Global Gift-Giving—A World of Ideas
Have you ever received a gift you didn’t really care for and wondered what to do with it? On the flip side, I would guess that you probably also have a favorite gift—something that someone gave you that touched you with its thoughtfulness, and that you still treasure or remember fondly.
Gift-giving is an important aspect of life; a way we communicate on an emotional level, and a ritual that solidifies relationships. Thoughtfully done, gift giving in a business context can make a good impression and enhance the reputation of your organization. Knowing what to give, when, and how is a useful skill to have; critical, in fact, when doing business in many parts of the world. Yet many professionals see this as a chore, and leave it to the last minute. What a missed opportunity to build relationships!
The fact remains that most people will have to consider what gifts are appropriate for a variety of occasions. If you are doing business internationally, there are cultural nuances that must be respected even though they may seem challenging. However, they can also be used to gain a protocol advantage. Don’t think of choosing gifts as unimportant and tedious; instead, I suggest that you focus on the many positives and
Take gift-giving from an obligation to an opportunity to show respect and win trust—a building block of the relationship.Keith Lipert, Keith Lipert Corporate Gifts
Things to Consider:
- 1. Purpose of the gift: why are you giving a gift? What are you trying to communicate?
- Congratulatory/ Recognition/Award: acknowledge a special achievement
- Commemorate a special occasion: signing a contract, opening a facility, groundbreaking
Of course, there are also occasions when gifts are traditional, like:
- Chinese New Year
- Islamic New Year
- Eid al Fitr, end of Ramadan
- 2. Person or people receiving the gift and giving the gift: who are the key people involved? What are their ranks and titles? Who’s authorized to give gifts, or who is the best person to give it in this situation? Is a personal gift appropriate, or would a gift to the group be better? What are the likes and dislikes of the people involved? Your boss might like to give items made of crystal, while someone else might prefer to give books. A recipient might have a collection of vases, while another might be allergic to nuts (so you wouldn’t give pecans, even if they are the official nut of your state). A more senior level person would receive an item of higher value than the junior person.
- 3. Context: what are the details of the specific situation? What’s the occasion? What are the cultural backgrounds of the donor and recipient, and how do they impact the gift process? Will there be a reciprocal gift exchange, or a presentation made by just one person? Will anyone witness the gift presentation? Will there be media present? Are there preferences with regard to wrapping, use of colors, ribbons, bows…?
- 4. Place: where will the gift be presented—in public or in private, or will it be sent? Where will the gifts be placed—on a side table, on the shelf in the podium? Or will they be on easels and be unveiled? This is particularly important to consider when there is media present or an audience, but even a private gift exchange will be smoother if you carefully think through the logistics in advance.
5. Rules & Budgets: are there legal considerations that will affect the gifts you give and accept, such as the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? Does your company or organization have a gift policy? Are there limits on how much the donor can spend and what the recipient can accept? Are there certain types of gifts that your organization will not give, or cannot receive? Especially when government officials or public entities are involved, care must be given to ensure transparency and to avoid any misperceptions of gift-giving as bribery or graft. Many countries have anti-corruption laws; always educate yourself about them when you are doing business abroad. While there will be occasions when a pricey item is appropriate, the best gifts are a result of careful thought and consideration, not an unlimited budget. As a good rule of thumb, it is better to focus more on value and sentiment than cost.
- 6. Preparation: Do your research. Don’t assume a typical business gift in your country or industry will be the best thing for you to give to someone in another situation. Most cultures prefer a reciprocal exchange of gifts, so that no one is in debt to the other. Therefore, you should be prepared to reciprocate a gift from partners or contacts, even if you hadn’t planned to initiate the gift-giving. Refer to the references provided below for more information on gift giving practices in specific countries or cultures. Ask a native, or someone who has had extensive business dealings with that country. Check with the country’s consulate, bilateral chamber or protocol office. You might also discreetly ask the assistant of the intended recipient if your gift giving plan – including the occasion, venue, item, etc.—seems appropriate.
- 7. Sourcing: establish relationships with reputable gift vendors. The best ones will have an understanding of the significance of gift-giving. They will work with you to come up with something that is thoughtful, memorable, and represents your organization well, and will work with your budget, whether it’s $2 or $2,000. You can also consult protocol professionals, staff at chambers of commerce and hotel concierges for referrals.
- 8. What are the expectations? Gifts you give to your family and close friends can often be surprises, but in a protocol and business context, it’s better to be clear about your gifting intentions. You don’t want to catch someone off guard or empty-handed, especially if it’s a public gift presentation. Discuss all of the details with the recipient’s assistant: will the gift be opened, or set aside to be opened in private at a later time? Or, will the gifts be exchanged by the staff to be delivered later to the recipients? At what point in the event will the gifts be presented? Will there be gifts for other staff members, or just the senior people involved? What is the general nature and value of the gifts being exchanged?
All of the above can impact your decision on what is the most appropriate gift for any given occasion. We at Garza Protocol would be happy to address your gift questions. For assistance, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Protocol Pointers and Lessons Learned
- 1. Remember reciprocity: gift exchanges in the worlds of business and diplomacy are usually reciprocal, with items of comparable value.
- 2. Don’t be caught off-guard: always carry one or two gifts with you, even when both parties have agreed there will be no gift presentation at a certain meeting or event. It never happened to me again, after I was once caught excruciatingly unprepared. My protocol counterpart had repeatedly said there would be no gift presentation by a visiting Mexican governor, but when my mayor arrived for the ribbon cutting, the governor presented the mayor with a lovely silver pitcher with a jaguar handle made of semi-precious stones, which the media of course covered.
- 3. No surprises. Gift presentations should be discussed and coordinated in advance between staff. You should also advise security, since they may want to see and check the gift before the presentation.
- 4. Double-check engraved, monogrammed or otherwise personalized gifts. You want to avoid giving a beautiful engraved silver tray to “Obb” instead of “Bob.”
- 5. Gift sourcing is always a priority. Choosing a unique and thoughtful gift for a particular person or occasion can be tough, and the need often arises just when you are preoccupied by other pressing details of a project or an event. So it’s helpful to keep a file on gift ideas and items unique to your geographical area or industry that would make nice gifts, and local artisans who might be a source of one-of-a-kind or creative gifts. Take note of gifts that you have seen others give and receive and were well-received. Have a gift brainstorming session with others in your organization to come up with a variety of ideas; a fresh perspective can be very helpful. Perhaps the intern who just read your visitor’s bio will suggest a gift that perfectly suits the visitor’s hobbies.
- 6. Be prepared–have a gift closet with a variety of gifts. While I recommend customizing gifts whenever possible, you need to be prepared, so work with your vendors to select a few gifts that are appropriate for a range of recipients under most circumstances, that you can have on hand. Even if it’s only a shelf in your office or a drawer in your desk, you want to be ready with something appropriate, that you or your boss would be proud to give, for those last-minute occasions when you weren’t given advance notice.
- 7. Keep a gift inventory. Document gifts given and received. Include a brief description, estimated value, name and title of the recipient and donor, date and occasion given. This is useful for accounting, tax and legal purposes, of course, but it also helps avoid the awkwardness of giving someone the same thing twice.
- 8. Check for place of origin labels, and remove them, if needed. For example, you may not want to give a Chinese client something labeled made in Taiwan. Keep an eye out for price stickers or inventory slips in the bottoms of boxes, too.
- 9. Consider portability. If you are giving gifts to people who are traveling, don’t give items that will be difficult to transport because of their size or weight (heavy statues), or objects that cannot be carried through an airport (ceremonial weapons, live animals, fresh foods, bottles of wine or liquor). If you really must present an item that will be a challenge to take home, you should offer to ship it.
- 10. Send a thank you note or letter as soon as possible. Always acknowledge any gift, even a small one. It’s important to express gratitude. It also helps you cement your relationship with the giver.
Frequently Asked Questions
My company does not allow me to accept gifts, but many of our international clients insist that I accept them. What can I do?
Many of us are taught that it is better to give than to receive, but in international business, receiving can be just as important. You would not want to embarrass the giver or cause him to lose face.
Talk to your boss, legal department, or human resources, and explain that in many countries and cultures, refusing a gift is an insult and could negatively affect your professional relationship and the perception of the company. Ask if it would be possible to accept the gift on behalf of the company, with the understanding that the gift will be turned over to the company. Gifts accepted on behalf of your company could then be displayed for the enjoyment of all. Some companies accept the gifts, then use them as incentives for employees, or allow them to be displayed in their private offices. Others sell the items, which I do not recommend. This could insult the donor, and result in bad relations. If this is your organization’s policy, do so discreetly. You could also arrange for a long-term loan to a school, library, bilateral chamber, or other appropriate entity, which could then display the items with some background information on the donor’s country or culture.
If you absolutely cannot accept gifts, you should make it known to your international clients. Likewise, if there is a financial limit to the value of gifts that can be accepted, advise the appropriate counterpart that you cannot accept gifts above a certain monetary value. Another possibility, if a potential donor insists on giving something despite your company’s policy, might be to suggest a charitable donation in honor of the relationship. Again, try to have policies in place, that way you can have a list of charities your organization has approved and that relate to your business. Many people prefer to do this, and do good, rather than receive another item they don’t need. It’s a positive way to reciprocate each other’s generosity.
For example, some international officials who visited the U.S. and had a security detail often wanted to give gifts to the police officers and other security agents who helped during their trip. Most of those officers and agents cannot accept gifts, so we suggested donations to non-profit organizations that provided support to families of the police or scholarships for officers and their families.
We don’t have a big budget to give gifts. What are some options?
Gifts don’t have to be expensive to be effective. The purpose is to communicate that you value the person, the country, and the relationship you share. The best vendors will be able to work with your budget. Items that are unique, vintage, or personally relevant to a recipient may require more time and creativity, but can be inexpensive. For a major event, you can also reach out to artists and cultural groups in your community to see if they would be willing to donate items that you could give. You could then issue a press release acknowledging the artist, have her attend the presentation, meet the recipient (only if previously approved), or thank her at a public session/meeting. Some ideas:
- Coffee table books: on a topic that reflects the recipient’s interests, a history of your company, city, state, country, favorite cuisine or hobby…
- A framed certificate of welcome or appreciation. You can print these yourself online and get inexpensive frames at Michael’s, Ikea, and local craft stores.
- Food items: locally made sweets, nuts, wine (if culturally appropriate), honey, olive oil…
- Local crafts or items indigenous to your area
- A framed photo of your company’s facility in that country or something that reflects your relationship.
- A photo album documenting the relationship
- Something from a noteworthy person in your community who has ties to the recipient’s country, or is admired by the recipient. Examples: autographed books by the recipient’s favorite author, a signed ball or jersey from an athlete, your local symphony’s recordings of music the recipient likes…
Are there things I should consider when wrapping gifts?
Yes! While there are some general rules, countries and cultures vary when it comes to gift wrap. In some, like Japan, the outer presentation of the gift can be as important as the gift itself. Japan has shops and store departments dedicated to beautiful, elegant gift wrapping. Keep these tips in mind, and your gift will be appropriate for most situations:
- In general, avoid wrapping in solid black or white, which are often associated with death.
- Colors found in the individual’s country flag usually have positive connotations and are deemed safe. For someone in business, the colors in the company logo are also usually a safe choice.
- Use good quality paper and double-sided tape.
- For a public gift unveiling, use boxes with lids that easily lift up and off. This will require that the lid be wrapped separately, so that it can be opened.
- If possible, use presentation boxes, like the one pictured above, so that you don’t have to wrap the item, (although you can if you like).
- Avoid bows, which are easily damaged and are less professional looking.
- Ribbons and discreet seals with company logos are usually appropriate.
- Include the giver’s card, preferably personalized with a handwritten note.
- If your gift is an art object, a cultural artefact, or has historical significance, including a card with some details about its provenance, significance, and use is recommended as well.
- If you’re traveling, gift bags and presentation boxes are a better option than wrapping paper, to avoid spending hours wrapping once you arrive. Pre-wrapped gifts are likely to be opened by airline security or Customs, so never wrap before you travel. Do pack wrapping supplies, though, to be sure you’ll have something appropriate handy at your destination.
Is there a right and wrong way to present and accept gifts?
Yes. I have seen gifts exchanged graciously many times, but there have been occasions when it was quite awkward and uncomfortable for the dignitaries involved. Again, customs may vary depending on the culture, but in general, you will be fine if you:
- Present and accept gifts with two hands, or the right hand, if you have only one free.
- Who goes first? Usually the host of a meeting, event, or visit begins the gift exchange, and the guest then reciprocates, but this is not a hard and fast rule; do what makes sense for your event and clear it in advance.
- Present the gift modestly and respectfully. You may not need to say anything, depending on the situation. Or you can be brief and say something like, “Please accept this token of our friendship.”
- Accept a gift humbly; i.e., “Thank you for this symbol of our longstanding partnership. I will display it proudly in our office.”
- Monitor your body language. Don’t show shock or distaste if you don’t like a gift or aren’t sure what it is.
- If you receive a gift and there is a photographer or media present, be prepared to pose with the gift and the giver.
- Treat the gift with great respect as you depart. If you must store it in a bag or hand it to an assistant, do so with care and respect. Staff and assistants should discreetly take charge of discarded wrapping paper.
Faux Pas or Fabulously Fantastic?
One of the best ways to learn about gift-giving is by watching what others have done, which gifts were well-received and which were gaffes. The media provides numerous examples of successful gifts, as well as some that proved a bit awkward, may not have been the most appropriate, or showed a lack of careful consideration. Below are a few stories taken from the headlines so that we can all learn from them. If you encountered an interesting gift experience, either positive or negative, I encourage you to share it by posting a brief description at “Share Your Story.”
- In Mongolia, a Gift Horse for Hagel: giving live animals is always a challenge unless carefully coordinated well in advance. One of the mayors I worked for was given a case of live lobsters, a specialty of the country we were visiting. Unfortunately, we had to leave them behind with the captain and pilot of the charter flight. However, the Chinese have had success with Panda Diplomacy, presenting a pair of pandas to President Richard M. Nixon on his historical visit to China.
- A Jukebox Loaded with Elvis Hits for Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi: one of the reasons this was a perfect gift was the recognition of the Prime Minister’s passion for all things Elvis. It was creative, thoughtful, and personal, and culminated one of the most unique visits by a head of government, which included Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.
- Guys at the grill: President Obama gives David Cameron a $2,000 Barbecue Grill to Commemorate a State Visit: one of the many reasons I liked this gift was that it built on their shared history. When President Obama visited Prime Minister Cameron the year before, they had grilled together for members of the military. The grill was U.S.-made and customized with a plaque featuring the flags of both countries.
What’s a “safe” (culturally appropriate) gift to give in most countries?
Gift-giving can be quite a challenge so you have to do your research. Certain occasions call for a more personal or custom gift but we’ll leave that for another occasion. To answer this question I would say that in my 20 plus years of working in protocol the most common gifts have been coffee table books, pens and paperweights.
However, I would say that’s taking the easy way out, with a little effort you can give something that people will want to keep, display and talk about. After all isn’t that what you want—to give something that reflects positively on you, your company or country and that will help you build a relationship with the recipient. I believe gifts that represent your city, state or country do this best. It can be a scarf or tie made by a local artist or a traditional craft. Remember that when people travel for business rarely do they have time to shop or see the sights so an item from one of your well-known tourist attractions could be well received.
Garza Protocol Associates provides links to resources that may be helpful. However, we have not verified all of the information they contain, and we recommend checking multiple sources for a more comprehensive perspective. Please let us know if you have a link to suggest, or if you find one of these is broken.
Keith Lipert Corporate Gifts: based in Washington, D.C., Mr. Lipert has an understanding of the role gifts play in building corporate and diplomatic relationships that many vendors do not. Whether you are looking for a customized, one-of-a-kind piece, or something special for your conference attendees, this is the place to find an answer to your gift-giving question. He has an excellent website, with a section on the Importance of Gifting, and an informative blog. One of the company’s many strengths is working at all price points from $1 to thousands of dollars. I can highly recommend his services and thank him for allowing us to use several images of his gifts.
Metromarketing is based in Houston, but provides gifts for clients around the country. This company is certified by many agencies including WBEA, Women’s Business Entrepreneurs Alliance, Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), National Association of Women Business Owners, and is registered with SAM, a federal procurement program of the U.S. government. This can be important since some organizations and many government offices are required to solicit bids from companies that have been pre-qualified and certified as approved vendors to meet designated criteria. I have worked with the owner, who also sponsors an excellent Christmas in July event, where she invites many of her top providers and clients to look at new items.
- U.S. President, Officials Showered with Swag They Cannot Keep
- Federal Register: Office of the Chief of Protocol- Gifts to Federal Employees from Foreign Government Sources Reported
DisclaimerGarza Protocol has compiled the information on this site by referencing numerous resources: books, articles, consulting with people from the respective countries, as well as our own experience during travels to the countries or from dealings with numerous individuals from those countries. Remember that these are generalities. Practices change, and each individual may behave differently based on personal experience, background, and education so it is important to do your research. If you experienced something different or have an anecdote to share, send it to email@example.com.
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