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Always Consider the Cultural Background of Your Gift Recipient


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Step # 3 Towards a Perfect Promotional Gift: Take Into Account the Cultural Traditions and Background of the Recipient 

Corporate gifts and promotional products are a kind of universal language that allows you to communicate with people all over the world. The downside, however, is that the language may be understood radically differently in different places. Some things which are considered a perfectly appropriate gift in one cultural area may well be a total failure or even an insult in another.

Making an inappropriate gift can severely damage or even put an end to a business relationship. In most cases, such incompetence stems from the ignorant use of symbols, be it the verbal or material ones. For example, a Californian construction company gave their Taiwanese business partners green baseball caps as a gift. But they were unaware of the Chinese saying that a green hat on a man’s head means that his wife is secretly cheating on him.

While this mistake just caused some embarrassment for both sides, once a US electronics manufacturer spoiled its huge deal in China by giving the wrong gifts. In that event the Americans gave their hosts a nice crystal turtle, from which the Chinese saw a Western hint that Chinese industry is far behind the West. The gift caused a proper political storm in the Chinese Communist Party, and the contract that had almost been signed was given to competitors from Japan instead.

There was an old Estonian tradition that considered it inappropriate to give a knife as a gift, but a solution to it was that the recipient of the knife must ‘pay’ the giver a coin and with that the misfortune would be prevented. However, the gift giving etiquette in Estonia is not so strict and it is often possible to turn your slip up into a joke without causing major damage. Abroad one might not get away so lightly.

Start by researching your foreign business partners

When planning your gifts for foreign business partners across cultures, one must be aware of the counterparty’s practices and choose gifts considering their background. Thus, the creation of the concept for your corporate gifts and promotional items should start with mapping the origins of your key business partners. When you need gifts for your foreign partners, start by mapping your main target countries. You could divide your clients regionally by different continents and parts of the world. There are definitely certain characteristics that stand out about what can be gifted, and how, in Europe and Scandinavia, compared to what is considered suitable in Asia, the USA or Africa. In the USA, Europe and Scandinavia, the importance of a promotional gift is smaller, and the phenomenon itself is often just “nice to have”, like a nice addition to doing business. In Asian and African countries though, one must be much more thorough and comprehensive about choosing the gifts, and the whole etiquette of giving gifts, including the packaging, and presentation of them.

Main features in the West and the East

In the USA and Europe “thank you” gifts are not considered a must. Although it is customary to make gifts of gratitude at joint events and celebrations, it is merely a nice gesture to thank your partners from time to time for cooperation, etc. In Japan and China, on the other hand, a gift symbolises fulfilling the obligations and honouring the role of the recipient in one’s life. Business gift are usually personal in nature, symbolising the nature of the relationship. In Japan and China, gifts are given to everyone you have business meetings with. The time and manner of handing over the gift are also important. The gift is given at the first meeting and the reciprocal gift is received at the last. The gift is always handed over to the recipient with both hands.

In the USA, Europe and Scandinavia, the colours do not matter much, but in Japan and China, the colour of the packaging is deeply symbolic. In Asia, for example, white should be avoided as it is associated with death. In contrast, red, green or yellow are usually considered suitable colours for packaging.

Another important aspect to consider when making a gift is religion. For example, Hindus are never given leather goods as a gift, because the cow is a sacred animal in their culture. When choosing a gift for a Muslim, keep in mind that a compass is a good gift as it symbolises finding Mecca. In Islam culture all gifts related to alcohol and pork are considered very bad and can be deeply offensive.  At the same time in the USA, Scandinavia and Europe wines, cognac, and other alcohol beverages are widely used as business gifts.

You should always be careful when gifting food. For example, Jewish people may doubt if the presented food is kosher in accordance with Judaism. If this turns out not to be the case, the gift will do much more harm than good to your business relationship. In the case of food, allergies and other sensitivities like that must always be taken into account.

 When handing over your gifts, one must consider the following:

  • The cost of your business gift, specifically the value of it, can cause problems in relations with your foreign partners and clients.
  • Regional traditions, including the meaning of colours in different cultures and the proper time for opening of gifts. While in some cultures the opening must definitely be done later, in South America, the giver should expect the gift to be opened immediately in their presence.
  • Customs and traditions about to whom to hand the gift. In the West, the head of a company or an organisation is often first and foremost a colleague with whom you communicate on the same level, in a friendly manner. Therefore, it is generally taken with humour if at the first meeting the business gift is not handed to the person with the highest position in the room. In Asia, on the other hand, the boss is highly superior to others, which is clearly reflected in the communication style and respect towards that person.
  • Punctuality and the differences in Western and Eastern attitudes towards time must also be taken into account. While in Northern Europe arriving at 12 o’clock means arriving at exactly 12 o’clock, in Asia it may mean somewhere between 11 o’clock and 2 PM. In Europe, being two hours late to a meeting is considered extremely embarrassing, but in some parts of Asia such “flexibility” may not be seen as a problem at all. One just has to accept this, even if it is unfamiliar and inconvenient.

In conclusion, critical mistakes in making promotional gifts to your foreign partners can be avoided if you do proper research beforehand: find out about your business partner’s cultural background, religious and personal preferences. You can do this by surfing the Internet, but it is even better to collect background information from people of similar origin or from an entrepreneur who is already operating in that country. In the absence of such an acquaintance, prior to your important meetings, the country’s customs and traditions can be researched by asking for advice from your country’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s foreign missions and representatives at the respective countries, or from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of your country. Asking an expert on etiquette and cultural differences could not hurt either.

Written by Mari-Liis Vaher

Blog post is based on the book “10 sammu ideaalse kingituseni” (10 Steps Towards an Ideal Gift), authors M-L. Kallismaa, R. Vaher, 2017)

Read more: 

Combine a Promotional Gift with Your Marketing and Sales Campaign

Think thoroughly about the purpose of your promotional gift

Receiving Always Starts with Giving

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