Cross Cultural Gift Giving Etiquette

by Neil Payne

In today's business world, it's not uncommon to find yourself doing business with individuals and companies in other countries. And, although gift giving is not the norm among business associates in the US, it is often expected elsewhere. This guide to cross cultural gift giving etiquette can help.

Within the interdependent, global and multi-cultural marketplace of the 21st century, cross cultural differences in the approaches to and practices of business people across the world are important to learn.

A lack of cross cultural understanding can lead to misunderstandings which may result in offense. Cross cultural awareness and an understanding of foreign etiquette is important for today’s globe trotting business person.

One area of importance in cross cultural awareness is in the different gift giving etiquettes of the world. Understanding gift giving and the etiquette surrounding it can help international business people cement better relationships with foreign colleagues, clients or customers.

Cross cultural gift giving etiquette involves considering the following points:

  • Who is receiving the gift? A person or a group? What is the status of the receiver(s)?
  • What types of gifts are acceptable or unacceptable?
  • What is the protocol associated with gift giving and receiving?
  • Should gifts be reciprocated?

In many countries such as in North America or the UK, gift giving is rare in the business world. In fact, it may carry negative connotations as gift giving could be construed as bribery. However, in many other countries, gift giving and its etiquette have a central place in business practices.

In order to highlight some of the different aspects of cross cultural gift giving etiquette a few examples shall be presented.

Gift Giving Etiquette in China

  • It is the proper etiquette for gifts to be exchanged for celebrations, as thanks for assistance and even as a sweetener for future favors.
  • It is however important not to give gifts in the absence of a good reason or a witness.
  • When the Chinese want to buy gifts it is not uncommon for them to ask what you would like.
  • It would be wise to demonstrate an appreciation of Chinese culture by asking for items such as ink paintings or tea.
  • Business gifts are always reciprocated. Not to do so is bad etiquette.
  • When giving gifts do not give cash.
  • Do not be too frugal with your choice of gift otherwise you will be seen as an ‘iron rooster’, i.e. getting a good gift out of you is like getting a feather out of an iron rooster.
  • Depending on the item, avoid giving one of something. Chinese philosophy stresses harmony and balance, so give in pairs.

Gift Giving Etiquette Japan

  • Gift-giving is a central part of Japanese business etiquette.
  • Bring a range of gifts for your trip so if you are presented with a gift you will be able to reciprocate.
  • The emphasis in Japanese business culture is on the act of gift-giving not the gift itself.
  • Expensive gifts are common.
  • The best time to present a gift is at the end of your visit.
  • A gift for an individual should be given in private.
  • If you are presenting a gift to a group of people have them all present.
  • The correct etiquette is to present/receive gifts with both hands.
  • Before accepting a gift it is polite to refuse at least once or twice before accepting.
  • Giving four or nine of anything is considered unlucky. Give in pairs if possible.

Gift Giving Etiquette in Saudi Arabia

  • Gifts should only be given to the most intimate of friends.
  • Gifts should be of the highest quality.
  • Never buy gold or silk as a present for men.
  • Silver is acceptable.
  • Always give/receive gifts with the right hand.
  • Saudis enjoy wearing scent – ‘itr’. The most popular is ‘oud’ which can cost as much as £1000 an ounce.
  • It is not bad etiquette to open gifts when received.

The above are a few of many examples of cross cultural differences in gift giving etiquette. It is advisable to try and ascertain some facts about the gift giving etiquette of any country you plan to visit on business. By doing so, you maximize the potential of your cross cultural encounter. 

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