by Kathryn Tyler

“I did some work for a company in Asia,” says Dean Foster, director of the cross-cultural division at Berlitz International, Inc. in Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.A. “The year before the company proudly sent beautiful desk clocks with the company name to colleagues around the world. But the Asian recipients were upset. In Chinese culture, a clock is not a gift to give. The word ‘clock’ translated in Chinese, sounds like the word for ‘death.’ It symbolizes the ending of relationships.” 

In today’s global economy, many Rotarians may be called upon to select presents for clients and colleagues around the world. Gifts are an important and often overlooked part of cultivating strong relationships. “In most countries, business is about depending upon an individual, relationships, trust, and that is symbolized by a gift,” says Foster. However, gift giving can be problematic when you don’t understand the culture and customs of the intended recipient’s homeland. Moreover, “giving the wrong gift can make relations worse,” says Wayne Conaway, co-author of Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands: How To Do Business In Sixty Countries (Bob Adams, Inc.). How can you avoid costly mistakes?

Know when a gift is expected. “Become familiar with the holidays the country celebrates,” suggests Foster. For instance, “southern and eastern Africa are heavily influenced by the west and often follow British traditions. Muslim traditions cover most of northern Africa.  But there are hundreds of celebrations, thousands of tribal cultures.”  Muslim people exchange cards during the three-day festival at the end of Ramazan, the Holy Month.

“In a country where Christianity is prevalent, Christmas and that time of year is a good time,” says Conaway.  But, be aware that gifts may be exchanged on different days throughout the Yuletide season, not only on December 25th. For instance, Russians follow the Eastern Orthodox calendar, which means that Christmas falls on a different day each year. Scandinavians give gifts on Christmas Eve, while Italians exchange gifts on the Epiphany, January 6th. New Year’s is also a common time to give gifts in some countries, such as Japan and China.

However, you don’t have to give according to the calendar. If you’re traveling, you may want to give an introductory or farewell gift. “In more western cultures, we usually give the gift upon arrival, in eastern cultures they give gifts before you leave,” says Foster. Lastly, if you’re invited to someone’s home, it’s almost always appropriate to bring a housewarming gift.

Regardless of when you decide to give, the most important element in this social custom is gift selection. “One of the basic ground rules is don’t bring chocolate to the Belgians, saki to the Japanese, or wine to the French.  As the outsider, you may not know the finer points of” these delicacies, says Foster. Even bringing the hostess something as simple as a bouquet of flowers can be troublesome. For instance, certain flowers, such as chrysanthemums in Europe, are reserved for funerals. Roses, in many regions, are usually too personal, even if they aren’t red. And in some countries it is customary to give an even number of flowers, in others, odd numbers. If you want to give flowers, a local florist may be able to guide you in selecting the right color, number, and variety.

Conaway suggests this rule of thumb: “Consider the local religious customs. They may give you an insight into what sort of gifts are inappropriate and what time of year to give gifts.” For example, in India many people are Hindu, a religion which reveres cows. Thus, to give a leather briefcase would be sacrilegious. Other gifts to avoid include: handkerchiefs, which often symbolize sorrow and death, and knives or scissors which in many cultures represent the severing of a relationship.

So what is an appropriate and thoughtful gift? “Things from your own country that are difficult to get elsewhere,” says Foster.  For instance, a bottle of Canadian maple syrup, a jar of Texas barbecue sauce, or a fancy package of Hawaiian pineapples would be appreciated.   “But be careful of dietary restrictions,” especially with regards to meat and alcohol, cautions George H. Lewis, professor of sociology at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, U.S.A. A bottle of good cognac may be cherished in Japan, but it’s taboo in Saudi Arabia.

“Some Europeans, especially Germans, are fascinated by American Indian culture and artifacts,” says Conaway. Just be sure the items are genuine and don’t have “Made In Taiwan” stamped on the bottom.  Also, “gadgets tend to be popular in Japan, Germany, Austria, and the United States.”

Foster suggests: “If your friend is a sports fanatic, get him a baseball cap or a jacket of his favorite team.” Bob Gawronski, design engineer for automatic transmission and operations for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S.A., did just that. The last time he visited Germany, he took one of his colleagues a Detroit Red Wings Hockey T-shirt, flag, and baseball cap. “I knew he was a fan because he played hockey and we went to a game when he was in the US.”

However, Foster cautions against giving clothing to individuals you don’t know well, as it may seem too intimate, particularly if the gift is from a man to a woman or vice-versa. “A man giving a man a gift in some cultures is appropriate, but a man giving the same gift to a woman might not be. As a general rule, avoid clothing and perfume.” Instead, “look for something not easily obtainable in their country. You can’t go wrong with a picture book on” your homeland.

When in doubt, Foster suggests calling the applicable country’s embassy for advice. You can also visit web sites such as for guidance. Or you can go to a department store and ask the personal shopper. “You can visit branches of Japanese department stores in LA, New York, or Honolulu.  They have specialists who consult with people about gifts,” recommends Lewis. “In Japan, where you purchase the gift is more important than the gift. A particular department store is a status symbol. They’re interested in the wrap with the store logo on it. If you take the store paper off, it loses” much of its worth.

Japan isn’t the only place where presentation is important. The color of the wrapping paper, in particular, holds great significance in some countries. “Different countries will value different color combinations and devalue others,” says Foster. For instance, in Asia, avoid black and white as both are associated with funerals; use red instead, which is considered lucky. Usually, Latin people like bright colors, whereas eastern Europeans prefer more subdued ones. Conaway adds, “It’s better to have a gift wrapped in that country than to go through customs and have them unwrap it. Get the wrap there and ask for the local tradition. If you’re staying in a hotel, the concierge could advise you and may even have wrapping paper.”

Lastly, the way in which you bestow a gift can pose difficulties. How you offer it - with one or two hands - can be very important. “In Muslim cultures, the left hand is unclean, as it is used for body hygiene, so Muslims would give only with the right hand,” says Foster. In many Asian countries, natives give and receive with two hands to show respect.

Additionally, “in Asia, it is considered polite to refuse the first time. You have to press a gift on them. They may refuse three times, and then accept it the fourth time,” says Conaway. Why? “It shows modesty. They appear greedy if they accept right away.” Unlike in the United States, in many other countries it is inappropriate to open the gift in the presence of the giver. For example, in Asian cultures, natives usually take the gift and set it aside to open later. Conaway explains: “One reason they don’t open a gift right away is that there’s no chance of embarrassing the giver or the receiver if it is inappropriate.”

Gift giving customs vary dramatically from country to country, so it’s impossible to anticipate every situation.  However, following general guidelines and doing a little research will help you avoid major blunders.  Remember the country’s religious customs, avoid giving forbidden commodities, and choose wrapping paper carefully. “Show them you’ve done your homework, be honest and sincere. That is what they’re concerned with,” says Lewis. “Even if you don’t do everything perfectly, they’ll “give you an ‘A’ for effort.”