Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving: Seven Tips

by | January 14, 2016 |

Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving: Nothing is more difficult. If you travel, you are going to give gifts and receive gifts. Here are a few things to know:

Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving Tip #1:

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.’

Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving Tip #2:

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.

Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving Tips #3 and #4:

Speaking of numbers, in the U.S. giving someone a dozen roses is a romantic gesture. 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!

Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving Tip #5:

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 they want straight sugar.

cross-cultural gift-giving

I’ve also given a Japanese woman a bag of Godiva Chocolate Truffle Coffee.

cross-cultural gift-giving

This gift was very well received.

Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving Tip #6:

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.

How to present the gift.

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

Receiving gifts is just as difficult as giving them! How many times to do you need to refuse (in order to be polite) and then to accept it (in order to be polite). It varies from country to country.

Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving Tip #7

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:

Accept the card with both hands.

Pay attention to the card. Study it before you put it away.

Do not put it in your back pocket. Make sure you put it in a nice place, like your wallet or business card holder.

Watch: Presenting a business card

See also: All My Travel Tips

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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