Pandora's Box

Dec. 21, 2004
Gifts carry hidden meanings in foreign cultures.

Many of us feel ambivalent about gift-giving. We feel pressured into buying people gifts at holidays, birthdays, weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and other celebrations. We may not like the majority of gifts we receive ourselves. Across cultures, traditions of hospitality are complex and multifaceted. Some Native American tribes practiced a tradition called a potlatch, in which property was given (or simply destroyed) as a display of a person's wealth. In medieval Europe, kings could punish a noble by staying at the noble's estate. While ostensibly an honor, the cost of hosting a monarch in the royal manner could bankrupt a nobleman. So if you hate giving gifts, you're not alone -- people have been trapped by codes of hospitality for hundreds of years! Of course, once you've decided to give something, you have to choose the right gift. In business, giving the wrong gift can be worse than giving nothing at all. A business gift needs to enhance your relationship with your client -- not harm it. Within our own business culture, we usually can avoid selecting inappropriate gifts. We know not to give wine to an alcoholic, or calorie-laden food to someone who is dieting. We know to avoid gifts that might offend on racial or religious grounds. But how do you avoid giving the wrong gift in a culture where you don't know the rules? The easiest way is to ask an expert. This person could be a native of that culture or someone who specializes in cross-cultural gift-giving. What will an expert advise? Primarily, he or she will steer you away from gifts that have hidden meanings. For example, in much of Asia clocks are risky choices. In Chinese, the word for "clock" sounds like the word for "death." This gives clocks a negative association. Many younger Asian executives will say that they don't believe in such superstitions. Nevertheless, they would not ever give a clock to someone of their parents' generation. Another taboo item is the knife. In cultures ranging from Latin America to Asia, giving a knife symbolizes severing a relationship. You give a knife to indicate that you are no longer friends. Since a business gift is intended to cement relationships, this is the worst possible message to send! Again, not all people in Latin America or Asia adhere to such beliefs. Younger executives might accept a gift of a knife without reading any negative meanings into it. But why take the chance? All gifts should be wrapped. In some cultures, wrapping paper, too, has special connotations. For example, red is considered an auspicious color by the Chinese. In Hong Kong, monetary gifts are given to employees at the Chinese New Year in red envelopes, so wrapping paper with a red pattern is a good choice. White, however, is associated with funerals in China -- white gift wrap should be avoided. The wrapped gift should be presented appropriately. As a general rule, this means to hand someone a gift with both hands. To do so one-handed may be insulting in cultures as diverse as Japan and Saudi Arabia (if done with the left hand in the latter country). Finally, don't pressure the recipient to open a gift at an inappropriate time. In the U.S. and most of Europe, we open gifts immediately. But in Asia, gifts are opened later, privately. This is to protect the gift-giver from embarrassment if the gift is inappropriate. Within our own families, we often excuse poor gift choices with the adage, "It's the thought that counts." But people in different cultures have different goals, priorities, traditions, and perceptions. A foreign business partner cannot be expected to recognize your good intentions. So make it easy on both of you -- select the appropriate gift! Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison are coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business In Sixty Countries; Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World; and two new books, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America. For more information on Getting Through Customs seminars, online database, and books, telephone 610/725-1040; fax 610/725-1074; or email [email protected]. Or write to Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Visit the Getting Through Customs Web site at

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