Cross Cultural Gift Giving

by | January 14, 2016 |

Nothing is more difficult.

I’ve heard the story of a businessman from Connecticut who was invited to the wedding of his Chinese partner’s daughter. The American businessman thought it was a good idea to give the bride a Seth Thomas clock, since it was the symbol of quality and workmanship from his home state. Unfortunately, the gift definitively ended this American-Chinese partnership. The phrase ‘giving a clock’ in Chinese is: sòng zhōng. It is exactly the same as ‘attending a funeral ritual’: sòng zhōng.

Giving a clock as a gift is the worst thing you can do in China.

Tricky, right? The same cross-cultural/cross-linguistic problems apply to naming commercial products, such as Chevy’s Nova. The car didn’t sell well in Mexico. Why not? No va in Spanish means ‘doesn’t go.’

Back to gifts. Another tip from China: don’t give a gift that has anything to do with the number four, including sets that come in multiples of four. The word four is sì and is too close to the word for death sĭ. This number functions similarly to the West’s number thirteen in that hotels in China might not have a fourth floor in the way that Western hotels might not have a thirteenth floor.

Speaking of numbers, in the U.S. giving someone a dozen roses is a romantic gesture. In Romania – and I assume other places in Eastern Europe – an even number of flowers is only for funerals. Bouquets with an uneven number of flowers are for the living.

This is not the kind of information you can just intuit.

In the U.S. a hostess gift or a housewarming gift of fancy soaps and/or kitchen or hand towels is perfectly acceptable. They are meant to be the pretty version of a practical item and are perhaps the kinds of things a person wouldn’t buy for herself but would enjoy receiving.

In many places in the world, again Eastern Europe, towels are associated with funeral rites, and a gift of soap means the giver thinks the receiver needs it. Ouch!

It would never occur to me to give bags of candy as any kind of present. However, my younger son has lived in Japan for the past three years, and when he came home to attend a friend’s wedding last year, he made sure to buy bags of candy – yes, stuff like Skittles and Sour Balls – to take back to Japan as gifts for friends and co-workers. In the U.S. chocolate is appropriate. In Japan’s they want straight sugar.

What to give is not the only problem associated with cross-cultural gift giving. You also have to know:

-on what occasions a gift is appropriate,
-when during that occasion it is appropriate to give the gift,
-what is appropriate to spend on the category of gift you’ve chosen, and
-how to present the gift.

All of these aspects are as important as what you give. I find it excruciating. If I anticipate a gift-giving situation in a foreign country, I make sure to ask lots of questions beforehand. Still, I agonize.

Recently I was invited to a dinner friends of mine were hosting for four Turkmen journalists who were on a State Department tour. The Turkmens speak Turkmen and Russian, and they were accompanied by two Russian translators, along with the local American State Department representative. So we had a jolly party of 10 people with English, French, Turkmen, and Russian flying around the table.

At the end of the dinner one of the journalists gave the women in the group cell phone carriers that had a traditional Turkmen weaving pattern and the traditional colors of red, yellow, white, and black.

For the Turkmen journalist on a long trip that would include many visits in the host country, this is a good gift to pack because it’s small, light, unbreakable, and representative of the giver’s home.

Note: I hear a nice bottle of maple syrup is a good gift for an American to give to a French person. It can be small and is representative of the giver’s home. Unfortunately, it’s also heavy and breakable.

The cell phone holder was a good gift to receive because it’s a memorable. Fortunately, since I received it in my own country, I didn’t have to wonder whether I needed to refuse it three times before accepting it. I only had to say, “Thank you.”

Receiving gifts can sometimes be just as difficult as giving them!

Final note: exchanging business cards is a mini version of gift giving. Wherever you are in the world, you can never go wrong by observing these three points: i) accept the card with both hands; ii) pay attention to the card, study it before you put it away; iii) do not put it in your back pocket; make sure you put it in a nice place, like your wallet or business card holder.


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This post was written by Julie Andresen

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