Modern Etiquette: The art of cross-cultural gift-giving

Mon Aug 23, 2010 2:49pm EDT
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(Pamela Eyring is the president and director of The Protocol School of Washington which provides certified professional etiquette and protocol training. Founded in 1988, PSOW is the only school of its kind in the United States to become accredited. Any opinions expressed are her own. PSOW's website is

By Pamela Eyring

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - As a protocol expert, I receive queries almost daily from busy executives seeking to navigate international business relationships. The good news is that the majority of executives are aware of the need to consider cultural differences when forging international relationships.

They understand that everything from the use of titles and seating charts to handshakes and follow-up correspondence needs to be approached with consideration as to how it will be perceived through the cultural lens of their business contact.

However, there is one aspect of relationship building that tends to get overlooked, sometimes with significant consequence. That is the art of international gift-giving.

Most often exchanged at the close of important meetings and during visits to different facilities or sites, gifts serve many purposes in business. They are used to build and maintain relationships, to show respect and appreciation, or to enhance the image or reputation of a company.

When well chosen, gifts can be very effective at accomplishing those things and more. However, a poorly chosen gift can leave you looking more disingenuous than generous. Here are the basic must-dos and don'ts I offer whenever asked about gift giving:

1. Make it appropriate. Unlike a personal gift, a business gift is a symbol of your relationship. It should reflect your understanding of the recipient's culture and the value you place on the relationship. By taking time to research the traditions and customs of the recipient's homeland, you will avoid unintentional embarrassment or offence. For example, even if your company is based in the nation's pork-belt, you would never present a Jewish or Muslim visitor with an item made from any part of or even simply depicting a pig. Similarly, it would be very poor form to give a Chinese guest a gift that was actually made in China.

Avoid overly expensive gifts. Some corporations actually place limits on the value of what employees may accept in order to avoid the appearance or bribery. Presenting a lavish gift may put your business associate in the uncomfortable position of having to decline it.   Continued...