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Gift giving customs, the importance of exchanging gifts and the protocol associated with gift giving vary from country to country

It is important to understand other cultures' views and traditions of gift giving, because knowing when it is appropriate to give a gift and what is appropriate to give is one of the most difficult aspects of working in another country.

In some countries where gift giving traditions are strongly rooted, as in Latin America and in some Asian countries, is a gift a necessary precursor to a business partnership. It expresses a willingness to work together, and it is expected that you bring along a small gift from your homeland.

The gift is a social and thoughtful gesture, often considered as an expression of friendship and respect. Gift giving is a voluntary act which does not require anything in return, meant to be free without expectations of getting anything in return.

But why do people give gifts? The topic has been popular in studies on human behavior by psychologists and anthropologists, and they found out that gift giving is an important part of the human interaction as it helps define relationships and strengthen bonds.

In business life there can be several reasons for giving a gift

  • To follow the specific country's traditions
  • To express appreciation
  • To celebrate
  • To show respect and honor their counterparts
  • To build personal relationship with their counterparts
  • To maintain a business relationship
  • To enhance a company's image
  • To promote products or services

Selecting an appropriate and proper gift requires knowledge and sensitivity, so when you decide to prepare gifts for your business trip abroad, it is imperative that you have learned about;

  • the gift giving policies of the company you plan to do business with
  • in many cases also the rules of their government regarding gift giving
  • the gift giving traditions of the country; protocol of both giving and receiving gifts
  • what kind of gifts you ought to select
  • what kind of gifts are taboos
  • the costs of gifts
  • status/titles of people receiving gifts from you
  • your relationship to people receiving gifts from you

Is one of your employees responsible for selecting business gifts, you should provide this person with cultural training, among others for being able to select the appropriate gifts.

In some countries can gift giving be viewed as ostentatious and inappropriate. A gift can also cause problems for the receiver, because the lines between corruption, bribery and gifts are difficult to draw. Some governments and also many multinational companies have very strict policies regarding their employees accepting gifts.

On the other hand, all over the world it is considered a nice gesture to bring small presents for the host, hostess and their children when being invited to a business friend’s home. In many cultures are invitations to private homes rare, often considered as a great honor, while in other countries is a home invitation an obvious part of the “getting-to know-you” process for establishing a future business relation.

  • A bottle of fine wine for the host might be appreciated in your own homeland – but what if your counterpart's religion prohibits alcohol? 
  • The hostess of a private dinner party would definitely appreciate flowers, but in this particular country some flowers and colors symbolize romance or are only used at funerals – and how would you know?

Alternatively to an invitation to a private home, you might be invited to a restaurant or a concert. As a reciprocal gesture, a dinner hosted by you could be the perfect gift in many countries if your travel schedule allows it. Especially people from Greece, China, Brazil and United Kingdom love spending the »evening out« for dinner, enjoying good food, wine and music.

Every culture has its tradition for gift giving. Some exchange gifts only for Christmas, New Year or birthdays and do not practice gift giving among businesses at all.

Many governmental officers are not allowed to accept gifts, among them the Singapore's, while in USA the value of a gift should not exceed a certain given value. In Indonesia gifts are given frequently as symbols of friendship. In Malaysia are people not allowed to offer a gift before a relationship is established

In China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia and Philippines there are traditional rituals for gift giving, and gifts are offered and accepted with gracious style. In these countries gift giving is a natural part of building business relations.

In some parts of Asia, gifts are presented and received with both hands, while only the right hand is used in other parts of Asia. Wrapping is very important, as beautiful wrapping is half the gift, but only a few colors of wrapping paper are accepted.

In China and Singapore it is custom to refuse receiving a gift three times, and when finally accepting it the receiver will not open it immediately, because it is considered rude to open the gift in the presence of the giver. The gestures varies around the world and can make your head spin around – when people in Bulgaria and Albania are nodding their heads, it means no, while shaking their heads means yes. 

In any country you can also experience a situation where the gift you offer will not be accepted at all. Then the only thing you can do is to show respect for the person's will and redraw the gift graciously.

In the Scandinavian countries where the companies follow strict ethical rules when doing business abroad, a gift should not be presented before negotiations are concluded and a contract is signed.

Religious beliefs of your foreign business friends will play an important role for your choice of gifts – in Muslim countries people do not drink alcohol. Wine or spirits are therefore not the appropriate gifts. In India any products made of cow are prohibited. Muslims and Jewish people do not eat pork, so pork meat or items made of pigskin are prohibited.

Symbolism. Some gifts items which are traditional in the West, can symbolize bad luck, separation or even death in the East, like umbrellas, knives, scissors (any sharp items), a set of 4 items (avoid a set of 4 of any gifts items), bamboo-sandals, and watches.

Flowers are always nice gifts for a lady - and will be highly appreciated by a hostess who is preparing the dinner party where you perhaps are the guest of honor. But do not give white chrysanthemums or lilies to your Russian hostess (these flowers and colors are used at funerals), or red roses to your French hostess (red roses symbolize romance). Never even numbers of flowers, only odd numbers (but not 13) when you are in Europe. 

A good advise we can give you regarding flowers; ask the florist to arrange the right flowers for the occasion. You can bring the flowers with you, or have them sent in advance, or you can send them the day after the dinner party together with a handwritten thank-you-card where you express your gratitude.

Wrapping. A gift should always be wrapped. In some cultures is beautiful wrapping considered half the present, and it is crucial that you follow their rules of accepted colors of wrapping paper. Avoid black, blue and white paper in China. Use red paper instead – red is the color of happiness – and your Chinese counterpart will be very pleased! In situations where you are uncertain which color the wrapping paper should have, ask the hotel reception to wrap the gift for you.

Safe gift ideas. Quality gifts do not necessarily have to be expensive. It is the thought behind the gift that matters rather than the price. Crafts, ceramics, decorative items, handmade souvenirs, a music CD or a book from your home country, are safe and popular gifts. Friendship flag pins and company-pins are popular small gifts.

Gift items with company-logos like umbrellas, pens, key-rings, ties and scarves – small gifts with little value may in some countries not be as popular as you expected. You can of course bring company-give-aways with you as reserve-gifts, but try to avoid giving them to your foreign business contacts unless they particularly ask for it.

More quality items with your company logo on; as crystal vases, glasses or candle holders, and tasteful desk items can be good gifts when business negotiations are conducted.

Knowing the gift guidelines of the country you will visit can help making your business meeting a success!