, there were many university teachers who were teaching English who didn’t have business literature. So, I took some of my scans of all the business books that I had ever read and I gave it to them, and that was a gift. One with seemingly no ulterior motives behind it. It was just a gift to make their lives easier and I knew that they appreciated it.
And one thing I like about doing things like this is that that memory sticks with you always. So, whenever you’re kind of in the slums or you’re feeling down or depressed, you can just recall the gift that you gave to somebody way back when they really needed you. And that just puts a smile on your face.
So, give gifts with meaning and give them when they are the least expected. It will not only make the other person feel good, but it will also make you feel good… for a long time!
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