Come without Bearing Gifts at Own Peril

May 29 , 2021
By Kidist Yidnekachew

Sometimes, we find ourselves in a position where we want to visit one of our friends or relatives but do not want to go empty-handed. We think of the things we could buy.

Fruits? Like a kilo of banana or oranges? Cookies from a bakery or a cake from a pastry shop?

Some people may go to the distance of postponing their visit to folks because they find it too mortifying to go without bearing gifts. Count me in as one of these people. I do not like dropping by a friend’s house empty-handed. Even taking something as little as a kilo of bananas does not suffice for me. It has to be at least two kilos. I also insist on not giving the same type of gift twice.

This is probably a behaviour I got from my family. Paying someone a visit without gifts is considered inconsiderate, but this does not mean that we expect the same courtesy from visitors. Whenever someone brings something to our house, the host says, “why did you bother?”

Many hosts expect guests to show up bearing gifts, especially for holidays, graduations and birthdays. They might not say it out loud, but they wonder why a guest has broken the unspoken rule whenever someone shows up empty-handed.

I also wondered aloud when a guest came to visit my friend’s father, who at the time was sick, empty-handed. Not only did they come weeks late to see him even though they lived next door, but they also did not bring anything. Their excuse for not coming was that they had the flu, but when they finally got the chance to visit, they only brought excuses with them.

My friend tried to conceal her disappointment, but it was clear that she was not pleased.

“I understand why they didn’t come, but when they finally decide to show up, they brought nothing,” she told me after they left, exasperated. “When their mother was sick, I went there to visit her several times and each time, I brought something with me.”

She has a point. A gift is a language of affection. What makes them special is not how expensive they are but the time and attention given to them, especially as one has to know a person well to know what they like. Indeed, this very same social phenomenon may also cause some to reject the gifts.

We may come across hosts that consider it rude to accept the gifts guests bring. I know a family who gets annoyed every time I bring them something when I go to visit.

“Why do you always come carrying gifts?” they say to me. “You’re like family; next time, don’t bring anything. And if you do anyway, we won't let you in the house.”

Sometimes, the culture of gift-giving is taken to the next stage. For instance, growing up, whenever someone brought us food either on a plate or in a lunchbox, we would not return the plate or box bare after we were finished. This was taboo. Instead, we would put some food in it as a way of gratitude.

Of course, this host-guest relationship is not just a custom in Ethiopia. From the West to the East, people have to abide by gift-giving laws that govern this relationship, though the era of excess consumerism has eaten away at its value. It is a norm, a way of life that spontaneously arose and now governs how we treat one another. As long as we do not go overboard and empty our pockets in the process, it is a good culture to keep.

PUBLISHED ON May 29,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1100]

Kidist Yidnekachew is interested in art, human nature and behaviour. She has studied psychology, journalism and communications and can be reached at (

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