Gift-giving across cultures: an art in itself


“Dutch business people arrived in Seoul for negotiations with a Korean supplier. After the proper exchange of cards, the Koreans handed them a set of silver pens. Perhaps it was jetlag, perhaps a headache, but the Dutch felt uncomfortable and refused, ever so politely. The next day, the Koreans arrived with golden pens”, writes my colleague Ursula in a recent publication. Were they trying to influence their Dutch negotiation partners?

Gift-giving is a tricky and subtle aspect in cultures, whether national, professional or corporate. In some cultures, people exchange gifts at the start of the business relationship to create some trust and develop friendship, while in others, they do so only at the end to value work done well. Telling gifts from bribes involves good knowledge of local customs and some intercultural competence.

In the example above, cultural perspectives clearly collided: The Dutch delegation politely refused the gift for fear of corruption, whereas their Korean partners interpreted their refusal as a call for a better gift. No doubt cultural knowledge in general is important, but once we start interacting, success also depends on many other factors, one of them being cultural empathy.

Knowing that in Korea pens are seen as a neutral business gift is useful. But also bringing a gift, carefully chosen to respect differences, match status and avoid loss of face, would have be meaningful to the Korean delegation. Indeed, in Korea exchanging gifts is seen as an opportunity to express good intentions and to build a personal relationship for later in case inevitable blunders happen at the negotiation table.

Gift-giving across cultures in an informal context is also complex. One golden rule is to give your hosts something from your own country. It is more original and authentic. A good recommendation, no doubt, but one that results in me having a large selection of vodka from various Polish friends: Anyway, na zdrowie!

Another case: Bringing wine for a (dinner) party invitation is quite customary in the Netherlands, but if your host is, say, French, it may prove rather common unless you happen to fill the gap in his large cave (wine cellar) with that very particular bottle of that very particular millésime (vintage) he was missing. This gift sets the basis for an evening to remember!

And what about sharing the wine you have just brought during the meal? It depends. As good hosts, people usually prepare food with matching wines, so your gift may not fit the culinary plans. Other aspects of the gift-giving rituals are how to present and receive a gift (what to say and how to take it), proper wrapping and colors, when to open it and how to reciprocate. Read more about the gift-giving etiquette across cultures. Whatever the circumstances, remember that intercultural effectiveness is the combination of knowledge and competence. Finally, use some common sense and don't look a gift horse in the mouth!

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