In Focus:  Gift Alert!

Germany is famous for its beers, premium cars, and cuckoo clocks. The first two being a bit hard to bring as carry-on luggage, German chancellor Angela Merkel decided to take one of the latter along as a gift to president Hu Jintao on her first trip to China.

It took many weeks until the Chinese media stopped reporting on the incident, the outraged reactions it triggered, and the apologies the country subsequently received from the German foreign ministry.

Does this true story make any sense to you? It does? Congratu- lations, you obviously know a thing or two about the pitfalls of gift giving across cultures!  For the rest of us, here’s an explanation: In China, superstitious beliefs still matter a great deal. One of them is that clocks symbol the finite nature of life. No Chinese person would give a clock or watch as a gift, since doing so could be read as wishing for the recipient’s demise. Merkel and her advisors were obviously unaware of this interpretation, so she ended up committing a major cultural faux-pas.

As is the case with so many aspects of working across cultures, gift giving requires knowing about practices and etiquette rules:

When to Give a Gift

Whether or not gifts are exchanged in business settings depends on the cultural context. For example, in Australia, Northern Europe, Switzerland, or the United Kingdom it is usually best not to bring your business partners anything. In contrast, gift giving is common and helpful when doing business in most Asian countries and many others around the world. In Japan, Korea, Poland, or Romania, you may want to take something along for the initial meeting with a new business partner; in Malaysia, Singapore, or South Africa, it is better to wait until the business partnership is turning into a friendship. Good occasions for gift giving are important holidays, such as Christmas (Europe, North America), Epiphany (Latin America), or Chinese New Year, or company events like the opening of a new office or factory building.

What to Give

Though chocolates or candy may be fine, the best choice is generally a non-food, non-alcoholic gift that is representative of your home country. Select gifts that allow the recipient to reciprocate; for example, don’t give a very expensive item to an Indian colleague who could not afford buying a similar one. In countries with strict anti-bribery regulations, for instance Malaysia, pick a small promotional item or another gift of low value. However, in places like Italy, France, Spain, or Greece, presenting a gift that prominently shows your company logo may not be well received.

Pay attention to religious and cultural beliefs. Do not give alcohol to Muslims, leather products to Hindus, or knives to Chinese or Latin Americans, who may take them as a symbol of severed relationships. Refrain from giving items in fours in China or Japan, as the number ‘4’ is considered unlucky. You may not worry much about such aspects – but your counterparts might.

How to Give or Receive a Gift

In China, Japan, and several other countries, the ceremonial act of giving a gift tends to be more important than the gift itself. How you wrap and present ae gift could make a big difference, so pay attention to little things like the color of the wrapping paper: White and black are often associated with death, while red may be considered a ‘lucky’ color.

Next, there is the question of when to open a present you received: Right away, as might be expected in Germany, Russia, or Saudi Arabia? Or should you keep the gift wrapped in the presence of the giver to avoid any potential loss of face, as is common in Japan, China, and many other countries? If in doubt, follow your host’s lead if that’s an option.

Can you refuse a gift, for instance because your company policy prohibits accepting individual ones? Yes, you can, but realize that doing so might offend the giver. It may be better to accept the gift on behalf of the company and then forward it to your company’s HR department to avoid getting in trouble. Lastly, what to do if a recipient refuses your a gift? In several Asian countries, it is customary to refuse three times before accepting a gift as a gesture of modesty, so keep insisting that your counterpart accept it until he or she finally does.

The Bottom Line

The most important rule for gift giving across culture is simple: Know before you go. Take a look at the book “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands” – it is a great resource for advice on this subject.

P.S.: Be careful when declaring gifts you are taking into Germany. Not all of the country’s Customs officers speak English well and the word “Gift” has a different meaning in German: It means “poison”!

This article is also available in PDF format  (requires Adobe Reader ).

Book Of The Month
The New Asian


An insightful and provocative account of our changing world seen through Asian eyes.

(click title for full book review)


Web Site Of The Month
Hong Kong


A great website to use when preparing for a visit to Hong Kong, whether for business or pleasure.

(click title to visit this web site)


Quote Of The Month


Benjamin Disraeli


All of the 50 individual Country Sections from Negotiating International Business are available online  for free.

Click here to download Country Section PDF files


Leadership Crossroads
is a global resource for

  • Global Business Coaching & Training
  • Cross-Cultural Project Management
  • Outsourcing Preparation
  • International Negotiation Training and Assistance
  • Organizational Learning and Development
  • Executive Coaching
Would you like to know
    more about us?




Upcoming Workshop at UTD in Richardson, TX:
Oct. 6-8 Negotiating and Working with International Customers, Suppliers, and Partners

This three-day project management workshop is facilitated by
Dr. Sue Freedman and Lothar Katz.

Lothar Katz is the founder of Leadership Crossroads.  He has a wealth of experience in achieving productive coopera- tion across cultures and driving business success on a global scale.
A seasoned former executive of a For­tune 500 company, he regularly interacted with employees, cus­tomers, out- sourcing partners, and third parties in more than 25 countries around the world.

Contact :
Leadership CrossroadsTM, 2008

Global Business Practices:
Ten Tips For Doing Business in Hong Kong

  • Technically, Hong Kong should be referred to as a Special Administration Region (SAR) of China.
  • Don't assume that Hong Kong and China are similar. Hong Kong's business culture and economic environment are notably different.
  • Given Hong Kong's unpredictable traffic, there is always a risk of being late. Call ahead if you will be.
  • Chinese names may be given in last-first order.  However, many Hong Kong Chinese have adopted Western first names and use the Western way to introduce themselves.
  • Though Hong Kong Chinese may be more straightforward than others, saving face is still very important. Don't make anyone look bad.
  • "That's not a problem" may not signal that there isn't an issue.  "Problem" is used to refer to really big ones only.
  • Negotiations may take significant time. Be prepared to spend much time and effort to build business relationships.
  • People in Hong Kong like passionate bargaining and may be offended if you 'refuse to play along'.
  • Never show signs of anger publicly.
  • Never interrupt others. Business protocol requires making a respectful pause before answering a question.

Our newsletter is a bimonthly publication about all aspects of International and Cross-Cultural Business Management.  Past issues can be found in our  newsletter archive.

If this issue has been forwarded to you, would you like to subscribe to it now?

If you are a current subscriber but you do not wish to receive this newsletter in future, simply send a blank e-mail to