Holiday Gift Giving Around the World

Guest Author:
Dean Foster – DFA Intercultural Global Solutions

[Editor's Note:  We are happy to welcome Dean Foster as a Guest Author.  Dean is a well-known expert on culture in business, is a frequent lecturer at various universities and conferences, and  is the author of many books on the topic of culture in business.  He is the Director of his own firm, DFA Intercultural Global Solutions.]

Gift giving can be a little tricky when giving gifts to
international colleagues. Cultural differences can make a terrific gift at home into a terrible no-no abroad. With the holiday season soon upon us, here are some important cross-cultural gift-giving considerations when sending gifts to your international friends and business associates.

  • Style can be as important as substance.  Sometimes the wrapping is as important as the gift. Color, style and design can carry different meanings in different countries. For example, both white and black in Asia are colors associated with funerals, while red means health and happiness, and gold signifies wealth and success. A gift presented in a white box is not appreciated in East Asia. Red or gold wrapping is much preferred, and in East Asia, no gift, no matter how small, should ever be presented unwrapped.
  • Symbolism is very important in certain cultures.  For example, clocks are not good gifts to give to your Chinese associates, no matter where they are, whether China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, or San Francisco. The word in Mandarin for clock is very similar to the word for death. Clocks are NOT appreciated.
  • 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. In Korea, avoid pens with red ink: very bad luck! Additionally, the number FOUR in Chinese culture is also associated with death, so avoid giving gift items in a set of four.
  • Consider the country’s traditions. Leather goods are not appropriate in India, where Hindu traditions hold the cow sacred; put those leather picture frames and attache cases away.
  • Fine brandy or wine, while appreciated in many cultures around the world, is generally a no-no in Muslim countries where 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.
  • 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 a special treat, but it can usually be parceled out to many, and in Japan, 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 (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 finally, avoid sending coals to Newcastle: no wines to France or Italy, no beers to Germany, no chocolates to Belgium, etc.

How you present the gift is important. In Asia, for example, one does not typically 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 12. 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 they are odd numbered, and remember, red roses are far too personal and never send chrysanthemums: they are used for funerals (no half-dozen roses or chrysanthemums, please).

Please avoid presenting gifts with the left hand in many parts of the world (it is considered, for example, in Muslim cultures, 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. Picture coffee table books of America, for example, make fine gifts just about everywhere outside the USA. Europeans would much rather receive a small quantity of quality, than a large quantity of just-plain-good. 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 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, are all appreciated. Native American handicrafts are always appreciated. Just make sure such gifts are authentic (no “Made in Taiwan, Japan, or PRC”-type labels on the bottom, please), and are of high-quality. Also, if your recipient has kids, anything for them that is difficult to get in their own country is an outstanding idea.

Sending a gift is always appreciated: sending the culturally appropriate gift will insure a positive memory that will endure long after the gift is gone.

Do you have tips to share about gift giving in your country?  Please post them in the comments.

More About Dean
Dean is one of the world’s foremost authorities on cross-cultural issues and their impact on business.

As Director of DFA, Dean is guest lecturer and faculty for a variety of premier educational institutions, such as Harvard Business School, Columbia University School of Business, Darden Business School, and others. His work has taken him to over 85 countries. He is a frequent guest commentator on culture, work and international social issues on CNN, CNBC, the BBC and other radio and TV shows; he is regularly interviewed in Newsweek, USA Today, the New York Times, and elsewhere.

Dean has written many articles as well as the book, “Bargaining Across Borders”, published by McGraw-Hill. Dean’s other books include the four-book Global Etiquette Guide series (John Wiley & Sons) to Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Dean is a Contributing Editor with National Geographic, writing the monthly “CultureWise” column, appearing in National Geographic Traveler Magazine. Dean is on the faculty of American University, Intercultural Management Institute, Washington, DC, and he received his Master’s degree in Sociology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, NYC.

Dean on LinkedIn

About DFA Intercultural Global Solutions
For over two decades, DFA has provided intercultural training and consulting to the international mobility and training and development industry.  For more information please contact us.