I love presents. I love them for regular occasions, such as birthdays or receiving guests, and I love them even more if I didn’t expect them. Yes, even an uncertainty avoider can embrace surprises (materialism helps a lot with that). I’m not ashamed to admit that for many years, I had a 3-page wish list for regular occasions, and updated it religiously. 2 ½ pages were dedicated to books, of course.
For some years, a Gucci handbag was very high on the list, though for some strange reason, nobody ever felt compelled to fulfill this modest wish. Eventually, my Mum broke down and gave me one, though I couldn’t quite shake off the uneasy feeling that it was a fake (have a look at the photo and judge for yourself).
So I just bought the coveted bag myself. I don’t have a written wish list anymore, but there are always so many things I like that it’s easy to find a gift for me.
Why am I telling you that?
Well, mainly to whine about having to buy my Gucci bag myself, but also to let you know that I’m quite an exception when it comes to talking about presents. Even in outspoken Germany people for some reason don’t like to admit that they like presents. Ask a grown-up what they’d like for their birthday or host gift and chances are high that the reply will be “Oh, I really don’t want anything. Don’t worry about it.” Another German classic is the exclamation “Das wär doch nicht nötig gewesen!” (“You shouldn’t have!”) upon receiving a present.
Maybe you are now relieved that while you are in Germany, you won’t have to bother with presents much. Ah, but you are mistaken! 90 % of the people who adamantly tell you that they want no present will be highly displeased if they are not given one. The reactions mentioned above are polite phrases to avoid being considered greedy. So while I keep telling you that Germans are direct communicators and that you can take things at face value, it’s a bit more complicated when it comes to presents.
Not only presents, though. When you go to a restaurant with someone else, and after your meal ask for the bill, the waiter will ask whether you want to pay “getrennt oder zusammen” (split the bill or all on one check). If you have lovely friends, they will occasionally say “zusammen” (all on one check) surprisingly. If you are such a lovely person and want to invite someone, the other person will probably at first refuse. In Germany, it’s customary to split the bill (unless it has been clear from the beginning that one party invited the other). So the first polite reaction to a surprising invitation would be to refuse, even if the invited person had a five course meal and is secretly delighted to be relieved of the bill. A bit of back and forth is usually required before the invited person agrees to be invited (the amount of back and forth depends on the situation and the people).
I had an interesting experience with my friend Susanne from Leipzig. She’s a pretty good lawyer and two years ago I asked her to handle a case for me. It involved a firm from another country, so she had to work in a different language and with a different legal system. Besides, the authorities in the other countries put as many obstacles as possible in our way. Yet, she persevered, even though several of her colleagues told her that she was not likely to succeed. Some weeks ago, we won the case. I was so delighted that I told her I would invite her to a really nice restaurant the next time I was in Leipzig. She didn’t seem all that pleased, and at first refused; well, not refused, but gave me the “But it’s not necessary at all” spiel. When I finally got her to agree to the invitation, she tried to negotiate me down on the restaurant (that’s why lawyers don’t have friends). Eventually, diplomatic person that I am, I voiced my annoyance quite clearly. And then she told me that she would love to go to a nice dinner, but had been raised to be nice and modest, and therefore found a certain resistance necessary.
Another friend of mine told me that she had been reluctant to send out her wedding list when asked for it, because she was worried that it would look as if she demanded presents.
For the most direct communicators in the world we can surely be complicated sometimes…
So – when to give presents?
There are of course no mandatory laws (no, not even in Germany). But in certain situations it’s customary to give presents.
One would be the invitation. In Germany, the host is usually given a present. It depends on the invitation, though. If you have good friends you see all the time, it’s not always necessary to bring a host gift. My friends and I give host gifts for more elaborate invitations (dinner parties, birthdays) or for overnight stays, but if one is visiting the other for a chat and a glass of wine, we don’t bring gifts each time.
If you don’t know people well, I wouldn’t advise to visit without a host gift. Invitations for special events (birthdays, weddings) always require a present (unless you’re 120 % sure that it’s not wanted).
If you know it’s someone’s birthday but you’re not invited to any celebration, it’s entirely up to you whether you want to give a present. It is not expected, but welcome. In offices, people usually collect money to buy a gift for a colleague. (By the way: if it’s your birthday, your colleagues will expect some kind of treat from you – a cake, some nibbles, some sparkling wine. Yes, they are not giving you a celebration, you have to treat them. Many expats find this unusual, but it’s the way it’s done here. But then you usually get a present from your colleagues.)
Christmas is the other main present occasion in Germany. Still, you are not obliged to give Christmas presents to friends or neighbours. It can lead to awkward situations if you get an unexpected Christmas gift from someone and don’t have anything for them, but it’s not a major faux pas, because after all you really can’t know who will give you a present and who won’t.
If you are in doubt, I’d recommend to take small gift along. Nobody minds a gift and I’d rather be the only guest with a gift than the only guest without one.
What about presents in the business life?
There are some cultures where presents are an inherent part of business life. Germany isn’t one of them. In fact it can be a problematic issue because we have very strong anti-bribery and tax laws. A gift in a business context has to be declared in the annual tax declaration if it’s over a certain amount (currently it’s about 40 Euros a year), so people might feel a bit uncomfortable with accepting business gifts. (You can ask our former Bundespräsident what happens if you don’t take this seriously).
So, small gifts are okay, as are dinner invitations. Generous gifts are neither expected nor necessarily welcome.
What to give?
Ah, a difficult topic. Remember what I said about my long wish list? See how helpful such a list can be? Actually, I find the “Oh, I don’t want anything” or “Just get something small, it doesn’t matter” people far ruder than the people who, when asked what they want, just tell you what they want. It saves a lot of trouble and minimizes the chance of giving gifts that are not liked. So, with friends, just ask and maybe even persist a bit – unless you are one of those gifted people who can pick perfect presents or are attentive enough to remember small tidbits from conversations. My friend Susanne has an amazing memory and therefore never needs to ask me what I’d like as a present. She just keeps in mind everything I say about liking this or that. But then, she has a lot of material to work with because I constantly mention things I like.
With people you don’t know so well, there are always the three staples of successful gift giving: flowers, chocolates, wine. But of course it’s not quite that easy…
With flowers, there are a few that have special meanings. Heather, white lilies or chrysanthemums are considered typical funeral flowers by many. Some people generally get a bit wary with white flowers. Red flowers are usually connected with love, especially red roses. Your host might not be entirely pleased if you give his wife a large bouquet of red roses. Even some red roses in a mixed bouquet don’t lose their meaning, so I’d recommend staying away from them unless your intention is a clearly romantic one and you want that known.
Don’t give bouquets with 13 flowers. You would be surprised how many people feel uncomfortable with that number.
Generally, don’t overdo the bouquet. Neither should the colours be too strong (unless you know the person who gets the flowers loves strong colours).
If the bouquet is wrapped in clear foil, you can hand it over as is. If it is wrapped in paper, you should remove the paper before handing over the flowers. The general rule is that the flowers should be visible.
With chocolates, it’s mainly a matter of taste. When I buy chocolates for someone whose taste I don’t know, I usually get a mixture, but without dark or white chocolates because several people don’t like them. The less exotic and unusual, the better.
With wine, either know your wines or know someone you can ask. As with flowers, it shouldn’t be exaggerated. If your new neighbours invite you to a casual barbecue, they are likely to feel uncomfortable if you bring a Mouton Rothschild as a host present (unless it’s my father, he’d probably just be delighted).
Talking of barbecues – for less formal occasions such as a barbecue it can be a good idea to just ask ahead what you can bring. It’s quite customary that everybody brings along some of the food and so people won’t mind telling you what you can bring.
Another good idea for presents is something from your home country – an item it’s famous for or a local delicacy (unless it’s something exotic like baby fish with bulging eyes or fried insects).
In some cultures, it’s considered rude to unwrap presents directly. After all, imagine you don’t like the present and can’t control your expression – it would be embarrassing. No such worries in Germany. People usually unwrap presents right away.
So, as always, with some background knowledge it’s not that complicated. When in doubt, give a gift, don’t exaggerate it and make sure it’s not too personal.
Have a merry Christmas and enjoy your presents!