International Business Gift Giving & Business Meeting Etiquette
Business Meeting Gifts - Part 1
Preparing for a business meeting requires a working knowledge of the information to be discussed or presented, careful attention to all details on the printed material to be distributed, and perhaps a gift. This gift is a social gesture that may be expected in some countries, and could be considered a bribe in others. Knowing the gift guidelines for the country you’ll be visiting will help make your meeting a success.
Some multi-national companies and some governments have very strict policies regarding their employees accepting gifts. To avoid creating a problem, it’s imperative you learn the policies for the companies you do business with.
Countries like Malaysia and Paraguay, concerned with corruption, frown upon any gift that could be construed as a bribe. In Malaysia you wouldn’t give a gift until you had established a relationship with the person. In Singapore, government employees are not allowed to accept gifts, and the United States limits the acceptable dollar value to $25.
However, in some countries like Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, exchanging gifts is strongly rooted in tradition. Part of the tradition is the gracious style used to present and receive them. It’s important to plan time and focus on the process.
It’s very important in Asia and the Middle East to only use your right hand, or both hands, to offer or accept a gift. In Japan and Hong Kong, use both hands.
In Singapore a recipient may “graciously refuse three times” before accepting your gift. But in Chile, gifts are accepted and opened immediately. And in Indonesia, small gifts are given on a frequent basis.
Always be cognizant of religious laws when selecting gifts. For instance, pork is prohibited in the Jewish and Muslim religions, so you wouldn’t select a gift made from pigskin. As in India, don’t offer a gift made from cowhide. Another prohibition for the Muslim faith is alcohol.
A standard to keep in mind for any gift you select is quality. Choose quality items that are not ostentatious. If you have gifts with your company logo, it’s better if the logo is discreet. And don’t give company logo gifts in Greece, Spain and Portugal.
Hosting a meal at a nice restaurant is always a good business practice. A fine dinner is a wonderful way to give a “gift to your hosts”, to show your guests you appreciate the business relationship you have with them, and an opportunity to build rapport. People in Brazil, England, Panama, and Peru enjoy being invited guests for a meal, and the Greeks look forward to an evening filled with dining. In China, plan a banquet, especially if you are being honored with one.
Next month I’ll discuss gift giving in greater detail by region and country, but following are some highlights to use.
If a country isn’t listed in a category, it means gifts may or may not be exchanged. Should you receive a gift, and don’t have one to offer in return, you will not create a crisis. However, this is a good reason for planning to host a meal. It becomes your reciprocal gesture.
Countries in which a gift is expected:
Countries in which a gift is not expected on the first visit, but would be expected on a subsequent visit:
Countries in which a gift is not expected, or gifts are less frequent exchanged:
Business Meeting Gifts - Part II
Continuing from the gift giving overview in Part I last month, today's article will give you more details regarding cultural and religious traditions surrounding gifts, some of the reasoning behind the symbolism, and most important, helping you make the right decisions when it comes to business gift giving.
Cultures with detailed rituals for the ceremony of gift giving are the Japanese and the Chinese. And Nomadic cultures in the Middle East have a tradition of hospitality to travelers, while Latin cultures consider all relationships as personal. So any country with a population from these cultural backgrounds will exchange gifts as a normal part of building relationships and doing business.
Gifts are a symbolic way to show appreciation and further relationships and in European cultures they are given, but not as frequently. And there isn’t the detailed protocol for presenting a gift, except avoiding colors or flowers traditionally used for funerals, or romance. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, and Europe fall into this category.
In today’s world, with global companies, as well as countries populated and influenced by different religions and cultures, it’s important to develop good business relationships by taking the time to learn more about the person you’re doing business with. This knowledge will give you insight into choosing more meaningful gifts, that the recipient will know was specifically selected for him or her, and be more appreciated.
Countries in the world with a Chinese cultural influence, a collectivist attitude, accept gifts with a reserved demeanor. In order not to appear greedy, a gift will not be immediately taken, but refused three times before finally being accepted. Each time it’s refused, you as the giver must graciously continue to offer the gift. And once it’s taken, tell the person you’re happy it’s been accepted.
The gift is offered using both hands and must be gift-wrapped; though it won’t be opened it front of you. It will be set aside and opened later. This tradition eliminates any concern that the recipient’s face might show any disappointment with the gift.
If you’re presented a gift, follow the same process of refusing it three times then accept it with both hands. You’ll also not open it, but wait until later.
In China, official business policy considers gifts as bribes, which are illegal. Though the policy is softening, there may be times when a gift you offer will absolutely not be accepted. Should you find yourself in this situation, graciously say you understand and withdraw it. Waiting until negotiations have concluded will eliminate the appearance of bribery when a gift is presented.
A good guideline if there’s a concern is to offer a gift, saying you’re giving it on behalf of your company. It’s important to always honor the most senior person, so he will be the individual you actually present with the gift, stating you want him to accept it on behalf of his company. This gesture, company to company, will usually circumvent any problem regarding undue influence. If you have several gifts to present, never give the same item to people of different rank or stature. The more senior the person, the more expensive the gift.
Typically one person is not singled out to receive a special gift, especially in front of a group. If you’ve established a good working relationship with someone and want to give a gift, arrange a time when the two of you are alone to present it. Then when you do give it, be sure to say it’s being offered as a gesture of your friendship, not business.
A gift’s value should be commensurate with the level of the business dealings. This applies both to an individual’s gift and a corporate gift. There are times when an expensive gift fits the occasion and circumstance, but an overly extravagant one could create complications or embarrassment, as the recipient may not be able to reciprocate.
In Chinese culture symbolism is important, with colors and numbers having special meaning. For instance, at Chinese New Year, Money may be given in a red envelope; it must be even amount, using an even number of new bills.
Red is a lucky color; pink and yellow represent happiness; and the number 8 is the luckiest number. The colors black, white and blue and the #4, or four of anything, are negatively associated with death or funerals. Also included in this category are clocks, handkerchiefs, and straw sandals.
Sharp objects like knives or scissors represent a ‘severing of a friendship or relationship’- including a business relationship.
You don’t want to inadvertently select a gift that has a negative or unlucky association. And because of the symbolism, it can happen. For instance, a fine writing pen would be a good gift, unless it has red ink.
Early in your business relationships, you may want to make your gift selections from a local store where you’ll be given the proper information and direction. At least it’s wise to have items gift wrapped once you’ve arrived in the country, to eliminate incorrect choices for colors and types of paper.
In Japan gift giving is an art form, representing friendship, respect, and gratitude. The ceremony is important; the gift is always in a gift box, or beautifully wrapped in quality paper, and given with great respect. Because the symbolism is what’s important, frequently the actual gift may be very modest.
There’s an expectation a gift will be offered at the first meeting, and gifts will continue to be part of your business dealings. Come prepared to that first meeting with a beautifully wrapped, quality gift that’s not extravagant. It’s a gesture that you’re looking forward to a long lasting relationship.
One custom is to reciprocate with a gift that’s half the value of a gift received. If your gift is too expensive, it could create an awkward situation, even at half the value.
Don’t be surprised however, especially if you’re a high level executive, to receive a lavish gift. The Japanese executive will consider your status and the business relationship when selecting your gift. As I said, it’s an art form.
If you have a gift to present, don’t pop up at the end of the meeting with it. You don’t want to surprise your Japanese associate. The proper procedure is to tell him or her sometime during the meeting that you have a small gift, or gifts, you’ll want to present at the end of the meeting. This verbal cue respects the protocol, and allows the opportunity to make arrangements for any additional people who may need to come into the meeting for the presentation.
When you offer your gift, hold it in both hands and bow, saying words that let the person know, ‘this gift is insignificant in comparison to the importance of the relationship’. Saying it’s “a small thing”, even if the gift is expensive, conveys this sentiment.
The Japanese will politely refuse a gift once or twice before accepting it. And it will not be opened in your presence. When a gift is offered to you, follow this same ceremony. Politely refuse once or twice, and then accept it with both hands, saving it to open later.
In addition to gifts being routinely given for various occasions or meetings, there are two ‘gift giving’ seasons each year. One is mid-summer (O-Chugen) and the other at the end of the year (O-Seibo). A gift should be given during each of these seasons.
Gifts of food or liquor (cookies, expensive candy, and fruit) are always good choices especially for modest gifts. If you’re bringing a gift from your home country, make sure it’s not ‘made in Japan’. And don’t select company items with your logo that may be a promotional item and look cheap.
Because of the long held traditions, you may choose to shop for, or at least have your gifts wrapped by a store, after you arrive in Japan. This way you’ll know your gift will be correct.
In Japan symbolism is important. A gift with a pair of items is considered lucky, but sets of four or nine are unlucky.
Plus, the number 4 also means death; and the color red is associated with funerals, so don’t give a pen with red ink, and don’t write out a card using red. Books aren’t appropriate; and sharp objects like knives, scissors, and letter openers symbolize ‘severing a relationship’.
Rather than looking at the ceremony and symbolism as obstacles, learn about them so you’re comfortable. Then this wonderful tradition of exchanging gifts will add to the enjoyment of your business relationships.
Latin cultures don’t have formal or traditional ceremonies surrounding gift giving. However, business relationships are developed as personal relationships. And in order to build a strong and lasting friendship, gifts are a thoughtful way to make a good first impression, and socially continue showing generosity, appreciation, and kindness.
Because relationships become personal, find out about your Latin counterpart or client’s lifestyle. Then using these details, select insightful gifts that will reflect how important this person is. Always have the gift wrapped in a quality paper, as this is a subtle detail that can express the value of the relationship.
If you’re a man giving a business gift to a female, in order for the gift not to be construed as a romantic overture, tell her you’re delivering the gift to her on behalf of your wife, or your secretary.
Symbolism in this culture will also influence the choices you make for gifts and wrapping paper. Black or purple paper isn’t used because it’s used during Holy Week.
Items associated with death or funerals that wouldn’t be used include handkerchiefs, and yellow, red or white flowers.
Orthodox Jews are not allowed to eat pork and shellfish. The dietary laws are very specific regarding which foods are acceptable to eat, and their processing and preparation. The foods that meet these stringent regulations are called kosher foods and have kosher labels.
Because wine is used in religious ceremonies, it’s required to be kosher even for social drinking. So all wine and wine-based drinks consumed must be kosher, prepared and bottled by Jews.
Unlike wine, other types of alcohol are not required to be kosher. Therefore, you can select a fine bottle of liquor to give to a Jewish client or associate if he drinks.
If you want to buy a gift of food or wine, it’s best to shop at a kosher store to guarantee you’ll be giving an acceptable gift to your Jewish business associate. Even fruit should be purchased there to insure it’s been properly inspected.
In the Muslim culture, the Koran forbids alcohol. Gifts of liquor or any product that contains alcohol, such as perfume, would never be selected to give. Also, forbidden are products or foods from scavengers, which includes pork, birds, and shellfish. So a leather item made from pig skin or ostrich could not be given, nor any food from these groups.
Other categories are also not appropriate for gifts. These include personal clothing items, which are far too personal to give as gifts. Dogs are considered unclean, so any dog item, even something with a picture of a dog would not be given. And knives because they have a sharp edge – severing relationships- are not appropriate.
Artwork that consisted of sculptures, drawings or photos showing the human body, especially a nude or partially nude female body, is not acceptable as a gift. And although nicotine is discouraged, it’s frequently used in the Arabic and Middle Eastern countries.
A good gift for a devout Muslim is a compass. Each day he must face Mecca for prayers. With a compass, no matter where in the world he happens to be, he can easily find the correct direction.
If you’re in a country that’s not predominantly Muslim, and you’ll be entertaining Muslim business associates, select a restaurant that serves halal food. And don’t have alcohol served, especially if any government or religious officials are attending, even if you know your guests may drink in private. It’s far better to stay more conservative when entertaining.
In the Hindu culture the cow is sacred, plus fish and all animal products except milk or butter are shunned. Therefore, you would never select any leather or food product from these categories.
Most Hindus also don’t drink alcohol. Though some will, especially if westernized, don’t ever offer a gift of liquor unless you know the person drinks, and you’ve verified with him that it would be an acceptable gift. In some cases, the person may drink when traveling abroad or in private, but will not drink in public when in his home country.
Gifts are given and accepted using your right hand, or both hands; never only your left hand, as the left is considered unclean since it’s used for personal hygiene. And gifts are not opened at the time they’re received.
European Root Cultures
Cultures without strong gift giving traditions, European cultures and countries influenced by these cultures, don’t use gifts as an integral component of a business relationship. This doesn’t mean an occasional and appropriate gift is not appreciated. It means, a person is not expected to present a gift on the first meeting, or on a routine basis.
No matter which culture you may be doing business with, it’s always professional to be attuned to opportunities for developing a more comfortable business relationship by hosting a meal, an evening at the theater or a sporting event. These opportunities may present themselves when you travel to the other person’s home country, when the other person comes to your country, or when the two of you are attending a meeting or an international conference in a third locale.
General Gift Categories
There are some countries in which a small gift is expected at the first meeting. These include Japan, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Bolivia, Columbia, Costa Rica, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine.
And in other countries you don’t want to give an item with your company logo. These are Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.
- Sharp Objects
In many cultures, items with a sharp edge symbolize the severing of a friendship or relationship. In these cases, you wouldn’t select a knife, pair of scissors, or a letter opener for a gift. Because of this common symbolism, it’s better to select a gift from another category, rather than risk making a bad choice.
- Locally Produced Product
If you’re doing business in a country known for producing a particular product, local pride and quality dictate that you wouldn’t offer that item as a gift, especially if it were manufactured elsewhere.
Good examples are: leather and wine in Argentina; leather in Brazil and Uruguay; beer and wine in Germany; wine in France and Italy; vodka in Russia and Poland; scissors in Finland; and silver in Mexico, because it’s considered too common.
- Electronic Gadgets and Office Accessories
Business gifts that are useful for a businessperson, whether an executive or a staff member, are electronic items such as laser pointers, PDAs, calculators, and address books.
- Desk and office accessories that make good gifts include fine quality pens, or pen and pencil sets, business card holders, good leather briefcases or leather organizers for use in the office or in a briefcase.
If the person smokes cigarettes, a nice cigarette lighter could be given.
A quality bottle of liquor or wine always makes a good gift for someone who drinks alcohol, unless the person lives in a region noted for producing the product.
Universally, this is a good choice. There are many fine quality chocolates that make exquisite gifts for a business meeting, for taking with you to someone’s home as a hostess gift, or for a thank you to a staff person who’s helped you on a project. Because it can be boxed in various sizes, it also works if you need a gift for a large group.
There’s even kosher chocolate for you to give to your Jewish business associates and clients.
Flowers can be frequently used as a gift, especially if you’ve been invited to someone’s home. You may want to bring flowers with you to the house, send them prior to the dinner party, or have them sent the following day as a ‘thank you’. It’s best to advise the florist that the bouquet is to be a gift, and the reason for the occasion, so an appropriate selection can be made.
In Europe, the old European tradition of always giving an odd number of flowers is still followed today (all except 13 which is considered unlucky).
In some cultures a particular color or type of flower is associated with romance or funerals, and would not be chosen to give a hostess. Red roses are frequently considered romantic. Funeral associations frequently occur with lilies or calla lilies, chrysanthemums, Frangipani, white roses, marigolds, carnations, heather, and white or purple flowers. In some Latin countries, yellow flowers symbolize contempt.
How do you become known as someone others want to do business with, whether across the street, or around the world? Besides being knowledgeable about your product or service, develop a rapport that builds long-term relationships.
A good resource to help build that rapport is a personal reference book you create and use throughout your career. A key category is filled with information you learn about the people you interact with. Many times it’s the small details that can make the best impression.
By recording these details – preferences, hobbies, interests – when it’s time to buy a gift, you’re gift will reflect the person receiving it. A preferred brand of whiskey, dinner at a favorite restaurant, a special or custom made item for frequent sporting activity, like personalized golf balls or a fishing pole.
The recipient will know through subtle details that he or she is important, and the business relationship will flourish.
Giving and receiving gifts properly is an important part of international business. Therefore, Kimberley would very much like to receive input from our global newsletter subscribers on gift-giving suggestions for their country. Please send your suggestions and recommendations directly to