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International Gift Giving Protocol

By Susan Kurth Clot deBroissia

Gift giving customs vary greatly from country to country. What is considered appropriate in France may be entirely inappropriate in Japan. How do you know that you are not making a cultural "faux pas" when giving a gift to your top international client?

You are not alone. U.S. presidents and executives from large, high visibility corporations have encountered embarrassment when giving gifts to their foreign counterparts. To help you make sensible gift giving decisions, the Netique Gift Boutique has compiled this list of tips on international gift giving.

Importance of Gift Giving Varies Among Different Cultures

Highest Importance

* Japan

Medium Importance

* Latin American Countries

* Middle East

* Pacific Rim Countries (Korea, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Thailand)

Lowest Importance

* Australia

* Canada

* United States

* European Countries


* Japan

To the Japanese, gift giving is a way of communicating respect, friendship, and appreciation. When meeting with a Japanese colleague or visitor for the first time, always be prepared for the gift giving ritual that has been deeply rooted in the Japanese culture for centuries.

The following are some guidelines to keep in mind when doing business with the Japanese:

* Gifts need not be extravagant, although expensive gifts are not viewed as a bribe.

* When meeting with a group of Japanese professionals, be sure to give higher quality gifts to those with more senior rank within the company.

* Always wrap the gifts you present, but remember to avoid white and brightly colored wrapping paper. White symbolizes death and bright colors are too flashy.

* Never surprise the Japanese recipient with your gift. Subtly alert the recipient that you would like to present a small memento.

* When presenting a group gift, be sure to allow time for the entire group to gather before making the presentation. When meeting with a group of Japanese colleagues, either present a group gift or a gift to each individual within the organization.

It is considered extremely rude to present a gift to one individual in a group, without giving gifts to the rest of the ensemble.

* Downplay the importance of the gift. This is common in the Asian culture. It conveys the message that the relationship is more important than the gift

* Always present the gift with two hands. This is also true with presenting business cards.

* Avoid giving gifts in sets of four. The word "four" in Japanese is "shi," which is also associated with the word for death.

* Gifts are normally exchanged at the end of the visit.

* Avoid giving monetary gifts or gifts displaying company logos.

* Be certain that gifts are of unquestionable quality.

* Business gifts should be given at midyear (July 15) and at year-end (January 1).

Some gift ideas for Japanese colleagues:

* Products that are difficult to obtain in Japan. This could be something not sold in Japan, or something that is extremely expensive.

* Gifts that reflect the recipient's interests and tastes.

* Pens are highly appropriate gifts for Japanese colleagues. First, the pen is a symbol of knowledge in the Japanese culture. Second, a pen is a lightweight gift that is easy to pack and carry when travelling abroad.


Latin American Countries, Pacific Rim Countries, Middle Eastern Countries


These countries have customs similar to those of the Japanese, however gift giving is not as ritualistic as in Japan. As is true in Japan, citizens of these countries are likely to downplay the importance of the gifts they give, and it is considered polite to show slight reluctance when accepting a gift. It is also impolite to open a gift in the presence of the giver. Gifts should be presented at the end of a visit.


Communism brought skepticism in gift giving, and offering gifts to government officials became illegal. The importance of gift giving in China is slowly returning, however, no set guidelines have been established. In order to avoid your gift being perceived as a bribe, it is important to keep the following tips in mind:

+ Present group gifts. This is seen as a "company presenting a gift to a company," and not as a bribe to one individual from that company.

+ Display your company logo on the gift so it appears to be a form of advertising.

+ Avoid giving highly expensive gifts.

Also remember that:

+ It is in the Chinese culture to refuse a gift, sometimes repeatedly. It is expected, however, that the giver will persist and the recipient's acceptance will eventually follow.

+ As in the Japanese culture, it is proper etiquette to present gifts with two hands.

Be sure to avoid:

+ Giving clocks as gifts. This has long been regarded as a gift giving faux pas. The word for "clock" in Chinese is similar to the word for "death." China's younger generation is not as superstitious about this, so this will eventually no longer hold true. Unless you are certain your Chinese colleague will not be offended by receiving a clock, this gift idea is better avoided.

+ Colors such as white, blue or black are associated with funerals. Do not wrap gifts in these colors. Red, yellow and pink are seen as joyful colors, and are perfectly acceptable for gift wrap. Just remember not to write anything in red ink, as this symbolizes the severing of a relationship.

+ Sharp objects such as knives, letter openers, or scissors. These, too, imply the severance of a relationship.

+ Giving gifts in single or odd numbers. This implies loneliness or separation. On the other hand, gifts given in pairs are highly appropriate, as it equates to good luck.


+ Be very careful to not give a gift originally made in Taiwan.


+ Thais love bright colors, and it is acceptable to wrap gifts in brightly colored gift-wrap and ribbons. Remember, however, that ripping open the wrapping paper is offensive.

+ Exchange modest gifts.

+ "Three" is considered a lucky number.


+ Generosity is viewed as a valued personal trait. Whenever possible, present an expensive gift.

+ Gifts between business associates are viewed as symbols of appreciation.

+ Four of anything is considered unlucky.


+ Pay special attention to the Muslim culture. Avoid pork, knives, alcohol, and highly personal gifts.

+ Present gifts with the right hand only.

+ In Indian sections of Malaysia, avoid black and white colors. Instead opt for yellow, red or green which symbolize happiness.


* Gift giving is important in the Arab culture, with generosity and politeness being very significant aspects in gift giving. Arabs will normally be the first to present a gift. Whenever possible, reciprocate with gifts of similar quality and value.

* Be sure to avoid alcohol and leather products made of pigskin, which are offensive to Muslims. Also avoid giving gifts to the wife of an Arab colleague, and never inquiry about her.

* Ideas of gifts to present to your colleagues in the Middle East include the highest quality of leather (not pigskin), silver, precious stones, cashmere, crystal or porcelain.


* Gift giving in Latin America is not as ritualistic as in Asian and Middle Eastern countries, however, it plays an important part in the culture. Gift giving reinforces business relations as personal relations by displaying thoughtfulness and generosity.

It is most important to remember:

* You are not expected to present a gift at the first business meeting. As in most cultures, however, when visiting a home for dinner, it is important to present the hostess with a small gift of flowers, chocolates or wine. Be careful of the type of flowers you present to the hostess. Some varieties are used for funerals only.

* Thoughtfulness in gift giving goes a long way in Latin American countries - it demonstrates your awareness and respect. Choose gifts carefully by taking into consideration the tastes and interests of your Latin American business colleague.

* Avoid leather gifts, since most of the world's finest leathers come from South America.


Australia, Canada, United States, European countries

Gift giving in these countries is rarely expected. While seen as a nice gesture, it is more important to avoid gifts that will be perceived as bribes. Small gifts such as pens, business diaries, and mementos with company logos are usually sufficient. It is important to avoid highly personal gifts such as clothing. When visiting the home of a colleague from one of these countries, it is normally appropriate to present a gift to the hostess.

General gift ideas for foreign colleagues...

Keep in mind that you will either have to carry the gift or the recipient will have to transport it back to his or her country. It is best to avoid heavy, burdensome gifts.

* Anything American - such as Old West or Native American gifts, including boots or jewelry.

* Gifts unique to your region, such as Wisconsin cheeses, Texas chili, or Vermont maple syrup.

* Coffee table books. No need to speak the English if the book is full of beautiful photographs of the United States.

In conclusion, international gift giving protocol varies from country to country. The above tips are meant to be used as initial guidance, however they should not be considered totally comprehensive. There are numerous customs not listed here. Before presenting a gift to an important foreign colleague, do a little research on the customs and protocol. You can call the foreign embassies in Washington, DC to get specific answers to your questions, or contact the U.S. Consulate and speak with the protocol officer to get advice.


Susan Kurth Clot de Broissia works for Netique Gift Boutique, a one-stop internet source for rare, unique and elegant gifts, including a nice selection of executive and business accessories. Netique extends special terms and services to corporate gift buyers. Visit Netique at http://www.netique.com or call toll-free at 1-888-WEB-GIFT.

Tags: Sales and Marketing



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