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Gifts Not Gaffes: What You Should Know About Cross-Cultural Giving

December 6, 2017

They say with gifts it's the thought that counts. That's not always the case with cross-cultural gift giving. The wrong gift could send a very wrong message.

For most business leaders, the ROI of gift giving is important. Deciding how much to spend is the easy part. Choosing the right gift is much harder. Gift-giving gaffes can not only negate the value of the gesture in the first place, but can actually irreparably harm the relationship and damage the corporate reputation.

Whether you are giving gifts to colleagues, clients, prospective clients or employees, it’s important to be aware of the gift-giving practices in that country. Take our advice. If you want to keep business dealings on the up and up, make sure you do your research on the gift-giving customs in the recipient's country. Not every gift is created equal.

How savvy are you about what business gifts are appropriate in which countries?  – Click to Tweet 

5 Global Gift-Giving Tips

When gift giving crosses international borders, there are a lot of Dos and Don’ts to keep in mind. In general, these guidelines will keep you safe in most situations: 

  1. Keep a calendar of important dates around the world – just because it’s holiday time in one place doesn’t mean it is in another.
  2. Make gifts personal when possible.
  3. Know how much to spend. Very expensive gifts can look like you’re trying too hard – and possibly run you afoul of anti-bribery laws.
  4. Be sensitive to religious and cultural beliefs.
  5. Stay aware of news and events that might change cultural sensitivities, even if temporarily.

Here are just three examples that illustrate how important it is to do your homework as you think about gift giving in the global business world:

  • Giving gifts to Malays: Do not give toy dogs or pigs to children. Do not give anything made of pigskin. Avoid white wrapping paper (symbolizes death) and yellow wrapping paper (the color of royalty).
  • Giving gifts to Chinese: Wrap gifts in happy colors: red, pink, yellow. It’s best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky. If you give knives, scissors, or any cutting tool, you are signaling that you want to sever the relationship.
  • Giving gifts to Indians: Money should be given in odd numbers. Offer a gift with the right hand only. Do not give leather products to a Hindu or alcohol unless you are certain the recipient drinks. 

Test Your Global Gift Savvy

Exchanging gifts is a highly valued custom in some countries. In others, it's considered unimportant or even inappropriate. Your best intentions won’t matter if the recipient is offended. Test your global gift-giving savvy and see if you're ready for the gifting season. (Check the end of the article for answers.)

1. In which country do yellow roses indicate contempt? 
A. Chile
B. France
C. Greece

2. In which country is 30 minutes late considered punctual when arriving at a colleague’s home?
B. Greece
C. China

3. In Hong Kong, you should never give this quantity of items. 
A. Six
B. Two
C. Four

4. In rural areas in this country, gifts of sugar or tea are quite common.
A. Kenya
B. Bolivia
C. India 

When giving gifts to colleagues or clients in another country, it’s not always the thought that counts. Make sure you don’t offend. – Click to Tweet

5. If invited to a home in this country, bring a gift of chocolates, flowers, or a book about your home country. 
A. Denmark
B. New Zealand
C. Chile

6. Nicely packaged fresh fruit would be a good gift in this country.
A. Senegal
B. South Korea
C. Tanzania

7. This country is highly child-centric and it is recommended you take gifts for your host’s children.
B. Sweden
C. Norway

See below for answers.

The Importance of Cultural Awareness

Cross-cultural gift-giving gaffes are just one example of the potential pitfalls associated with a lack of cultural understanding. It can also derail global marketing efforts and international negotiations. Whether it’s gift giving or marketing or negotiations, it takes a Global Mindset to avoid insulting the people you’re trying to communicate with, or sending the wrong message, or breaking the law.

Here are some resources to help you build cultural awareness:

Global Gift Savvy Answers

1. A: Chile. In Chile, it is considered rude to arrive at a dinner party empty-handed. Bring chocolate or send flowers in advance. Just avoid yellow roses (they indicate contempt). Stay away from purple and black roses too (they symbolize death).
2. B: GreecePunctuality is not particularly important in Greece. While Greeks are often late even for business meetings, foreigners are expected to be on time for business meetings. For social functions, it is assumed that everyone will be 30 minutes late; arrive at the hour listed on the invite and you’ll likely find your hosts in the shower.
C: Four. The number four is considered unlucky in Chinese culture, similar to how Western cultures view the number 13. In Chinese, the word ‘four’ is pronounced the same as the word ‘death'.
A: Kenya. Sugar and tea are difficult to find in rural areas where the general population cannot afford luxury items.
B: New Zealand. In New Zealand, gifts are generally not exchanged in a business setting. However, when invited to a colleague’s home, small gifts are acceptable.
A: Senegal. Exchanging gifts is not a huge part of Senegalese culture. Small gifts can be given when visiting someone’s house. Gifts should be always given with both hands, never just the left hand.
B: Sweden. Because Sweden is very child-centric, it is customary to bring an age-appropriate toy or candy when visiting a colleague with children. No children? Alcohol is an acceptable, and often highly appreciated, gift due to its relatively high cost.

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