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International Business: Give international gifts without giving offense

Published: Friday, Dec. 17 2010 7:00 a.m. MST

In business, we give gifts to strengthen relationships and to thank those who keep us in business. However, without intercultural understanding and due diligence, the wrong gift can unintentionally offend international clients, partners and employees.

A gift as simple as $4 can be dangerous to an international company if it is culturally misunderstood. Philip Graham, an international executive who graduated from Thunderbird's School of Global Management, recounted the time he saw such an intended gesture of goodwill go awry and seriously damage the morale of 100 employees in Singapore.

For the Chinese New Year in 2000, a pan-Asian systems integrator wished to give each employee a hong bao (a traditional red packet usually containing a gift of money for a special occasion) with approximately two or three U.S. dollars. The employees would have normally considered this a very thoughtful gift, but something went terribly wrong.

"The conversion came to four Singapore dollars," said Graham on Thunderbird's World Cafe. "What the headquarters failed to realize was that four is a very unlucky number in Chinese culture. This is because the word for four and the word for death are identical except for the tone that is used."

Morale and productivity plummeted as staff felt western management somehow wished them ill will. After learning eight is a lucky number in Chinese and knowing that four plus four equals eight, management attempted to resolve the situation by sending a second packet of four Singapore dollars.

"The local Singaporean staff didn't see it quite this way," said Graham. "They thought the management now wished them double the bad luck and to 'die twice.' "

In other cultures, a gift can go wrong for many reasons we in the United States might not normally anticipate. In addition to number, the color, cost, manner of giving, or other local connotations associated with a gift can endanger and even destroy business relationships.

For example, some Asian and Latin American cultures would view the gift of a letter opener or other cutting tool as symbolic of severing relationships and ties. As illustrated in the hong bao blunder, numbers can also be symbolically important, and monetary gifts should be given in odd numbers of notes in Singapore, but in even numbers in Taiwan.

Before deciding on any gift, consider whether to give a gift at all. In some European countries, gifts are discouraged to avoid the appearance of bribery. In certain Middle Eastern countries, cross-gender giving from businessmen to businesswomen may also be seen as inappropriate.

Conversely, some gifts deemed inappropriate in the United States may actually be welcomed in other regions. A business gift of perfume may seem too personal in the United States but not in some Latin American countries.

Regional influences may also determine the type of gift you give. A nice bottle of wine may be an appropriate gift in some locales, but it could be equally inappropriate in those locales where orthodox religions like Islam discourage or prohibit alcohol. Give gifts that are kosher in Israel and gifts that are halal in predominantly Muslim countries.

The manner in which a gift is exchanged – not just the gift itself – can also be important. In many Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, gifts are accepted with both hands, much as one would accept a Japanese business card. In various Middle Eastern countries, gifts are accepted with the right hand, not the left.

In China and Taiwan, to avoid seeming greedy, the recipient may graciously decline a gift as many as three times, saying something like, "no thank you, you are too generous," before finally accepting the offer. For the same reason, business people in Asia and Asia Pacific will wait to open gifts until they are no longer in the presence of the giver. In contrast, people in many Latin American cultures are expected to open gifts immediately so the giver may see the recipient's reaction.

Not all cultural and linguistic blunders result in bad gifts. With a little luck, a gaffe will actually result in a gift that is better than expected. Such was the rare case when a Korean-to-Russian misinterpretation resulted in a valuable gift of three Siberian tigers from Russia to South Korea. A Korean official expressed general interest in Siberian tigers, but an interpreter miscommunicated the remark to a Russian official as a request for donation. Russia graciously obliged, and South Korea gratefully accepted Russia's generosity.

If every blunder could have such a happy ending, then articles like this would be completely unnecessary. To avoid committing a faux pas of your own, consult locals and research country-specific tips online at ExecutivePlanet.com and Giftypedia.com, as well as in the popular reference books Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands and Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World.

In the United States, we are taught it is "the thought that counts;" however, a lack of due diligence could cause your thoughts and intentions to be severely misinterpreted. In international gift giving, a little effort can go a long way toward maintaining a good relationship, making a good impression and avoiding unintentional offense.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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