By Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine
Seemingly, nothing could be simpler than giving a gift since the act demonstrates care and respect for the recipient. Also, it expresses the thoughtfulness and generosity of the giver. Nevertheless, gift-giving can be much more complex across cultures. The act becomes even more nuanced when it is done in a business setting. Timing becomes much more important and the giver’s intent must be absolutely clear to avoid ambiguity or offense. In the U.S., gift-giving in business is fairly straightforward. It is not required or even expected. When Americans give gifts it is usually done at the end of a business deal once the agreement is concluded. Also, the gift is given in full view of the recipient’s coworkers for transparency’s sake. Gifts are viewed by Americans as merely gestures or something superfluous. Nevertheless, in other parts of the world, gift-giving is not only customary but in some cases mandatory.
In terms of similarity with American gift-giving customs, Europe is probably the closest. Surprisingly, Great Britain, whom one would assume would be very similar to American culture, actually eschews the act of gift-giving in business. However, if a Briton does give a gift, then the act must be reciprocated. If a gift is given to a Briton, it must not be too expensive or the recipient will be embarrassed. In France and Germany, gifts should be given only upon closure of a deal much like in the British case; however, they should not be too expensive lest the German or French counterpart feel beholden to the giver. It is also not advisable to bring wine to the French or beer to the Germans. These nations are world-renown for these products so the gesture could seem condescending or at the very least have a high probability of failure; therefore, it is wise to consider a local gift or delicacy such as pecans or pecan candy from Texas.
Unlike in Western Europe where gift-giving is rare, in Eastern Europe the practice is much more customary. Russians value gift-giving tremendously. Consequently, they spend a lot of money and time on it. While gifts to Russians do not have to be overly expensive, they should have a certain level of value and typically higher than those given in Western Europe. If you are invited to a Russian person’s home, flowers for the lady of the house are customary. Red, yellow, and white flowers should be avoided but pink, orange, or blue flowers carry no connotation so they make excellent gifts.
Gift-giving in the Arab countries is also extremely important. Arabs highly value generosity and politeness so gift-giving plays a large role in this cultural aspect. Nevertheless, it must be done with caution. In the Arab Gulf States, perfume is highly valued but it must be of high quality lest the Arab recipient be offended. Keep in mind that gold jewelry and silk clothing must never be given to a man because these are culturally only for women. Also, in a complete contrast to Russian culture, flowers should never be given as they are usually only for funerals. Alcohol should also be avoided in Arab gift-giving as it is categorically forbidden in Islam, the predominant religion among Arabs. When presenting a gift to an Arab, it is important to always offer with the right hand and never the left as the left hand is considered unclean in Arab culture.
Latin American culture is actually very close to Western European no doubt due to the influence from Spain. Gifts are actually rare in a business setting due to the fact that it is important to avoid any perception of bribery. Nevertheless, if a gift seems necessary it is best to choose something that is not too expensive. Scotch or whiskey makes a very good gift in Latin America. Bear in mind that it is not advisable to offer a gift made of silver to a Mexican recipient as Mexico prides itself on its fine silver.
Gift-giving in Asia is customary and employed often. In Chinese culture, gifts are given during celebrations and to express gratitude for help. Also, they serve as a means to encourage future business endeavors. Nevertheless, gifts must always be given in public to ensure transparency in business dealings. Japanese culture also stresses gifts. Keep in mind that the act of giving is more important than the gift itself. That being said, expensive gifts are not uncommon. In both cultures, gift-giving is reciprocal. Therefore, if you receive a gift you should definitely give one in return or offense will be taken by your Asian counterpart.
The act of giving gifts can seem somewhat daunting given all the differences and subtle nuances of each culture. However, this does not need to be the case at all. With an open heart and mind, you can certainly enjoy and share gift-giving traditions from around the world.
As a graduate of the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Houston, Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine, Founder, CEO, and President of MasterWord Services, Inc., started her company with a vision of seamlessly connecting people across any language, any time, and any culture. Mila can be reached by email at email@example.com, by phone at 281-589-0810, or visit her website at www.masterword.com.