Holiday gift giving can be a little tricky when giving gifts to international associates. Cultural differences can turn something that makes a terrific gift when given at home into a terrible no-no when given abroad. Here are some cross-cultural, gift-giving considerations.
Style can be as important as substance. Color, style and design can carry different meanings in different countries. For example, both white and black, in Asia, are colors associated with funerals. Red signifies wealth and happiness.
And such symbolism is very important in certain cultures: For example, clocks are not good gifts to give to your Chinese associates, whether they are in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, or San Francisco, because the word in Mandarin for clock is very similar to the word for death.
Avoid fine linen handkerchiefs in Korea: Handkerchiefs, even of the finest quality, are symbols of sadness.
In all Asian cultures, avoid cutlery, as well (such as penknives with corporate logos), for they represent the cutting of a relationship.
Sometimes the wrapping is as important as the gift.
Consider the country’s traditions. Leather goods are not good gifts in India because Hindu traditions hold the cow sacred, so leave those leather picture frames and attaché cases at home.
Fine brandy or wine, while appreciated in many cultures around the world, is generally a no-no in Muslim countries: Islam shuns alcohol.
On the other hand, the Japanese are the world’s largest consumer of brandy and Scotch, so a very fine bottle of either (or of the very American Jack Daniels whiskey) makes a very fine holiday gift in Japan.
Also in Japan, citrus fruits are highly prized and very expensive. A box of those well-packaged, fancy fruits from Florida or California is a terrific idea: not only is it rare, but it can usually be parceled out to many, and in Japanese companies there are always many on the team. It is a good way to recognize the efforts of the whole office.
A wonderful gift to your Muslim associate (that is, any follower of Islam, from the Arab Muslim world all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia) would be a fine silver compass: no matter where in the world they may be, they can always locate Mecca and perform their daily prayers.
And never send coals to Newcastle: No wines to France or Italy; no beers to Germany; no chocolates to Belgium.
How you present the gift is important. In Asia one does not open the gift in front of the giver. And in some countries, gifts should reflect the status of the recipient.
When you send greetings and gifts also carries special meaning. For example, always send a New Year’s greeting card to Japan around December 15. It will arrive just in time to be held for delivery by the Post Office in Japan precisely on New Year’s Day. To have your New Year’s greeting delivered exactly on New Year’s Day is a custom that is much appreciated in Japan.
If you are presenting flowers as a gift (perfect for a dinner invitation to someone’s home), be sure to always unwrap the flowers before presenting them to the hostess. Additionally, if you send flowers in Europe, be sure there is an odd number of them. As to the type of bloom: roses are far too personal, and never send chrysanthemums—they are used for funerals.
Please avoid presenting gifts with the left hand in many parts of the world (for example, in Muslim cultures): it is considered to be the unclean hand. In Korea, you want to present a gift with the right hand, while the left hand supports the right hand at the elbow: it demonstrates great respect.
Generally, a gift that reflects your home country, and that is difficult to find in the recipient’s country, is much appreciated. Illustrated coffee-table books of America, for example, make fine gifts just about everywhere.
Europeans would much rather receive a small quantity of something of high quality than a large quantity something of just-plain-good quality. Well-packaged, uniquely American fare, such as maple syrup, or Southern barbecue sauce, is much appreciated.
What to buy? While brainstorming gift ideas for friends and business associates from around the world, keep the following tip in mind: Most people love to receive gifts representative of the USA or of your local region or city: A baseball cap from the local sports team; a jacket from the local, well-known university; or a golf souvenir from the local golf course.
Native American handicrafts are always appreciated. Just make sure such gifts are authentic (no “Made in Taiwan,” “Japan,” or “PRC” labels on the bottom), and are of high quality.
Also, if your recipient has kids, a gift for them that is difficult to get in their own country is an outstanding idea.