Hand it Over: Cultural Differences in Giving

Image source: Ian Sane
Image source: Ian Sane

After 15 years of marriage, Carlos and I have both compromised a lot. Some of the compromises are not on personal preferences, but on cultural differences – which tend to be a bit more complicated to sort out. Sometimes the belief in the rightness of our own way of doing something is so strong that our kids are forced to navigate two different responses to the same situation, depending on which parent they’re interacting with. (Such is the life of a bi-cultural child!)

An excellent example of cultural differences Carlos and I still haven’t quite hammered out yet – the art of giving something to somebody. This may be something you do on a daily basis and you don’t think twice about how you do it – but in our household, you must.

You see, in the United States, when giving something to someone in a casual environment, (at home with one’s family), it’s quite normal to toss the item to the person requesting said item. A roll of toilet paper, a towel, a pillow, an apple, the remote control, a chancla – all of these things are appropriate for tossing. Obviously one wouldn’t toss anything that could be easily damaged or spilled, but everything else is fair game.

In El Salvador, (at least according to Carlos), such casual tossing of items is disrespectful to the person receiving the item. I can understand in formal situations. I can understand not tossing something, perhaps, to a grandmother or a visiting guest – but to close family? At home? Something completely unbreakable? Carlos believes in absolutely no tossing whatsoever of anything to anyone at any time, and gets highly offended just seeing it happen, even when he’s not involved.

This leaves my children with an unspoken set of rules to follow:

1. Tossing to mom = OK
2. Tossing to dad = forbidden
3. Tossing to mom in front of dad = forbidden

When Carlos isn’t home and the boys and I are watching T.V., I might say, “Hey, could you toss me a pillow?” – One of the boys will then literally toss me a pillow. No big deal.

When Carlos is home and we’re all gathered in the living room to watch a movie, I might make the same request. (I’m always needing pillows for some reason.) The boys, knowing Carlos is right there, will get up and hand it to me. If the boys forget and toss the pillow to me, no matter how gently, Carlos will say, “Hey! Get up and hand it to her. You know I don’t like that.” And whichever son threw it to me will have to get up, take the pillow back, and hand it to me properly.

My only other encounter with “the art of giving” was in Tae Kwon Do classes. My masters (teachers) were Korean and in Korean culture it’s also rude to toss things – particularly to someone older than yourself. Not only that, but it’s considered disrespectful and insulting to hand things to someone, or receive things from someone, with only one hand. If you’re younger, (or lower ranking in some way, like if you’re giving something to a boss), you should be holding the item with two hands when you give it to them. If the item is very small, it’s permitted to hold it in your right hand while supporting the forearm with the left hand. (This also applies to handshakes!)

What have been your experiences in “the art of giving”? What cultural differences still cause problems in your bi-cultural household?


  1. I would disagree with your assumption that it is “quite normal” to toss an item in a casual environment in the United States. On occasion in a tight situation where no other option is available, a toss between my wife and I is okay (such as when I am on a ladder and I need something on the ground near my wife). However, I would agree with Carlos in that things should not be flinging around the house indiscriminately when simply getting up to hand the item is easily doable and of course much more courteous.

    • I respect those who believe that tossing an item is rude. When I give things to Carlos, I never toss them, because I know it offends him. However, if it’s between two people who don’t mind, I really don’t see the harm.

      If you are raised in a household where this is considered rude (regardless of culture), then you will believe it’s rude. Likewise, if you’re raised in a household where it’s normal/not offensive (regardless of culture), the you will believe it’s normal/not offensive. I would argue that the act of tossing something, in itself, is not discourteous – it’s just the perceptions we’re raised with that make it one or the other.

      In my experience, (growing up in my own household, and visiting at friends’ houses where I witnessed the interactions of their families), most people born and raised in the United States, do not find it rude to toss things. Of course I speak in generalizations, because what is true for some or even most, is not true for all – so perhaps your own preferences/upbringing are different.

  2. oh, I love so many things about this! My Guatemalan husband has no problem “tossing” things– but giving things away (ie handmedowns) is a big no-no. When we found out we were pregnant with a girl I thought oh how great you sisters can give us some of their handmedowns (they had little girls who were 1 and 2 respectively) and I figured we would give them some of our handmedowns if they had another baby. Boy I was wrong. you would have thought I’d just suggested I give them trash. That’s how horrified/disgusted my husband was when I suggested this. I guess it has to do with shame and embarrassment with not having the means to buy something new. So I gladly receive handmedowns from other friends but if his mom or sisters comment on something my daughter is wearing like “que bonita sus sueter. donde lo compraste?” I am forbidden from saying it was a handmedown. I’m not sure what our daughter will do one day when she can talk. Oh, poor bi-cultural children :)

    • Now that you mention this, Michelle, I think Carlos acted weird about hand-me-downs too but it’s been so long since the boys were really little that I can’t remember clearly. He’s totally fine with it now.

      That’s hilarious that you can’t say anything is a hand-me-down when people ask where you bought it.

      I agree with your conclusion as to why he feels this way. (“I guess it has to do with shame and embarrassment with not having the means to buy something new.”) I bet that’s what it is. Carlos can still be that way very specifically about shoes. Through charity programs he was sometimes given shoes in El Salvador that didn’t fit, weren’t name brand, etc., so it’s a point of pride for him to buy his children brand new, brand name shoes in exactly their size.

    • I get this. My Egyptian in-laws don’t really have a concept of “used” but my husband is pretty comfortable about used, hand-me-downs, etc, so long as the condition is good. Most people in Egypt don’t even buy used CARS. They will drive a car until it dies, or if they want a new one, they do one of two things: leave the old one just sitting on the street (there are a ridiculous amount of cars parked, not being driven, in Egypt), or sell it themselves to someone who can’t afford a new car. But there aren’t many used car dealers. And I have no idea what people do with clothes that don’t fit anymore.
      As far as the tossing thing, well, I don’t throw or catch very well, so it’s more of a practicality that I avoid tossing anything except rolls of toilet paper. :)

  3. This post made me smile. We’ll toss things all the time…I’m sure some things are inappropriate to toss, too. But when Abuelo was living here, he has strict rules on how to pass things…especially sharp things. It’s not enough to turn the sharp point of the scissors towards yourself when passing, you actually have to set them down on the table for the other person to pick up on their own. The same goes for a pencil! My son told a funny story about abuelo ‘freaking out’ when he handed him a pencil. He got a long talking to (in Spanish) about the proper way to pass a pencil.

    This is a little unrelated, but it made me think of a constant battle in our house that occurs at dinner. I believe everyone should wait until everyone is seated (and hopefully said a blessing) to eat. But my husband will often come, sit down, and start eating right away. I also think you are supposed to remain at the table until everyone is finished. But he’ll magically get up and disappear for some ‘necessary’ reason and end up never returning. I’m hollering “Where are you?” through the house and he’s saying, “I’ll be right back!” but then kids that are done eating start wandering to the couch and it’s just chaos after that. For 12 years, this is how its been. Sometimes, I get mad and make every body return to the table. You’re supposed to talk and play games at the table after dinner, not disappear to the four corners of the Earth, right?

    • Wow! Abuelo was very specific with the scissors and pencils… I wonder if there was an incident that made him very cautious?

      As for the dinner table battle – that’s not unrelated at all! … When my suegra lived with us, she would also start eating before everyone was there and would leave the table whenever she wanted, etc. What I hate even more is when I get everything on the table at the proper temperature and people don’t come immediately. My suegra was guilty of that one because she’d be on the phone – it was one of my greatest pet peeves.

      Carlos is pretty good about waiting for everyone to come to the table, (I see him sneak a bite sometimes but he puts his fork down and pretends he didn’t do anything), but on rare occasion he does the same thing your husband does and disappears from the table for a phone call.

  4. I once met a young Korean woman who was raised in the US. Now she was living in South Korea with a Korean husband raised in South Korea. When one of their children was in trouble and getting a talking to, she would admonish them to “look me in the eye when I’m talking to you.” However, if the kids looked their father in the eye in that situation, he’d say, “how dare you look me in the eye” because that was disrespectful.

  5. (I can finally comment!! Much easier format!!)
    My husband doesn’t care about tossing, unless its inappropriate, but he is horrible about eating in 3.5 seconds and running, which makes me feel annoyed I spent an hour over dinner and then feel stuck in the only parent roll. He will stay if I bug him about it though. Something cultural I’m still working on is serving his plate. I do it 75% of the time, but if his family is around, he expects it 100% of the time and that’s probably when I’m most busy, lol. Oh well, he has adapted over the 15 years and I’ve put in my effort as well. Ay veces que ni el ni yo andamos bien, pero we just roll our eyes and move on. (I’d never have rolled my eyes in front of him in the beginning unless I wanted WWIII to start, now we both do it, lol.)

    • Ha, eye rolling can get a whole post of its own! … How does your husband deal with sarcasm? Carlos hates it and it’s been hard to remove it from my speech since my family tends to speak that way and use it for humor. He finds sarcasm to be extremely American. I’ve been meaning to write a post about that too.

      Add for people eating dinner within 5 mins after it taking an hour to make – I so hate that… and then it takes another 30 mins to clean up!

      Carlos also likes to be served at the table and I’ve gotten used to it since he does his part to make me feel taken care of in other ways, but at the beginning of our marriage I went “Claire Huxtable” on him a few times. You ever see that episode of the Cosby Show where Claire chews out Elvin? LMAO

      • Oh gosh, yes I’ve seen that (hilarious) episode a couple times and yes, Hugo has definitely gotten his fair share of speeches! I’ve calmed down as he has and now when I say dinners ready, he will grab a plate and start getting his own food and I have to say ” Oh babe, yours is already on the table!” I love how he’s adapted and must be honest in the fact that while I’ve been in nursing school, he’s become much more independent and self-reliant. We no longer argue about chores and there isn’t any bitterness if he has to throw a load in the wash or stop and buy some deodorant because I didn’t know he was out, things that were always my responsibility since he worked (or because he didn’t want to/was raised the woman would do it/liked to be taken care of/was simply too exhausted/had never needed to so didn’t really know how).Food, dinner to be exact, is an ever evolving discussion. He was raised that dinner is between 3-4pm, whenever he happens to walk in the door. In a typical American house, or maybe just my small town scope of it, dinner is between 5-8, depending on the season and family events, like afterschool practice or church. I don’t care and will eat whenever but my mom is currently living with us and is making most of the dinners right now….she is a saint and is forever trying to accomadate a 3:30 hot dinner, which is the same time she gets home from picking up the kids from school. Its a constant discussion and dealing with a temporarily hangry husband….good news is he is all smiles once we feed him ;)

    • Sometimes it’s difficult to understand a parent who was raised with different beliefs. My sons struggle with that with their father too.

  6. Never ever thought tossing was disrespectful. I mean, I don’t like tossing the keys or other small items because I suck at catching them but it doesn’t bother me. So I guess it’s okay in the French/Chinese/Canadian culture.

    That said, French and Chinese would never do that with food. Okay, most people probably don’t toss food around (unless you are drunk and having a food fight). But I tend to handle food more carefully than Feng I noticed. Like I can’t stand if the loaf of bread will be crushed and I hate when Mark plays with food.

    • Interesting. Keys are another thing is definitely toss.

      As for food, what if it’s packaged and unbreakable? Would you toss a candy bar? Do they toss candy in parades in Canada and France?

      • It still feels wrong. Can’t explain why. I don’t remember food being tossed in parades actually. Toys (the “made in China” kind), paper, foam… but not food.

        I’m fully aware that food isn’t handled gently at supermarkets and stores, that’s fine I guess. But I think it’s more of a “respect” issue than a practical one.

        Okay, maybe it’s just me :lol:

        But I heard “don’t play with your food” so much as a kid in France… and my parents aren’t even strict or traditional.

  7. This is interesting. I don’t remember EVER tossing anything around in my house (Dominican parents) growing up. Same rule might have been covertly at play! :) One similar thing I definitely remember was my brother and I getting scolded if either of my parents called us and we answered “what?/que?” from wherever we were. We were expected to get up and go to where they were! Oh and they preferred “diga?/dime?” vs “que?” which is the literal translation from English.

    • That’s a good one, Melissa. The boys are also not allowed to respond with “What?” if Carlos calls for them. I’ve explained to him that in English, for most people this is considered a normal response and that it’s only rude if the tone is rude, but he can’t stand it. The boys are to respond “Yes?” when Carlos calls for them.

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