The awkwardness of gift-giving in another culture

I’ve mentioned before that living abroad really emphasizes my uncoolness.  But, since moving to Austria, I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything that makes me feel more like crawling under a rock than giving gifts.

Honestly, it’s not something I was very good at in the States, either.  But at home, I kind of knew the conventions — what kinds of gifts are typically given and who should receive them.  (At pre-school, that would probably be the teachers, assistants, maybe a secretary and a principal.  If I was feeling super generous, I might include teachers from another class, particularly if they had helped us out and/or connected with my child.  At least, I think so — like I said, I’m pretty bad at this.)

Today, I brought Christmas gifts we had gotten for B’s teachers at school.  I know who B’s two main teachers are, and the principal, but after that I’m not entirely clear on the hierarchy and organization.  At the door to his classroom, there is a sign listing two assistants associated with his class, but the assistants from all 3 classes seem to switch around a lot and go where they’re needed, so it’s hard to keep track.

And then there’s the actual etiquette of presenting the gift — I have no idea.  Should I present them personally?  Leave them with one of the teachers to present?  Is it worth interrupting them in the middle of something?  (Can you tell I have a tendency to over think EVERYTHING?!?)  Seriously, I had never given a moment’s thought to it before moving here, but every bit of gift-giving custom and etiquette is part of a cultural social construct.  There’s no way to “just know” what to do, and it’s not covered in German class (and it’s certainly not in the guidebooks).

Benjamin couldn’t have cared less if I gave gifts to the assistant teachers or the principal, but he was definite that we should get a gift for his old teacher (who left to have her baby last spring), and, of course, to his two teachers.

I ended up deciding to give gifts to B’s two main teachers, the two assistants listed as being associated with his class, the principal, and B’s old teacher.  But, the actual presentation was an awful and awkward proposition — at the time that I dropped B at school this morning, there was an assistant in his classroom who usually isn’t, and I had to hunt down one of the “right” assistants in another classroom, and the other in the kitchen, and give them their gifts in front of other teachers.  I felt totally lame.  (One of his current teachers did say she could deliver the gift to the old teacher, which was a relief — I didn’t know if anyone would be able to.)

It can’t have been too bad — both of B’s teachers gave me a hug in thanks (and Austrians aren’t generally huggy people).  I know the spirit of the season and the thought behind the gifts got through the awkwardness.

But, I also know I didn’t get it “right”.  As with so many other things, I have to accept that that just isn’t possible right now.  It’s incredibly unlikely that I managed to stumble on to the exact right set of decisions.  But, I think I did better than last year.  I’ll keep learning. I’ll keep doing better.  And I don’t think I’ll ever find it so intimidating again — especially when I’m back in the U.S. (and I at least know which rules I’m breaking).

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