Gift giving is a revered tradition in many parts of the world. But there is an art to obtaining the right item, in the correct color, properly wrapped and perfectly presented. Just as an appropriate gift can seal a personal or professional relationship, an improper one can easily damage it.
Gift gaffes occur everywhere – even in the US. For example, if you’re ever invited to the White House, what type of gifts shouldn’t you give the President? Food, drinks and combustibles (items which may release fumes) as well as products which are applied to the skin (colognes, etc.). In order to protect the President and his family, the Secret Service categorically destroys those items. It’s also probably wise to avoid giving live animals.
The Elephant in the Room
In 1984, Ms. Linda Conlin worked in the Chief of Protocol’s office in Washington, DC. One of her “biggest” challenges came when the President of Sri Lanka visited President Reagan at the White House and brought along Jayathy, a baby Asiatic elephant. While elephants are highly symbolic for both Sri Lankans and the US Republican Party, handling the unusual gift was a nightmare of paperwork and quarantine issues for Linda. Ultimately, everything was resolved, and she arranged for the pachyderm to have a home in the National Zoo.
Besides live gifts, you should avoid items that are taboo in certain cultures. See if you can match the gift faux pas with the religion or region:
Answers: A) 3) Everything from Canadian bacon to hotdogs is prohibited to observant Muslims; B) 1) Most Hindus are vegetarians, and they revere the cow as a sacred animal; C) 4) Neither Muslims nor Mormons consume alcohol, including many colognes, perfumes and specialty food items (i.e.: chocolate cordials and Dijon mustard). D) 2) Knives can symbolize the severing of a relationship.
Make sure your gift wasn’t made someplace that is controversial for the recipient. For example, don’t give a South Korean executive something made in Japan.
The wrong color of flowers or wrapping paper can insult international associates as well. Never send white flowers to an Asian client. They are associated with funerals. Also, do not expect your Asian client to open the gift in front of you, lest they appear greedy. And in many parts of the world, remember to offer your present either with both hands, or just with your right.
Consider the Recipient
The list of potential blunders could go on, but let’s try a few culturally-appropriate gifts. Illustrated books, historic items or traditional handicrafts from your home state or headquarters are advisable. These act as invitations to come and visit. When guests actually visit, find out their hobbies, buy tickets to games, shows, concerts or museums – and accompany them.
The Gift of Charity
There are other, more altruistic ways of delivering gifts as well. Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prosperous men in the thirteen colonies at the time of Independence. In his will, Franklin bequeathed extraordinary gifts of 1,000 pounds each to Boston and Philadelphia. (That’s about $160,000 in today’s money.) The funds were to be loaned (at 5 percent annually) to married men under the age of 25 who had completed apprenticeships, and wanted to start their own businesses. When paid off, the money was returned to the fund. Franklin wrote: “I wish to be useful even after my death, if possible, in forming and advancing other young men that they may be serviceable to their Country.”
Franklin was prescient enough to realize that the need for such loans might eventually vanish. So Ben’s bequest had a time limit: after 200 years, the cities could spend the remaining money on infrastructure. Boston ultimately accumulated some $5 million, while the City of Brotherly Love had a little more than $2 million. In the scope of time, perhaps philanthropy is the best gift of all.
Terri Morrison is a speaker and co-author of nine books, including Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries, and her newest book, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: Courtrooms to Corporate Counsels. She is president of Getting Through Customs, developers of Kiss Bow or Shake Hands Digital – available through McGraw-Hill. TerriMorrison@kissboworshakehands Twitter @KissBowAuthor. Tel (610) 725-1040.
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