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Gifts overseas can backfire unless you heed local customs

Last year, Alan Cadan expanded his speciality necktie business, Alynn Neckwear in Stamford, Conn., to Europe and the Pacific Rim. Just before he shipped his first order to Japan, the customer asked what color the gift boxes were. When the Japanese man discovered the boxes were white, he urgently requested red. In Japan, white is associated with death.

Difficulties abound when doing business overseas, and gift-giving etiquette, especially at this time of year, deserves special attention. While gifts are intended as a sign of appreciation to your international associates, they could backfire if you're not familiar with local customs. ''Elsewhere, gifts convey a symbolic message about the nature of the business relationship and the status between the two parties,'' says Robert Bontempo, an international business professor at Columbia University. For example, Americans may regard an expensive gift as a bribe or a kickback, whereas Russians or Japanese see it as a social lubricant--used to cement a business interaction.

The biggest problem: ''What might be appropriate here may be inappropriate, or even offensive, overseas,'' says Dean Foster, cross-cultural director of Berlitz International. For instance, a Chinese person might not appreciate a clock, because the Mandarin word for clock is similar to the word for death. A knife or letter opener to Asians and Latin Americans signifies the severing of a relationship. And Muslims, who don't drink alcohol, smoke, or eat pork, wouldn't welcome a bottle of wine, a pipe, or a ham.

COMPASS. Your best bet for a gift to a foreign associate is something uniquely American and difficult to obtain overseas: Native American silver jewelry, Vermont maple syrup, Wisconsin cheese, or Amish products. Coffee-table books of your region or Ansel Adams photographs also make good presents. A useful gift to a Muslim would be a silver compass to help locate Mecca at daily prayer time. Since the Japa-nese are the world's largest consumers of brandy and scotch, a bottle of either would be appreciated. But avoid giving chocolate to the Swiss or wine to the French.

Just as important as the gift itself is the color of the wrapping, how and when a gift is presented, and the number of items included. For example, green is a well-thought-of color in the Islamic world and good for wrapping in Muslim countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, saffron yellow and red are joyous colors to Indians. In Asia, avoid white, black, and blue wrapping; use red or gold instead. Don't write a card in red ink in China. It has bad connotations from the Cultural Revolution.

When you give flowers, the kind you choose and the color are important. Dahlias or chrysanthemums to a Spaniard and white flowers to an El Salvadoran signify death or bad luck. Red roses to a German symbolize a romantic interest. The number of flowers or other items may also be significant. Don't give the Japanese an even number of articles, especially four, which is linked with death. In China, four has a similar meaning, but also avoid odd numbers: They are a sign of loneliness.

How you offer a present can add or detract from the gift. Throughout Asia, with the exception of Korea and Malaysia, it is courteous to give and receive gifts with both hands as a sign of respect and humility. In Korea, your right hand offers the gift while your left hand supports the right arm at the elbow. In the Islamic world, use your right hand, because the left hand is seen as unsanitary.

Take your cue from your foreign associate about when to give gifts. Most people around the world celebrate some holiday around Christmas, so that's always an acceptable time. One generic rule: Offer gifts to an individual in private. The Japa-nese exchange gifts at the end of a visit, while the Chinese typically give presents upon arrival. It's customary for the Chinese to refuse a gift two times before they accept it. Be persistent. Don't expect Asians to open gifts in front of you.

If you're still uneasy about foreign gift-giving protocol, consult the cultural attache at the embassy of the country you plan to visit or read two books: Do's and Taboos Around the World by Roger E. Axtell (John Wiley & Sons, $14.95) and Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison, Wayne A. Conaway, and George A. Borden (Bob Adams Inc., $19.95). Of course, it's the thought that counts when you give a gift. Just make sure you leave the recipient thinking good thoughts.

Toddi Gutner


TABLE: A Guide to Foreign Gift-Giving

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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