Rules for gift giving are never hard and fast. They depend on the occasion.
For birthdays or weddings, gifts of some kind are usually expected. If you do not have a great deal of money, a small gift will suffice. If you do not know what kind of gift the recipient would like, a gift card is usually appropriate; the selection is vast. Keep in mind that Americans may be embarrassed if you give them extremely expensive gifts. “It’s the thought that counts.”
At a very formal dinner event given by strangers, a gift is rarely expected. For an informal dinner party, lunch or barbecue, it is thoughtful to bring a small gift such as a box of fancy candies or a bottle of wine, with no need to ask in advance. Avoid flowers or any gift that will require your busy host to stop what they are doing and deal with the gift. You may include a card or short note, but overdoing the wrapping may indeed embarrass the host, or other guests who have not been as elaborate.
For food events, unless it is clear that the party is on a “pot luck” basis for which guests each bring their own food items, do not bring food meant to be consumed then or there. Gifts should be easy on the hosts, simple, and appropriate. Once again, remember that in America, “It’s the thought that counts.”
If children are involved, it is wise to inform the parents that you intend to bring “a little something,” and get some feedback from them as to the kinds of playthings they consider appropriate. As an example, some parents prefer “educational” toys for their children. Bringing a toy truck for a boy and a doll for a girl may be perfectly appropriate in some families, considered “sexist” in others. The parents will let you know if you get them talking.
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