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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
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
* Latin American Countries
* Middle East
* Pacific Rim Countries (Korea, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Thailand)
* United States
* European Countries
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
* 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
* 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
* 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
* 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
PACIFIC RIM 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
+ Present group gifts. This is seen as a "company presenting
a gift to a company," and not as a bribe to one individual from
+ 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
+ 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
MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRIES:
* 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
* 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.
LATIN AMERICAN COUNTRIES:
* 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
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
* 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
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